Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Japanese-Speaking Future Diplomat
We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages have played a role in shaping their personal and professional success…
Meet Kyle—a Centre College graduate from Kentucky and JET alumnus. Proficient in Japanese, he’s now at American University, earning a Masters in International Affairs: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security.
1. You started learning Japanese in high school and continued to study it in college. What drew you to the Japanese language?
My interest in Japanese started the summer before I entered high school. I went to an open house at school and ended up talking with the Japanese teacher there. He talked about Japanese culture that I was familiar with, but maybe didn’t realize was Japanese. He also told me about an opportunity to go abroad through the school’s summer exchange program, and even gave me a brief one-minute lesson to show learning Japanese was not as impossible as many people think.
I thought it was a very unique opportunity as most U.S. high schools don’t offer Japanese. I honestly just thought it sounded like something different to try, and I liked the idea of learning something that made me stand out. I ended up liking it so much that I continued to take it beyond the graduation requirement and ended up going to Japan for six weeks.
2. From 2015 – 17, you taught English in Japan as a part of the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. What motivated you to apply and what’s the biggest lesson you took away?
I was not very sure what I wanted to do following graduation from college. One of my friends was in the JET Program and spoke very highly of it. The more research I did, the more appealing it sounded. I also thought if there was any time in my life to go live abroad for a few years, now was the time. The JET Program allowed me to use and improve my Japanese language skills, as well as contribute to the U.S.–Japanese relationship that had become so important to me.
It was a great opportunity even though I don’t plan on teaching English as a career.
My first immersion experience was a six-week study abroad in high school. However, JET was by far my longest immersion experience.
As for the biggest lesson, I think it’s important to find a balance between assimilating into another community and retaining your own individuality. When you live somewhere, you should try to learn about the culture and the people who live there. Even though my language skills were not (and still are not) perfect, I tried to learn as much Japanese as I could and be engaged with my local community. At the same time, I think it’s important to feel like you can be yourself and retain your identity in that new community. I wouldn’t shy away from trying new things, but I wouldn’t pretend to like everything I tried, and I also tried to share my culture and experiences with others.
You want to respect the culture you are in, but not lose yourself in the process.
3. Can you tell us a funny or poignant anecdote about speaking Japanese in Japan?
One that comes to mind is whenever I would speak on the phone.
In Japanese conversations, it’s expected for the listener to constantly acknowledge what the speaker is saying through saying something like “yes” or “uh huh.” I found phone conversations were more difficult than face-to-face ones, so I would stay silent while listening so I could concentrate on what the speaker was saying. Often, this would confuse the speaker, so they would stop mid-sentence to ask if I was still there.
In my head I thought, “Of course I’m still here! I’m trying to listen to you!” But, I realized it was just a cultural norm that I needed to get used to doing.
4. What are the biggest similarities, or differences, you found between the American and Japanese cultures?
The biggest difference I noticed was that Japan places greater emphasis on the group, compared to the U.S. which places more emphasis on the individual.
In Japan, the preservation of group harmony is important, so people are less likely to speak out when they don’t like something. This emphasis on community also translates to people being very polite. On public trains for example, Japanese people will be very quiet so as not to disturb others. Also, even though there are few public trash cans, Japanese people are more likely to carry around their trash until they find one rather than litter. In the U.S., the individual is more encouraged to speak out and express his or her opinion.
While of course neither country is one hundred percent individual or group-oriented, there is a noticeable difference in how much emphasis is placed on each one. I wouldn’t argue that one is better than the other, but I feel it’s important to be aware of consequences of putting the group before the individual and vice versa.
5. Why are language skills a “must-have” for students considering a future career in diplomacy or international affairs?
Success in diplomacy and international affairs relies on bridge-building, and language skills help to accomplish this.
When you learn a language, you gain a glimpse into the culture that accompanies that language.
A lot can get lost in translation, so by being able to directly communicate, you better understand to whom you are talking and their goals. It demonstrates your commitment to working with someone else, and even though you may not agree with them on everything, you have a better understanding of where they’re coming from and what motivates them. When you understand the people you are working with, it’s easier to build relationships, which are essential in this field.
Many mistakes in diplomacy come from misunderstandings. Although language skills alone don’t guarantee that a misunderstanding won’t occur, they go a long way to reducing the chances of it.
I plan on pursuing a career in foreign policy and diplomacy, with a concentration in East Asia. I am very passionate about the issues facing Japan, China, and Korea, and the relationships between them and the U.S.
These language and cultural skills will come in handy as I conduct research and communicate with people from the region. I’m still working on my Japanese, with the hope of soon starting Chinese as well.
BONUS QUESTION: What advice do you have for those wanting to learn another language?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Language learning takes a lot of practice, which inevitably means you’re going to make mistakes. If you are too worried about saying something that doesn’t sound right, you will never improve.
I found when teaching in Japan, the students that were the least afraid to try were usually the better English speakers. I’ve said plenty of ridiculous things on accident in my two years there, but I learned something from all of those moments. Be confident and prepared to make mistakes, and you will learn much faster than you otherwise would.