Studying Japanese

How I Learned Japanese: The Series of Coincidences that Brought Me to Japan


Chinese economist Shen Caibin started down the road that brought him to Japan as the result of an English teacher with a strong Russian accent. After his arrival in Japan, his colleagues at work turned out to be the ideal teachers.

I grew up in the city of Haimen in Jiangsu Province, China, which is where I attended high school.

It was in high school that I learned English. But my pronunciation in those days was terrible. Our English teacher was really a Russian specialist who had taught himself English on the side. Naturally enough, we picked up his accent and pronounced English as if we were speaking Russian. As a result, even though I managed to get into my first-choice college when I left school, I found myself assigned not to the English department as I had hoped, but to Japanese. And so it was that my study of the Japanese language began.

My studies were interrupted after just two years, when the Cultural Revolution broke out and education ground to a halt for most of the “lost decade” that followed. After graduating from university, I was “sent down” as part of the down-to-the-countryside movement to Yanbei in northern Shanxi Province. The work I did there had absolutely nothing to do with the Japanese I had studied. Several years later, I moved to the external affairs department of the city government in Dadong, where I began work as an interpreter. At last, Japanese was an integral part of my life.

A Fateful Meeting

It was around this time that I met Ariyoshi Shingo for the first time. It was a meeting that would have a decisive influence on my life.

In 1977, a group of delegates representing Japanese coal mining visited Dadong. Ariyoshi Shingo, then the president of Mitsui Mining, was the head of the delegation. My job was to show the delegation around a number of local sites, including the Yungang Grottoes, which have since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I remember asking Ariyoshi a question.

Dadong has not always been known by its present name. It used to be called Pingcheng (平城). These are the same characters used in Japan to write the name of the ancient capital, Heijō-kyō 平城京 (later known as Nara). Was there any historical connection between the two cities? Ariyoshi told me he would take this matter back to Japan with him and ponder it at home.

Three years later, in 1980, Dadong signed a friendship city agreement with the city of Ōmuta, a mining city in Kyūshū, and a group was sent from Dadong to visit Japan. The Miike Mine in Ōmuta was the birthplace of the Mitsui Group. I joined as interpreter. This was my first visit to Japan. A party was held at the New Ōtani hotel in Tokyo to welcome us.

I remember Ariyoshi standing up to say a few words of welcome to us on behalf of Mitsui Mining. During his remarks, he mentioned the question I had asked him when we had met in China three years earlier. “I’ve done lots of research,” he said. “But I’m afraid I haven’t been able to find any evidence of historical ties between Dadong and Nara. But I did find a connection between Dadong and Ōmuta. Two connections, in fact. One is coal mining, and the other is friendship.”

In 1989, at the age of 45, I made up my mind to come and study in Japan. I kept in touch with Ariyoshi, generally meeting him about once a month after coming to Japan.

Later, thanks to Ariyoshi’s introduction, I was able to enter the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute. I worked there for 16 years, until 2008. For eight of those years, I was head of the institute’s China economic center. It was during my time at the institute that my serious studies—both of Japanese and of the Chinese economy—began.

The Lessons Learned from Writing Reports

To study Japanese—or any language—well, you need good study materials. In my case, as a specialist in the Chinese economy, newspapers and magazine articles were ideal, enabling me to keep up with the latest information and improve my Japanese at the same time.

I was blessed with good teachers too—my Japanese colleagues and superiors at work turned out to be wonderful tutors. Not by teaching me in a classroom, of course, but by correcting things I had written.

As a researcher at the institute, I had to submit reports on my research on a regular basis. Whenever we traveled overseas for work, we had to submit a report after we got back to the office. These were all submitted to the head of the institute. I always made sure before I submitted my report to have the head of the department read over what I had written and fix any grammatical errors or awkward phrases. After I became head of the Chinese economy studies department myself, I asked the other members of my team to help me out in the same way.

When my manuscript came back, I would read it through again carefully, studying their corrections. Why had this part been changed? Why was this a better way of phrasing what I wanted to say? Comparing the rewritten version with my original and digesting the lessons of the corrections was the best practice I could have had in learning to write well. In particular, Kamazawa Katsuhiko, former head of the overseas information bureau, Itō Eiji, former journal editor, and the late Inoue Kazuko, a research fellow at the institute, all helped me a lot. I am extremely grateful to them to this day.

The Art of Lecturing Well

Today, one of the most important parts of my job is giving lectures at events and seminars held by companies and business groups around the country. Of course, the content of the talk is the most important thing. But speaking ability is important too. The ability to make complicated things easy to understand and to make dull things interesting—these are vital skills for any lecturer. Ikegami Akira, a journalist and master lecturer who is eagerly sought after by TV producers for his wonderfully easy-to-understand explanations of all kinds of difficult subjects, is an excellent example to emulate.

The most effective way to improve your Japanese is to widen your social circle and make friends with as many Japanese people as possible. But I have lost count of how many times I have committed a faux pas by mispronouncing someone’s name on a first meeting. Even today, I find it difficult to read Japanese people’s names.

The name 国谷, for example: Should those characters be read “Kunitani” or “Kuniya”? Even my Japanese friends don’t know. “Case by case,” they say whenever I ask them. Luckily, Japanese business cards normally provide the correct reading for tricky names like this. Checking the reading first on someone’s card is perhaps the safest way of avoiding an embarrassing gaffe.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 10, 2013.)

China Japan-China relations Japanese Cultural Revolution Mitsui Ikegami Akira