Senpai Success Story #23: John On Discovering His Ikigai

John Cunningham the writer

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.)

I have always been interested in teaching and ministry. When I was a kid, I thought working for a big corporation was the top of professionalism. So how did all those things combine into my ikigai? My journey is one nobody could have expected, let alone me. It is a story of “what if’s?” and pieces falling into place.

It Started With A Mission

As I was finishing university, I developed a personal mission statement to leave people better than you found them. That has served me well in the decades that have followed and has become my life’s passion or ikigai. The challenge became how to serve that statement in more impactful ways over the years. It started with treating others well and learning the platinum rule, “treat others as they wish to be treated.” I really considered how to make a positive impact in the lives of those I came in contact with, knowing that those interactions would create ripples, positively impacting others.

Teaching Lit The Fuse

I arrived in Japan in 1998 and worked as a teacher at a language school (eikawa) in Kumamoto. Infusing those students with a flavor of the West was a wonderful experience. However, to live my mission, I knew that I had to do more. I considered how helping these people to develop their skills allowed them to reach new heights, whether it was visiting a distant land or communicating with an overseas colleague. These ripples not only affected the student but also the people in their circles as well.

This continued on as I moved into an ALT position where my love of life spread to even the most troubled students and I was able to help them achieve success in areas that the staff teachers couldn’t. Several teachers asked me for my secret in getting those students who were underperforming in most of their classes to suddenly show newfound promise in their classes. The answer was simple. Show them respect and forgive their failings.

While I did not need to use Japanese in my position, knowing a little about the language, keeping up with trends and following current events in Japan really helped me connect to students and their motivations.

This is true all through life. Our biggest failings are not as bad as we perceive they will be, and you will get further in relationships with a spoonful of respect than you will with a pound of complaints. Treat people like they want to be treated.

Japanese Jobs

Professional Dreams Becoming Reality

My next career change brought me to the corporate world. I was able to land a job as a trainer servicing large multi-national corporations. If helping people from Goldman Sachs, UBS, Apple, Booz & Company and McKinsey doesn’t have a ripple effect, I don’t know what does. These people are making decisions and presenting ideas that impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. And the folks I serve are more effectively presenting their ideas with global audiences. Even today, some of those students remain in my network and we share stories of the impact we’ve had on each other.

Just as having a basic understanding of Japanese culture helped me in teaching conversation courses, continuing to build my cultural knowledge and understanding of social norms has been beneficial in helping clients navigate conflicts, a variety of approaches to negotiation and problem solving. This awareness aids my ability to deliver actionable advice that allows individuals to be more comfortable communicating in a global environment.

Your need for Japanese language is very dependent on your work environment. As a teacher and corporate trainer, Japanese language skills are not a priority. Most of the people you work with will have English ability. However, if your ambition is a corporate job or working as an entrepreneur, you will need more spoken and writing skills (possibly as high as N1 or N2), because you need to communicate in a setting that is more locally focused with little English language support, though that is changing as Japan has more of a global focus.

Impacting The World One Interaction At A Time, A Life Of Personal Ministry

One of my mentors, Mark Horseman at Manager Tools (, taught me a valuable lesson about presentations and working with groups. He said that presentations, no matter how large the audience, is really one-to-one communication. No two people walk out of a discussion, seminar or presentation with the exact same idea.

As I result, I started to consider what the intended takeaway is from my opportunities to work not just with individuals, but also groups. How could I ensure that what we worked on today they are applying tomorrow? This led me to focus on feedback and followup as tools to ensure that my ideal of “leave them better than you found them” was realized. The people I work with have ambition and drive: they make things happen in their homes, communities, and in the broader world. I know those ripples are being felt.

A Bigger Challenge

I used to say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Now my quote for dealing with difficult situations is, “growth is painful.” I am never satisfied to stand still and live off past success or be complacent in hoping everything will stay the same, it never does. I want to challenge ways to make more impact, to touch more lives.

If I touched a million people and their lives were somehow improved, the ripple effect is unbelievable. Yet this is even true at an individual level. I have had conversations with friends wanting to end their lives or feeling defeated because they have lost jobs. Just believing in them and that their lives will get better has a monumental impact.

For these reasons I have embarked on a new platform for connecting and making a difference in the lives of others. I have become a writer. Since I began this new adventure 9 months ago my articles have been read more than 3,300 times. I have made a professional speaking appearance, coached clients around the world, and I am just getting started.

As I continue to grow I am determined to make complex ideas accessible to everyone, to this end I read publications like the Harvard Business Review, study esoteric subjects like neuroscience and emotional intelligence, and include spirituality in my life through the reading, mediation and mindfulness practices. All in an effort to be the most rounded person I can be. Only in that way can I leave people better than I found them. You can make it big in Japan too.

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3 Tips To Succeed In Japan

Learn some language

While my language skills are not that great, I can at least get the gist of most conversations. In business, if you know about 500 words, you can understand most situations. Business language is the easiest as most of the topics follow similar themes. So you will see the same language over and over again. Where it gets challenging is in general conversations when a wider variety of topics are discussed. I found watching dramas to be a big help in that area. Just do your best to communicate and add in some English when you get stuck. Many people want to practice their English skills so that will help you too.

Take time to get intimate with the culture

Your interest in Japan may come from a cultural aspect. Whether your connection is anime, sumo or sake, continuing your appreciation of that is helpful. Also, spending some time absorbing popular culture through TV will aid your success. Television is a staple of Japanese life, and if you can discuss a drama, know some celebrities, and some famous Japanese athletes or musicians you will find it easier to engage others in conversation.

Soften your ear

Just like communicating in Japanese will be difficult for you, English is also a challenge for Japanese people. Making an effort to understand people and supporting their attempts to explain things will show them how to help you communicate as well. I have found that listening with benevolence and trying in earnest to present ideas and then confirming that they have been understood has gotten me far in work, making friends and growing my network. These tips will help you to get more from you Japan experience too,

Thanks for reading.

Win the day.

John Cunningham

John is a motivation and personal development coach focused on improving your communication skills. You can read his blog on ( You can find out more about him at

Twitter – @ajohncunningham

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