Today’s guest post is by Daniel Morales. Daniel Morales is a writer and translator based in Chicago. He studied Japanese literature at Harvard and writing at the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. After graduate school, he relocated to Chicago where he has worked for the Japanese Consulate and the Institute of Real Estate Management. He’s an avid homebrewer and is waiting for Japan to fully legalize the hobby so he can move back.
Hello! My name is Daniel Morales. I’m a writer, part-time translator, and an association professional living in Chicago. I write about Japanese study and translation for the Japan Times Bilingual page and my website How to Japanese.
I’ve managed to cobble together a career doing gainful work related to Japan despite my best efforts at selecting the most stereotypically “useless” liberal arts degrees—East Asian Studies (modern Japanese literature) and Creative Writing.
There have been three major steps in getting to this point: learning Japanese, learning how to write, and learning how to be a professional.
I hope that by walking through my experience, I can provide guidance for anyone who is early on in any of these three steps.
It’s important to be able to read, speak, and understand spoken Japanese, but the most critical aspect of studying the language is knowing what you want to gain out of the experience, and then ensuring that you’re able to achieve that.
Do you want to be an interpreter for a baseball player? Do you want to be able to read novels? Manga? Play video games? Are you looking to scour obscure texts from previous centuries? To read the menus of posh bistros and discover the latest Tokyo foodie trends? Or do you just want to be able to navigate the JR Rail system and guide yourself to a hot springs?
How you answer this question will partly determine how you approach your language study. You’ll need to dedicate time to the basic grammar, pronunciation, and writing scripts, but you should also be crafting your study to achieve your goals. So be sure to take a step back and do an honest assessment of how your study is going.
I studied abroad in Tokyo for a year during college, and at around the halfway point, I took a moment to think about how things had gone so far. I realized that 1) I needed to level up my reading and 2) my spoken Japanese was not as good as many of my classmates.
Then I took action to fix these. I found a professor who was willing to meet with me once a week and answer questions about a novel I was reading. And I started setting up coffee dates with all my Japanese friends. I was a poor student, so I ended up at the Cafe Veloce between Takadanobaba Station and Waseda University almost every afternoon, drinking 120-yen cups of coffee and talking with friends. There are more unpleasant ways to learn the language.
Your experience will likely be much different from mine, but I think the following ideas can be useful to everyone studying Japanese:
- Create a routine. Consistency is often more important than what it is you’re doing. Obviously, you probably should try to do more than one kanji/grammar pattern per day, but a constant pressure applied over a long period of time is more effective than sporadic bursts of intense study.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether it’s on Twitter or at your university, there are many who will be willing to help you read, speak, or write.
- You’re always most accountable to yourself. In the end, becoming fluent is up to you. No one can study the kanji for you. You need to make sure you’re putting in the work, and that means prioritizing your study. If Japanese study is something you value, then it should be easy to make the time, but saying out loud, “Japanese study is something I value, and I’m choosing to spend time doing it rather than X” can be a helpful way to frame things.
- Be careful when switching up your process. As I mentioned above, it’s important to do periodic assessments of how your study is going, but there are almost limitless ways to study, and many classmates or friends will have different study processes, so it can sometimes be tempting to try something new or model an approach that seems to be working for someone else. Resist the urge to switch study processes simply for the sake of trying something new. Instead, double down on what it is you’re doing and see if that has an effect.
- Be gentle on yourself. If you’ve picked up a book that’s a little too difficult, don’t be afraid to abandon it for something easier. If 20 kanji a day is too many, dial it back to five or ten. Don’t get burned out too quickly. And on the flipside, if you’ve taken a break for a while, put yourself back in gear and study a little harder.
- Prepare for the longterm. There are some people who are able to learn Japanese in a year, but I don’t think this is a helpful model for beginner students. Instead, give yourself a 5- to 10-year target to gain fluency. This may feel like a long period of time, but as you get older, I think you’ll find that life seems to proceed in five-year chunks. Don’t feel defeated if you don’t achieve your goal immediately.
- Get over to Japan. Beg, borrow, deal, and do what it takes to immerse yourself in the language. There’s no substitute for being in Japan. (Obviously, the pandemic has kind of put a hold on this strategy. Now’s as good a time as any to start strategizing ways to get over to Japan and improving the skills you’ll need once you’re there.)
Learning to Write
I was not a very good writer in college, not on the sentence level nor on the big picture level. Fortunately, thanks to grade inflation and a knack for completing assignments on time, this didn’t affect me greatly. I managed to graduate and then moved on, confident that I was not really cut out for academic work.
I did have the instinct to write, however. I kept trying to write in various forums both public and private, but I didn’t find much traction until I started writing about studying Japanese and translation on my website.
I think the reason for this is simple: Writing is pain.
At least for me it is. I’m sure others may not find it so painful. But the process of sitting down, staring at the screen, fighting off the pressure of needing to produce something, and working and reworking the language to get it right was not one I enjoyed. So it wasn’t until I discovered a topic that I enjoyed enough—and for which I had actual insights that had some kind of value—that I was able to get past that initial obstacle.
The good news is that if you’re able to conquer this pain, writing is an incredibly useful professional skill. You can literally conjure up policy, procedure, negotiation, and analysis out of thin air, using language.
Here are a few things I’ve found helpful when it comes to writing:
- Writing publicly and professionally is much different than writing for a college course. Professors and writing instructors will often suggest that you write for a specific audience during assignments, but the classroom can be a little sterile. There’s nothing that compares to actually putting writing out there for an audience. Starting a blog forced me to straighten up and really focus on getting the language right. If you’re hesitant to put your writing online publicly, find a group of friends you trust who will help you workshop your writing.
If you’re specifically looking to start a blog or online writing project, I have this advice:
- Set a schedule and stick to it. Decide what your schedule will be – once a week, once a month, twice a week, etc. Any schedule will work, but setting a schedule will not only train yourself but also your readers to know when they can expect new material.
- Write 10 posts before you start. Forcing yourself to produce a backlog of (ideally) evergreen content will give you an idea of what it would be like to maintain a blog over a long period of time. If you write 10 posts and still feel like you have more to say, it might be the right project for you. If you can’t get to 10 or are sick of it by the time you do, then maybe you need a different topic or a different project altogether. Once you have these 10, you should keep them in your back pocket. Start the blog with new material. Then, when you get food poisoning or end up working a 60-hour week at your day job, you can dip into the evergreen content to give yourself a rest.
Back to non-blog advice:
- If you’re a writer, sometimes it pays to be an asshole. You shouldn’t be mean, but you should be interested, persistent, at times prying, and curious about what people have to say. Getting quotes and insight from experts is a key part of writing authoritatively on topics about which you know very little. I’m not sure what they teach in journalism schools, but being dedicated to getting other people to talk (calling numerous times, emailing, talking to administrative assistants, doing whatever it takes to get on the calendar) has been a skill I’ve had to develop, and one that has been very beneficial professionally.
- And in terms of professional writing, your audience will likely be very clear and specific – a committee, leadership at your company, your supervisor/boss. This can make it both easier and more difficult to write, but you’re using the same skills that you’ve developed with other writing. What information do you need to communicate? What are the best techniques to communicate that information? These are the fundamental questions to ask about any piece of writing.
Becoming a Professional
When I finished the JET Program and moved to Tokyo to work at a translation company, I expected a stereotypical Japanese workplace experience: long hours, social time after work with colleagues, and an open office plan. The only thing I got was an open office plan.
After an initial boat cruise nomikai on Tokyo Bay, which admittedly was great, the office was silent, no one socialized after work, the hours weren’t bad, and my supervisor wasn’t even in the office (and didn’t provide an introductory email or phone call) until a month or two at the job. It was a decent enough place to spend the financial crisis years, but I learned quickly that even though the workplace wasn’t what I expected, I could take from it what I could—use it to earn a living, gain skills, and be a professional—and then focus on finding things that fulfilled me outside of work.
Balancing expectations is a critical aspect of being a professional. Being invested enough to become an expert without needing the work to be the be-all and end-all of your life.
Since my time in Tokyo, I’ve moved home and completed a graduate degree. I’ve worked as a writer, translator, graduate teaching assistant, political assistant at a Japanese consulate, and now a manager at a non-profit trade association.
Balance has been key this whole time. Much of this work has been Japan-related, so there’s been a learning curve for me, adjusting to both Japanese and U.S. business etiquette, despite my experience with the culture. These are the things I’ve found important:
- Before you do anything, you must start reading Ask A Manager. That’s the one piece of advice I would give my younger self. I’ve learned more about workplace communication, creating compelling resumes, and what to do in job interviews by reading Alison Green’s advice column than anywhere else.
- Pursue work that fits your resume. After I finished grad school in New Orleans, I was interviewing to become a gelato maker or be an administrative assistant—the local economy did not offer much beyond the service industry and a few specialized fields like insurance and petrochemicals. Once I realized I should focus on work related to Japan outside of New Orleans, I had more success. If your resume doesn’t have what you need it to have in order to get the work you want, think about how you might supplement it. Is there volunteering or an internship you could do to nudge it in the right direction? Consider looking outside your market. Consider doing remote work. Given the pandemic, everyone is going to need flexibility right now.
- Japanese business culture shouldn’t be intimidating. It will be different, absolutely, but try not to tighten up just because you’re interacting in Japanese or with Japanese people. Most of the rules that apply in the U.S. also apply in Japan: communicate clearly, take care of assignments on time, and treat people with respect.
- Working at a Japanese diplomatic mission (embassy or consulate), on the other hand, is not the same as Japanese business culture. There is a rigid hierarchy, and officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can be intensely competitive, aloof, petty, and occasionally very pleasant people. There will likely be yelling, a lack of communication, and in-fighting between the diplomats that spills over and can affect work of the locally hired support staff. Just remember that yelling is abuse and unacceptable. I had my resignation letter thrown on the ground because I gave two weeks’ notice and not two months’ notice. There are other stories I could tell, but this is the most egregious. It took awhile for me to realize that this was not acceptable behavior on the part of my bosses, and it was refreshing to find work related to Japan and discover that not everything operated the same way.
- Watch your workplace for toxicity, and don’t let it scar you if it is indeed toxic. It can be difficult enough to do this in your native country. In a foreign country, it can sometimes be easy to chalk up unhealthy workplace eccentricities to cultural differences. Pay attention to things you should not tolerate (sexual harassment, power harassment) and try not to internalize them.
In the end, you should try to find a way to be yourself in Japan, in your home country, at your workplace, as a writer and translator, and as a professional. You’ll constantly be negotiating with others as you do this, and the rules and situations will vary, but rarely will it be personal. There’s almost nothing that can’t be worked out with clear communication, which is a great incentive to keep practicing your Japanese.