Sour Apples – Part 1
I went to a shindig in Tokyo last year I think celebrating the 20th anniversary of the JET Programme. There, I met a Japanese guy who said that he was the father of the JET program. According to him, the main goal of the program was simply to get more foreigners in Japan. Back in 1987, I don’t think Japan was as popular among the kids as it is today. I was only 6 years old back in 87, but I seem to remember the big things back then being Optimus Prime having DIED on the big screen, and Crocodile Dundee waving a big knife around. Neither of these things have anything to do with Japan specifically (unless you’re one of those people who insists on calling Prime “Convoy”, and if you are one of those people, just know that I hate you, officially). Japan, then, was simply the land of compact cars and super polite people. Maybe enough to warrant a visit, but there weren’t a whole lot of foreigners beating down the gates to get here.
So this guy and perhaps some other people (I don’t know the detailed history of JET) got to thinking “we need to get more foreigners into this country to live and work…but how?” What they eventually settled on was English teaching. And it wasn’t because of a great Japanese desire to learn English. It was because the main point was to just get people here – regardless of whether they could speak Japanese or knew anything about the country or not. Really, English teaching was the only option.
So that is how the whole “teach English in Japan!” sentiment started. I say all this to illustrate the point that English teaching was not made in mind for actually helping Japanese people with their English abilities. The foundation is built upon just getting foreigners here. Some 20 years later, that foundation hasn’t changed. It would be unfair to level the Finger of Shame solely upon English teaching – I feel the Japanese eduational system as a whole is flawed and needs revolutionary change. But I’m sure I’ve talked about that at length.
For a foreigner looking to live and work in Japan, English teaching is what gets you here. With any luck though, its not what keeps you here. At least for me, its not. Its a very dead-end profession – there’s no sort of advancement, and most English-teaching positions expect you to only work for a few years at best before going home. While working as an English teacher, you gain nothing that makes your resume look better for any other profession. I’d worked as an English teacher for three years. I’d burned out on it, and I wanted to work in a field where I didn’t have to be the English-speaking entertainment monkey. I’d been learning and studying and speaking Japanese – I wanted to work a job where I could put that to good use. Of course, entering the Japanese workforce is a frightening beast in its own right – most people are at least vaguely aware of the insane amounts of overtime that Japanese people regularly put in. Even with Japanese abilities, the foreigner still has to look for jobs that are aimed for foreigners specifically. That’s a narrow field in itself, and I had a lot of stiff competition – people who’d been here longer than me, spoke better Japanese than I, were probably better looking, lasted longer in bed, and could hold their breath underwater for 17 seconds longer than I could.
Despite the odds, after a few months of searching I finally found a job in January of 2007. The company specialized in exporting Japanese goods overseas, with the primary product being clothes and fashions. As many of you may know, I absolutely hate fashion (see “The Devil IS Prada”…), but aside from that, everything else about the job seemed great. I originally joined the company as a customer service representative, but quickly transistioned from that to translation checking, and then was entrusted with translations of my own. I was thrilled to have the chance to work a job with real responsibilities, and to be able to put my Japanese abilities to use. Aside from my personal gains, the company seemed like a great place to work. The president was still relatively young – in his mid 40’s or so. He’d started this company and worked his way up – it was still small, but he had big dreams for the future. I really respected him for that. He didn’t seem to be your typical Japanese salaryman – we didn’t have to wear suits to work, and he didn’t seem to care if we did insane amounts of overtime or not. The other workers all seemed like nice, good people as well. I imagined that, having found a good place to work, I could work this job for the next 5-10 years, perhaps even longer than that if things went smoothly.
But of course, as we all know, life never goes that smoothly…
We had a fairly large amount of translation to be done. We sent out the majority of it to freelance translators; we’d give them a certain amount and a deadline, they would turn it in, and then someone would have to look over the translations to make sure that they were correct, fix any possible errors, and try to unify these translations we got from several different people into the site’s standard. When I first started working, the site didn’t really have a standard – I don’t know if I was the first native English speaker to work there, but at the time I joined the English Team was composed of two other employees – a Japanese lady (U-san), and a lady from Hong Kong (A-san). I suppose the Japanese lady could speak English…but in the however many months that we worked together, I never heard her speak English, not even once. Even just looking around the site, at products or even informational pages, it was easy to tell that the English hadn’t been written by a native English speaker. Lots of spelling and grammatical errors, and a few things that would have made a worthy addition to Engrish.com.
Most of our outsource translators were Japanese – not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, but these particular translators…their English translation level just wasn’t that good. When checking translations, aside from being grammatically odd, there were plenty of times when I just didn’t understand what was being said in English. I had to re-write much of the translations, and in some cases, I had to re-translate it from scratch. It occurred to me that the time I spent checking and correcting the outsource translations was just as much, if not more than the time it would take me to just translate the file myself. So I asked my supervisor, who at the time was in charge of the English outsource translations, and subsequently our company president, to stop using the vast majority of our freelance translators. While we looked for more competent translators, I would pick up the slack on my end.
I suppose I could have settled for “just good enough.” Just worry about catching spelling mistakes or bad translations, and let the non-native feel and unnatural grammar slide. That certainly would have been a lot easier. But, I had a lot of pride in my job and the company, and professionally I didn’t want to put that out there. Japan is known for broken English, and we foreigners love to laugh at all the mistakes and wonder why they couldn’t just drag even one foreigner off the street and ask “Hey, is this English OK?” This company did have a native English speaker, so there was no reason why they should be publishing mistaken English. I didn’t want to let that happen.
In an ideal situation, my vision might have worked. In an ideal situation. Of course, reality always proves to be very far from the ideal. Our English Team went from 3 members to 2 as U-san quit just a few months after I’d joined the company. She cited “not agreeing with the company’s policies” or something like that as her reasons – at the time, I didn’t really understand why she was quitting. Although the lady from Hong Kong, A-san, was still there, she could only work until 3:30, 4PM at the latest. She had two young daughters – 6 and 4 years old, and she had to go home to pick them up from nursery school and take care of them. These were the conditions that she was hired on, and I certainly couldn’t find any fault with that – she was a mother before anything else, and one day when I have kids of my own I plan to be a father before anything else as well. However, with A-san leaving early, it meant that anything and everything else English related fell on my shoulders. As she put it, “the English Team is at 1.5 members right now.”
Sometime around November/December-ish, we got the translation data for the spring fashion lines. I guess spring and fall are the major new clothes seasons, so there was a lot of data. As we only had one or two freelance translators who could be trusted to not write broken English, I assumed responsibility for the vast majority of it. It was a volume that, ideally, would have been divided up among 5-6 translators. Despite the daunting amount, I should have been able to do it all with no problems. What I forgot to take into account however, was that I was now responsible for almost everything English within the company. This included a lot of internal translation as well – it was common to have people literally lining up at my desk to tell me about the English translation they needed to have done as soon as possible. As a result, I didn’t have nearly as much time as I’d calculated to work on the product translations during normal working hours.
So I ended up having to do overtime. Lots of it. Only after other people started to go home could I actually work on a project uninterrupted. More than that, I just didn’t have the time. My working hours officially ended at 6PM, but I often stayed until 8, 9, 10, and even past 11PM, catching the last train home. I brought translations home, and would wake up in the middle of the night after my wife had fallen asleep in order to make progress. I worked on them on the weekends, and even went to work on the weekend a few times. I had become the dreaded Japanese salaryman – I spent more time in front of my work computer than anywhere else.
Amazingly enough, I was actually okay with this. The long hours were tough, sure, but I actually liked my job. I was glad to no longer be an English teacher anymore – I felt like I’d broken the mold and was inching closer to the adult world. I was being entrusted with these tasks, so I wanted to succeed and reward the trust that had been placed in me. I also still liked my co-workers, including my supervisor and the company president, I liked the goals of the company, and I wanted to see them – I wanted to see us – succeed. I also assumed that this was not a permanent thing – the president promised that as soon as the storm of activity passed we’d start hiring new freelance translators, and hopefully someone to work in-house as well.
So, I weathered the storm, and in January things seemed to clear up. There were a lot of bumps and bruises and a few missed deadlines here and there, but I got all the projects done. As he said he would, the president gave me the OK to put out ads for translators. I was able to add some really skilled individuals to our list of freelance translators. And we got another native English speaker to work in-house – an Australian guy who’d come all the way from Hokkaido to work here. The president, my supervisor, and everyone else seemed really appreciative of everything I’d done – I got a pay raise, and became the “English Division Director.” Things were definitely looking up.
Little did I know, the worst was yet to come…