What’s your background, and how did you learn English?
I was born in Japan and raised in exclusive Japanese communities in France and England. Having spent so much time abroad speaking only Japanese, my English inferiority complex persisted after graduating college in Tokyo, which brought me to the US to study linguistics. I met my biologist wife Stephanie there, worked in Texas for four years, and now I’m back in Tokyo speaking a lot of English at home and work.
What does your job involve? What kinds of clients do you work with?
As a PR consultant with a focus on international communications, I mostly help large Japanese companies express themselves better to stakeholders overseas. The job varies from correcting “Engrish” in corporate websites to building global PR strategies.
Monocle’s Tyler Brûlé told us earlier this year that he thought Japan could do a better job of marketing itself to the outside world. Would you agree with that?
I totally agree. The problem is many of us aren’t even interested in marketing Japan abroad, because our economy has developed without having to do much of that. But now we absolutely do have to address this issue.
Are there any common misconceptions that Japanese companies have about doing business overseas—and vice versa?
It requires a lot of communication effort to gain understanding and respect from local employees, customers and the media, but some Japanese businesspeople assume it happens automatically. When they can’t do it, they get together in a local sushi restaurant and complain about how weird the locals are. I’ve seen the opposite thing in Roppongi.
Your Twitter bio describes you as an “advocate for real/natural Japanese as a foreign language.” Could you explain that a bit?
Japanese people tend to teach foreigners only what they wish Japanese sounded like. On top of that, most Japanese textbooks make Japanese look more like English than it actually is so that learners find them “useful.” As a result, the learners often sound awkward and irrelevant, but none of us correct them—yes, I’m talking about the “your Japanese is good” smile that we give you. I’m launching my blog to start countering this problem.
Why does Japanese have a reputation for being such a tough language to learn?
Two reasons: 1) Japanese is grammatically very different from English; and 2) Japanese people and some elitist learners like to make the language look unique and hard to learn. Japanese is a simple language, with only five vowels and two irregular verbs (compare that to English!). The polite language and kanji are peripheral elements—I didn’t know them when I was 3, but I could communicate better in Japanese than many learners who know hundreds of kanji.
How many languages do you speak yourself?
I can talk about many languages but I can talk in five, although I’m not fluent in three. I’ll list them followed by the most difficult tasks I ever did in that language: Japanese (being recognized as a native speaker), English (arguing with my wife), Korean (having an entire breakup talk), Mandarin Chinese (persuading a Taiwanese lady not to scold her son) and French (telling kindergarten bullies that I’m not Chinese).
What would be your recipe for a perfect day in Tokyo?
We just moved into a new apartment, and we are totally in love with it, so I would have to say that spending a long, lazy day just hanging out at home is my ideal right now. A whole day drinking beer and eating unhealthy food—such as Yokohama iekei ramen and horumon-yaki—while having intellectually stimulating conversations with friends is at the top of my list, too.
Tomoyuki blogs at www.nativejapanese.com and tweets as @tomoakiyama