Senpai Success Story #27: Anthony’s Tips on Living and Working in Japan

Photo of Anthony Griffin from Saga Consulting

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. (Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

A “Work in Progress” Story

I hesitate to call my journey to self-employment in Japan a “success” story, as the definition of success is relative. I, along with the business that I’m growing, am a work in progress–a tapestry of successes and failures woven with the thread of persistence. That being said, I’ve learned so many valuable lessons about life, Japan, and business through my experience. In this article I’ll share my path to Japan and a few tips for those who are interested in doing something similar.

A Long Road to Japan

Since April 2017, I’ve been an independent marketing and communications consultant based in Tokyo. I established the Saga Consulting brand to help small to medium-sized Japanese companies tell their stories to the world through content marketing, social media management, and communications coaching. However, this is not how my journey to Japan began.

Looking back at my youth as a Californian in the 1980s, I sometimes feel like it was my destiny to end up living and working in Japan. I grew up in the midst of Japan’s bubble economy, a time when it seemed like the country was on the fast track to becoming the world’s most prosperous. However, as a child, I was simply fascinated with all of the surreal pop-culture that was finding its way to the U.S. As I grew older, my passion for Japanese video games, animation, and movies expanded into the realm of electronics and cars, eventually leading me to study Japanese for a year in college.

After earning my MBA at the University of California, Riverside, I finally landed a job that afforded me enough income and time to start vacationing in Japan. Two back-to-back trips in 2007 and 2008 convinced me to explore the idea of moving to Japan. Thanks to the encouragement of friends, family, and my former professors, my dream of living in Japan became a reality in 2009.

You don’t know what your limits are until you actually reach them.

Anthony Griffin

Why I Started Learning Japanese

My path to learning Japanese isn’t quite as simple as I described above. I was never great at studying languages. Honestly, I’m still not that great at language learning, but I digress… 

As a business major in college, I had to study a foreign language for a year as part of my graduation requirements. This presented my first opportunity to formally study Japanese. Not wanting to repeat the Spanish I had barely survived in high school, I enrolled in a Japanese class on a whim. I was prepared to fail, thinking that it would be impossible to learn a language so different from my native tongue. Unsurprisingly, I had a rocky start. But thanks to an excellent teacher and amazing classmates who motivated me, I eventually excelled in my Japanese classes and loved the experience of discovering a new world through learning the language and the culture that permeates it.

The lesson here is this: Don’t write off anything until you try it. Don’t sell yourself short. You don’t know what your limits are until you actually reach them.

Sail Bonus Graphic

Tips on Building a Career in Japan

My work in Japan is a culmination of everything I’ve done in my career and education up to this point: business administration marketing, teaching, and learning Japanese. If you’re interested in building a career in Japan, here are some tips that might help.

Learn as much as you can about Japanese language, history, and culture. 

This doesn’t mean that you need to be a perfect Japanese speaker or follow every cultural norm to a tee. Making an effort and being willing to learn is what’s most important. Some of the most exciting opportunities are only available to those who are willing to work (or attempt to work) in Japanese. Acquiring clients or getting hired for a job is all about reducing any perceived risk of working with you. Showing that you can communicate with professionals in the way that they are used to will give you an advantage over the competition.

Don’t wait for perfection before taking action. 

The general consensus is that you’ll need to achieve JLPT N2 or N1 to successfully find work or conduct business in Japan. While there is truth to this, there are also plenty of exceptions. Don’t hesitate to apply for jobs or start a business just because you haven’t achieved a certain test score. These standardized tests don’t always reflect reality, and it’s better to assess your Japanese ability on a “can do” scale. For example, can you go through your daily routine or travel independently using only Japanese? Can you interview for a job in Japanese? Can you read and write emails in Japanese? Can you participate in business meetings without the aid of an interpreter? If you can answer yes to some of the latter questions, then you have a good shot at working with Japanese companies.

Image for the Ikigai Discovery Call

Tips on Achieving Fluency

Consider beginning your Japanese studies formally. 

Studying Japanese in college gave me a solid foundation that benefits me to this day. My professor introduced the language logically, and I was eased into reading, writing, and speaking Japanese on a learning curve that minimized frustration. Plus, having peers to study with did wonders for my motivation. When you first learn something new, it’s important to have clear direction, and that’s what formal education provides. You don’t need to be enrolled in a traditional university to take this approach. Community colleges and similar institutions are affordable, flexible options. Once you arrive in Japan, you’ll find that due to supply outstripping demand, private lessons are also an affordable and efficient way to continue your training.

Learning a language as an adult has its advantages. 

Although I recommend formal education, you don’t have to learn the language as a Japanese school child would. On top of that, if you are working a full-time job, you simply don’t have the amount of time a full-time student has to invest in language learning. Instead, leverage the advantages you have as a free-thinking adult. Learn and apply techniques that aren’t taught in school (i.e. spaced repetition) to maximize your learning. After you’ve established a solid foundation, take advantage of your freedom to prioritize what aspect of Japanese you’d like to focus on. As an adult learner, you don’t have to do things by the book. Study according to your immediate needs. For example, most adult learners are going to want to put writing kanji characters on the backburner since most communication is typed. Once you’ve learned how to write the first 100 or so kanji, your time is better invested in learning how to type and send text messages using Japanese software keyboards. Create as many opportunities as possible to speak Japanese. Don’t be shy about making mistakes or embarrassing yourself. These are the moments where learning occurs.

Just the Beginning

There’s so much more to say about language learning, living, and working in Japan. Hopefully my story and tips are enough to get you started on your own Japan journey. If you are persistent, stay curious, and maintain an open mind, you will achieve what you set out to accomplish in Japan (or anywhere in the world). If you would like to read more of my thoughts on language, learning, and life in Japan, you can find more of my content on Kokoro Media and my blog.

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