I first came across today's interviewee while doing background reading for my post on the Apple Mac/PC ads. Courtesy of Coal's blog, Offering Booze to a Deity in Kowloon, I found out the names of the Rahmens, the two Japanese comedians who play the Mac/PC roles. Then the New Years Mac ad came out and the copy floating around on YouTube had English subtitles, courtesy of ......Coal! I read up about him, discovered he was a translator, worked in the games industry and had featured on the cover of Newsweek in his capacity as a newly naturalised Japanese citizen. Most interview-worthy I thought, but would he be willing to share his tale? I got in touch and Coal was extremely generous with his time, as the length of the interview attests. Coal was also adamant that he couldn't reveal too much about his freelance project, and he didn't - but anyone who does the smallest bit of Google/YouTube research will soon have their hands on the sushi video he refers to. Coincidentally, like last week's interviewee, Jon Cockle, Coal is also a JET Programme alumnus.
Name and occupation?
Kaoru MIKI (神酒 九龍- hence the blog name), formerly Colin Restall which I still use professionally. I'm currently working in the games industry.
What's your background? (How long have you been studying Japanese?)
I actually don't recall exactly when I started studying, but it must have been about twelve or thirteen years ago. Study had been running hot and cold for about five years before I moved here, so I was fairly conversationally fluent when I stepped off the plane in 1999 but probably could have been better.
You came over on JET - how did your language progress from the JET Programme through to working in the games industry? And how did you make the switch?
The first couple of years on JET were as a one-shot ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) which I didn't get on with at all, though I did get plenty of desk time to cram kanji and vocab into my eyes. Additionally I got to do sporadic visits to elementary schools where the kids and teachers seemed happier if I just gave a presentation about my country in their language as the kids seemed to learn more that way. That kind of public speaking is a good way of putting your language skills where your mouth is, so it was often necessary to learn new keywords depending on what I was presenting, and sometimes I'd completely fail to communicate what I wanted to (judged by complete lack of reaction) so I'd just rework those bits and try again at the next school. When one presentation is mastered, I'd get more adventurous. That was a good experience in that regard.
For the third year I was able to transfer to the baptism by fire kencho* CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) position, which was so busy I had very little time to study but constant translation and interpretation requests, being guest speaker at seminars and general busy office life gave the language skills a real boost.
The current job I just sort of wandered into - it was advertised on the company's home page, I applied and got it. I think they were content by the way I carried myself at the interview that I was capable of doing the job, but that was probably thanks again to the many elementary school visits I did - the first fifteen minutes is always sat making awkward small talk alone with the principal, which I eventually had down to a fine art, making such confrontations a walk in the park. It's amazing how much positive energy you can pull from the discomfort of others caused by your presence as a supposed inferior. Worked wonders when I was introduced to my (now) father-in-law too!
Why did you start learning Japanese (and not say, French)?
My interest in Japan and learning the language came from a combination of a pre-existing fascination with pictographs, and anime starting to appear on video rental shelves in Britain. As such, I actually started studying kanji before bothering to learn how to speak, mostly using basic self made flashcards with the kanji on one side and meaning on the other, which I'd drill. I had about one hundred and fifty odd under my belt before realising that this knowledge by itself was near worthless. It was a good introduction to the writing though, and certainly helped me get over the sort of kanjiphobia a lot of new learners face.
Learning the spoken language was initially inspired by trying to figure out what was being said in cartoons, but my interest in that waned rapidly (i.e. became fluency for fluency's sake) when I started meeting real people that spoke the language properly and didn't mind helping me learn. In practice, this is a lot less easy than it sounds in the outskirts of London where Japanese speakers are few and far between. With a little detective work though, it wasn't too hard to find out which central London pubs were frequented by language students on a Friday night, and then it was just a case of going there week after week shopping for anybody Japanese that wasn't really serious about English study. They were in absolute abundance! Were the shoe on the other foot, I'd probably really hate people like me!
Tell us about any classes/formal schooling you have had (if any)
I've never had a formal lesson (unless you count the pre-JET orientation - I don't). I found that I knew my own linguistic weaknesses and priorities best, so studying by myself just seemed the most efficient method. Also I didn't have any money.
Being purely self-schooled probably only works well for the very highly motivated. In the earlier days I think I would have made quicker progress if I had somebody to properly explain the basics. Other than that though, if you're serious about the language, the teacher should be little more than a stick and carrot. Too many people end up relying on their classes too heavily, doing only minimal study by themselves, if at all.
What books - textbooks or otherwise have you found useful?
I found early on that having a good grammar book was essential. I gave the book away years back now and don't remember the name unfortunately, but it was only very basic and I'm sure there are lots like it. It gave a really firm grounding in the basics. For kanji study, I found Kanji & Kana by Hadamitzky and Spahn (Tuttle) to be a constant source of helpful information, and likewise the Kanji Power Handbook for the JLPT (ALC). The one I most used though was a former Monbusho approved school textbook called 漢字練習辞典¸ by 新学社 that has all the joyo-kanji broken down by year in the order that kids learn them, right up to the first year of high school. I can't put my finger on it, but the book just seems to contain so much taken for granted information that you wouldn't find in books aimed at foreign learners. Also as it's Monbusho approved, it's officially infallible. The kanji are displayed properly, and if you follow it to the letter you will develop good writing skills. For general study and help, these days I rely a lot on JEDict, SPACE ALC, Jim Breen's WWWJDIC and manythings.org (particularly the newspaper vocabulary tests). My study habits haven't really adapted that well yet to the broadband revolution though yet.
Unfortunately, there are also a good deal of resources I have found to be utterly useless. Audio-lingual methods such as Linguaphone, which is just your basic listen - repeat methodology is great for pronunciation and rhythm but will give you no practical footing at all. The 実力アップ！これで大丈夫！ JLPT prep books are also next to useless - they introduce long lists of obscure and easily confused grammar points most of which never appear on the corresponding test in the form of a question, and then fail to expand on them sufficiently to be of any help. They can occasionally be a handy reference when trying to crack some odd grammar you found in a newspaper, but not as textbooks or prep aids. Also I'd swear at rather than by the Heisig kanji learning methods. Some people think it's great of course, but the problem is you have to learn all the Joyo kanji by their meanings using somebody else's mnemonics before you can start on the readings, which means a heck of a lot of legwork with no sense of improvement - being able to identify that a bus is going to a thousand houses tea shop won't help you get to your job interview in Sengenjaya. Besides, if you're motivated enough to go through all that, then you'll probably find traditional study methods with homemade flashcards to be much more efficient. Put a kanji on one side, and the reading with related vocabulary you *already know* and a simple English meaning on the other, drill, rinse, turnover, repeat, but use in conjunction with other reading and writing practice.
What resources other than books have you found useful?
Electronic dictionaries are getting very good these days, though I still find their contents lacking when compared to regular paper dictionaries. You get some machines with like forty-two different dictionaries in them, but I would be happy to have one that has just three really good, expansive dictionaries. I say three though as you need an English-Japanese, Japanese-English and a good Japanese-Japanese dictionary. On second thoughts, add a Nelsons kanji dictionary to it and make it four! It's all the additional dictionaries on season related greetings for letter writing, English idioms, world cuisine and bird watching I can do without. There's also a lot of good online resources which I mentioned in the last question.
What I found really useful in the earlier days was a newspaper subscription - specifically the Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun. The writing was a little bit simplified but still newspaperish, and the readings for all the kanji were added in furigana. Getting that delivered daily cost about 1500 per month, and just reading two or three articles daily making notes of the vocabulary and any grammatical forms I didn't know improved my reading exponentially within a couple of months. Adult newspapers sadly are too much of a pain to read which is a shame - the articles are not generally interesting, and they put way too many numbers in using kansuuji [Chinese characters which express numbers - Ed.]. It's not enough to say in the first sentence that a concert was held at a local high school, they have to say that it's the eighteenth annual concert held on the twelfth of November two thousand and six and attended by one thousand and sixty five spectators, an increase of seven percent over last year's turnout of nine hundred and ninety six and fourteen percent over the annual average of nine hundred and thirty four, earning proceeds of three million seven hundred and twenty seven thousand five hundred yen, according to principle Kohei Yamasaki (fifty two). Using kansuuji, the numbers alone take about up about 80% of the sentence. Reading it is a lot of effort with very little to show for it. Online news is much less so, but again tends to be simplified a lot as reading a monitor is harder on the eyes than reading a paper. I'm still on the lookout for a good reading source.
Where do you work and what do you do?
I'm working for a very well known games company, predominantly producing game software manuals for the US and EU markets. Sometimes this is interpretative translation work, more commonly though writing from scratch with a mountain of out of date production documents in Japanese, and a yet to be localised unstable ROM that is head splittingly hard to play, as reference material.
"interpretative translation work" - do you mean interpreting or non-chokuyaku (word-for-word) translating?
It's non-chokuyaku translation as requirements and traditions are different between regions. I always find the Japanese manuals would rather say a hundred words when two will suffice. I've also been doing a lot of freelance work for a small movie production company localising scripts and captions etc so they can showcase their work outside Japan (a direct result of the sushi-gate incident - more on that if you think anybody would care).
Can you expand more on your freelance work, in a little more detail. For example how does one go about putting English subtitles on a Japanese video - do you just watch it again and again and take notes? :-)
Sometimes it works out that way, but when it's a professional request I normally have the benefit of a script too. I actually find it easier to read through the script and put my translations under it, and then read it while watching the film to make sure it fits. There are other issues involved with subtitling such as timing them to the speech naturally and the actual mechanics of adding them to a film clip, but I only have to worry about those if I'm doing it illegally for my own amusement. The Apple commercials up on YouTube are one example, as are two news reports called "Otaku from USA" that I knocked up on request last year.
Scripting voiceover work is a lot more fun as you can stray from the original a lot more, and you get to be the boss while they're actually recording them, making changes as you go along, and hanging around with famous people.
There's other random translation stuff too - I translated and photoshopped together a fearmongering manga about human rights abuses back in June for Debito's site, and just recently I've been working on the English text for a business website which has been proving quite lucrative. Getting the paying work is normally a case of being in the right place or knowing the right people, but it certainly helps to showcase your work.
And anything with gate on the end sounds good - what was the sushigate incident?
In a nutshell, sushigate was when I found this humorous short film on sushi etiquette on a DVD and thought it would be a great idea to subtitle it so a few mates could enjoy it. Expecting its appeal to be limited to the relatively small group of people that had experienced life in Japan, I was shocked to see it turn up on Google Video and YouTube multiple times over complete with my subtitles, and about a million blogs linking to them. To cut a longer story short and skipping over the several months of abject terror I faced at the prospect of having my arse sued off, the producers found a way to track me down and were like "we don't know what you put in those subtitles, but they obviously hit the mark. How'd you like to work with us on future projects?" The rest is history or hasn't finished happening yet so I have to keep shtum, but that was basically a catalyst that provided a steady flow of the funner kind of work.
How much Japanese do you use at work?
Not as much as I would like. Meetings and other official communications are all in Japanese (except when dealing with overseas offices), but speaking is rare because nobody likes each other. It's not uncommon for me to work for days on end without speaking or hearing a single word. It's enough to drive one quite mad I tell you.
As someone who has just moved into freelance and works from a home office I can empathise, but are you really saying there is no chatting around the water cooler? Is this particular to your office?
It really is that bad, but it seems to be limited to the specific office I work in. No idea why. At departmental 納会 [end of year meeting] I just wander off and hang out with a bunch of folk from a different office as they're a lot more fun.
Do you have a personal routine for studying?
At the moment, no. I've been resting on my laurels this year, putting my energy into other things like the freelance projects I mentioned earlier, buying a house and getting married. A study routine is on my January to-do list I promise!
What kind of goals would be on this putative routine?
That's a tricky one as getting level 1 when I did really messed up my motivation. There's always the kanji kentei I suppose. The real goal is just to be less awkward. Vague I know, but English is still my dominant language by a long shot and it would be nice to be as fluent as that.
Major achievement in Japanese?
I got 77% in JLPT level 2 one year after scraping through level 3, having been in the country less than eighteen months. I was surprised. Four years later I borderline passed level 1 without any test specific study, and honestly found the result a little disappointing. I had hoped that it would motivate me to study harder the next year, and didn't seriously consider that I might actually pass. Also since passing level 2, I'd always thought that by the time I get level 1 my Japanese would be much better than it really was. Perception is funny that way, I've come to find.
The one I'd really have been proud of was when I was asked to interpret for the German team during the 2002 World Cup. More specifically, to take care of their communicative needs for the period of their stay in my CIR jurisdiction. Hailing from Britain, there would have been a certain pub hero status if I was able to abuse my position to pull off pranks on prominent team members. Sadly, my supervisor at the time took "YES YES YES YES YES I'LL DO IT" to mean "give me a couple of weeks to think about it" and they ended up asking somebody else, who totally messed it up.
Most embarrassing Japanese faux pas?
I've certainly made some royal linguistic cock-ups over the years, but aside from chatting up young ladies while their boyfriends are standing nearby, getting caught out while pretending not to speak English to random leeches, and foolishly using the wrong stroke order for the kanji 右 (which of course is noticeably different from its counterpart 左), I wouldn't particularly classify any of them as either faux pas-ish or embarrassing.
On the other hand there was this time during the World Cup in 2002. I'd dropped by the local Irish Bar just after an England match had finished to see if there was any atmosphere left (there wasn't), and the owner comes running over saying he was glad I was there because TV reporters are coming and they need somebody English that can speak Japanese to introduce pub culture. This was for a daytime show to be aired the following week. I agreed, but got into constant arguments with the director who had their own preconceived agenda about what constitutes British pub life, and I was determined that the report would be at least reasonably accurate. So two hours later and after about five pints of complementary Guinness, I was pretty pleased with what we'd done and went my merry way. The next week when I actually saw the programme though, it became clear that the director had continued to harbour a pretty serious grudge for all the trouble I caused her, as all the parts where I made long intelligent sounding monologues had been replaced by photo montages and a professional voice over giving the same information, and for the remaining footage they used the takes that made me look like the worst kind of lecherous drunken unintelligible foreign lout the TV station had ever filmed. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere.
What advice to people starting out learning Japanese?
Ignoring the usual motivational stuff about figuring out exactly why you need to learn and then targeting towards that, I would say the best advice is to get a good grammar book. Courses such as Japanese for Busy People, not to mention regular lessons, tend to focus on themes introducing relevant grammar as they go along, but they're no substitute for a proper structured explanation of the rudiments. You need to master word order, basic particle usage, verb & adjective stems and endings, and the "ru" (casual) verb form before even attempting to tackle anything else. Avoid using "masu" until you're comfortable with "ru" as it only uses one verb stem and you need to learn them all.
If you were starting out starting studying Japanese from zero again what would you do differently?
If circumstances allowed, I would definitely try to get some proper school time in on location. I've found that people who studied full time non-language related subjects using a foreign language, even for as little as six months end up with a much higher level of fluency much quicker than via any other method. This goes for university study right down to elementary level.
So what, for example, would you study?
I wouldn't mind getting into filmmaking, or something similarly creative, but more realistically I'd either go for an engineering related topic or a psychological field. Those are all poles apart aren't they? It's unlikely to happen though, what with the mortgage and all.
What advice to people who want to move from intermediate to higher-level proficiency?
I'm still trying to figure that out myself, but I'm sure any such attempts that don't involve intimate knowledge of the full Joyo-kanji set are probably a waste of time.
One thing I can tell you for a fact though is that translating the innards of text heavy adventure games INTO Japanese is guaranteed to freak your face off and give you really weird frustrated nightmares on the rare occasions you're able to sleep, while having little to no effect on overall fluency. Avoid like the plague.
Top 5 tips for studying Japanese.
1) Language learning requires a combination of bulk learning and practical application. Japanese is particularly heavy on the bulk learning early on, so get basic grammar and vocabulary, hiragana, katakana, and a few hundred kanji engraved onto your brain as your first major priority.
2) If you're the sort who bores easily, find about 5 different study strategies and rotate them once every month or so.
3) Be as arrogant as necessary when first trying to gain fluency (to fend off language leeches and getting people to speak to you properly rather than in single syllable keyword grunts). It won't win you any friends, but who needs friends when you can speak Japanese!
4) If you have digital cable, you can probably get subtitles for most TV dramas etc. Likewise Japanese subtitles are available on a lot of DVDs. They can be handy in a pinch, but ultimately a set back when you end up relying on them. Try to avoid using them as much as possible.
5) Don't confuse the ability to engage in fluent small talk in a native sounding accent with actual linguistic competence. They're largely unrelated, and it's entirely possible to achieve a very high level without ever "fooling" anybody.
What other languages do you speak?
Just English and Japanese I'm afraid. And about 1 week's worth of French from high school.
Is language a skill, in other words is Chomsky full of crap?
Not really sure I understand the question. If I recall, Chomsky's assertion was that our brains contain a sort of dedicated grammar processor, and language acquisition is "simply" a case of learning a specific set of parameters i.e. which grammatical rules apply for the language in question. I don't see how that would make it any less a skill. Attaining a reasonable level of competency even in your native language, requires many years of pretty dedicated training with a lot of trial and error, and even as adults it's a lot of work at times to get a seemingly simple sentence just right. Then there are the additional issues of pronunciation and delivery (which are largely behaviorist issues), vocabulary and expressions, reading and writing, none of which would be enhanced by the presence of such an innate grammatical knowledge.
I guess it's like learning the piano. Technically, everything needed to produce every possible sound a piano can make is right there in front of you from day one, in the form of eighty-eight keys (and two or three peddles). The pianist in a sense has an "innate knowledge" of those eighty-eight sounds. The skill comes in determining which sounds to make at any given time, how to use your hands to build expression into the playing, how to read music etc.
*kencho = Prefectural government
Thanks for your time Coal and good luck in the entertainment industry!