A lot of people who come to Japan on the JET Programme wonder what the hell they are going to do for a living if they decide to stick around after their contract finishes. When I speak on this issue at JET conferences I normally point out, and only half tongue-in-cheek, that for those who don't speak Japanese the options are usually (a) teaching English at an eikaiwa (b) teaching English at a university (c) teaching English at a private school or (d) hostessing. But I also add that if you knuckle down and learn the lingo, and use your spare time wisely to develop skills which make you employable, Japan can be your oyster. And then I offer a few examples - like the guy who after only four years in Japan became director of his very own web startup in Tokyo. That's what the subject of today's Learner Story, former JET Jon Yongfook Cockle, did. As a director of jonkenpon.com Jon is one of the chaps responsible for Haikuplanet, and his Food and Tech blog Yongfook.com always draws a healthy crowd. So how did Jon acquire the Japanese skills to make this possible? Let's find out.
1. Name and occupation?
Name: Jon Cockle
Official job title: Corporate Planning (at a Japanese investment bank)
Unofficial job title: Director of jonkenpon.com
2. What is your background? (How long have you been studying Japanese?)
3. Why did you start learning Japanese (and not say, French)?
See above! For obvious reasons, learning Japanese whilst in the darkest depths of the inaka is - as I'm sure you and your readers will know - an essential survival skill. That and, I quite like languages in general and Japanese has this reputation of being one of the most challenging.
4. Tell us about any Japanese language classes/formal schooling you have had (if any).
No formal schooling. I think I did those JET language correspondence courses for a bit before I got bored...
5. What books - textbooks or otherwise have you found useful?
When I got here I immediately read a very thin grammar book (I can't remember - and don't think it particularly matters - which one) cover to cover and over and over (it was one of the few books I brought with me). I had mostly memorised it within a couple of weeks. I think that was absolutely vital to my advancement in the language - whilst other people were trying to remember the word for "plate" or "cat", I was already able to understand past / future / present-progressive tense. Of course, it was all textbook-forms which aren't necessarily used in everyday language, but it was an enormous help in being able to express myself early on, no matter how clumsily.
6. What resources other than books have you found useful?
For a while I carried round an electronic dictionary and religiously pounded words / kanji in that I wanted to look up. That was great for vocab. Other than that, preparing for the JLPT 2kyu exam with those monotonous multiple choice question books actually helped me a lot. You do the same thing so many times over and over that eventually it just sticks.
7. Where do you work and what do you do?
I work for an investment bank in Tokyo, in corporate planning. It is my job to supervise the company's online assets and implement new strategies related to the web.
8. How much Japanese do you use at work?
I use Japanese about 70% of the time. Depends who I'm talking to. Some of my colleagues have excellent English and want to practice, which I have no problem with. Other times it might be easier (especially in a group situation) to speak Japanese.
For example I might have a meeting with a client or someone who wants to work with us, and in that meeting I will have to explain what it is we can do for them, why they should be paying more attention to their web strategies, and outline the kind of opportunities that are available and that are easily adaptable to their existing business strategy - on the web. There are two sides to the kind of Japanese that I have to speak - business and technical. The technical side has a lot more jargony gairaigo in it so that's a little easier on my brain.
As for working for a Japanese company, I think it's crucial that you have a good grounding in reading too. There will be a lot of text for you to digest - emails, endless forms, reports, etc etc. Reading Japanese emails and knowing the appropriate way to respond makes for a much smoother ride at the beginning of your working for a Japanese company. I just kind of learnt as I went along, but I know that at the start I made a lot of mistakes and that I was quite a rude (unintentionally) little git via email thanks to my brusque, inaka-fied language skills.
9. Do you have a personal routine for studying?
I don't really study anymore, which is a true shame and something I want to resolve. Saying that, however, I think I'm just one of thosepeople who is gets more out of just listening and speaking. I'm continually listening to conversations and making a mental note of expressions or how something tends to be said this way in one situation and another way in a different situation. I guess I regard "being mindful" as studying, in a way. I don't really have time for personal study at this point in my life.
10. Major achievement in Japanese?
I can only think of tiny, personal achievements. I remember how satisfying it felt to read a comic or something and actually understand the joke or the context - and laughing. That's a great feeling.
11. Most embarrassing Japanese faux pas?
Can't really remember one off the top of my head, but I'm always making dumb little mistakes. Most of the time I quickly manage to correct myself though :)
12. What advice to people starting out learning Japanese?
Everyone has their own method of learning but make sure you practice as much as you can. Even speaking on your own, in the shower - it's all very well having studied bucketloads knowing exactly what you want to say but if you haven't practiced speaking (and some of you may disagree with this) your mouth just won't be physically used to creating the sounds and you can be just as likely to make mistakes as someone who hasn't studied as much as you, but has been speaking lots.
13. If you were starting out starting studying Japanese from zero again what would you do differently?
Probably practice writing more kanji. My writing is atrocious.
14. What advice for people who want to move from intermediate to higher-level proficiency?
I'm definitely not at "higher-level" yet, but I would start taking the language more seriously and outside of the context of chitchat / the classroom / your hobbies etc. For example, pick up a Japanese business newspaper. Or watch the business news in English and attempt to translate it to yourself in Japanese. I think the easiest way to increase proficiency is to change your surroundings. For example, to increase my proficiency from zero to conversational I moved from England to Japan...to increase it from conversational to business I moved to corporate Tokyo...
15. Top 5 tips for studying Japanese.
2) study grammar! (we know it's boring)
3) listen to conversations around you, like a kind of silent word-ninja
4) do something with Japanese people/friends that is extra-curricular or outside of your daily grind.
16. What other languages do you speak?
A little French. Bits and bobs of Cantonese.
17. Is language a skill?
I think true fluency in a second (or third etc) language is a skill. I think attaining a comfortable level of ability with any language is something that most people can innnately handle if they put their mind to it, aren't opposed to being a little extroverted and practise often.
Postscript: For an account of how Jon actually made the leap from countryside Assistant Language Teacher to Tokyo web engineer take a look at his lengthy post on getting a non-teaching job in Japan after JET, on the infamous BigDaikon forum.