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Interview: Found a mentor, encouraged to step further –– Jenni, Tokyo

Yumiko: What made you come to Japan?

Jenni: I studied Japanese language and culture at university, so I wanted to experience them. I started working in Yamanashi at an eikaiwa school. It was 2005.

Y: Please tell us about what you do now

J: I work as a translator, writer, and editor. Mostly I work three days at Tokyo Art Beat (TAB), a bilingual website of art in Japan and worldwide. Other than that, I work on a project basis, such as translation of catalogs and interviews. The main principle of TAB is to try to be consistent and put out information on all kinds of art, regardless of the exhibition’s size or whether the artist is famous or not. We’re trying to cover wider areas outside Tokyo.

One of the things that gives me job satisfaction is being able to really engage with texts. I enjoy word craft. When an original text is well written and interesting, I think translating is kind of its own thing. I really like the process of choosing words for that.

Y: How did you change your job? Maybe you could talk about your professional history.

J: After working in eikaiwa (English conversation school) in Yamanashi for a little over two years, I worked for a Japanese securities firm, which actually I feel is very different from what I do now.

I wouldn’t say it was easy for me. But I did have a lot of advantages, like nationality and other things along the way. I think it helped. Having studied Japanese at university, I was in fairly good condition when I came to Japan.

And I was very fortunate –– I was able to find a kind of mentor. She was the wife of a co-worker at my eikaiwa school. She was educated in the States and then returned to Yamanashi. She gave me some advice on how to translate. It was very helpful and encouraging to take future steps.

From Yamanashi to Tokyo, weekly trip by highway bus to learn translation

I went to Tokyo by highway bus once a week to attend a translation school. It was a financial investment for the long term. And from my mentor, I picked up a few kinds of translation projects. With more training and experience, I gained more confidence, and that helped me when I found an opportunity in Tokyo, although I didn’t have much experience in finance at the time.

At the securities firm, I worked on financial texts as an in-house translator. Time management was the big thing I learned there –– I’m not that kind of person. I like to spend a lot of time on even short texts. But I worked in-house, so I didn’t have the luxury to spend a lot of time on any given assignment. This experience helped me learn how to look for critical information in a text and focus on that when translating. That was a very valuable experience.

I worked there until 2013. So I experienced the 2011 earthquake on the 29th floor of the building. After that, there were a lot of discussions about whether to go home or stay in Japan, especially because of the fall of the nuclear power plant, but personally, I don’t know anyone who actually left Japan.

Family members and people back in the States were concerned about me. To be honest, I didn’t really want to leave. I had my job in Japan, and I had just started dating the man who is my husband now. At that point, I had been in Japan for several years and it had started to feel more and more like home for me. So leaving would not have been an easy thing.

Y: Please tell us about any challenges in terms of working.

J: Going into a different field was very challenging at first ––into finance, and from finance to art.

I should mention that I was able to start working freelance partly because I was financially privileged enough to do so. I had financial support from my husband, and some savings built up. I think, if I hadn’t had a financial cushion, it would have been much more difficult. Maybe I wouldn’t have tried freelancing at all. I would have been very reluctant.

I didn’t set out to become a freelancer, I just really wanted to translate, I think. If I had found another appealing in-house job as a translator, I would have gone for that.

Hurdle for female freelancers in Japan: spouse deduction

Y: As a freelancer, how do you manage your social insurance i.e. 社会保険? Is your social insurance covered by your husband’s employer?

J: No. I pay my social insurance in my own name. In this case, my category is Kokumin hoken (health insurance)/nenkin (pension) (国民保険/年金).

Y: Wow, Kokumin hoken/nenkin is a lot, compared to the social insurance covered by an employer. In reality, due to Kokumin hoken/nenkin, together with the spouse deduction, many Japanese women are discouraged from working more actively.

J: Yes, I remember getting over the spouse deduction limit was a big hurdle for a while. But I decided to do so because my husband encouraged me. He knew working was important to me, and in the long run we thought it would be beneficial for me to have my own income and nenkin (pension).

Y: What is your goal as a professional working in Japan?

J: Professionally, I always feel like I’m trying to tie loose ends together... My work for TAB involves translation but also editing, writing, and reporting. It’s always a challenge to keep all those things in balance. And there’s also other freelancing projects. So I guess my goal is to get better at balancing several different things at once. I’ve been working on it for a while, but I haven’t really mastered it.

Japanese lessons of intermediate or above level needed for foreigners to be able to enjoy life in Japan while working more flexibly

Y: Any message or advice for those who work or would like to work independently in Japan?

J: Try to learn Japanese as much as you can. And professionally, if you can find a mentor, it will be really beneficial. I’d say if you want to be a freelancer, try to get an in-house experience before starting freelancing. In my experience, it was very beneficial, although some people say you don’t need it.

One more thing, in general life here, if you can, I’d recommend trying to live or at least visit a lot of different places across Japan, because I think there’s a lot of regional variation and variety in terms of lifestyle and culture. Experiencing different parts of Japan gives you a better understanding of the country as a whole. Try to find the place where you feel you can fit in best.

Y: As a working professional, what kind of assistance would be helpful?

J: More mentorship programs would be really wonderful. And courses for learning Japanese at more intermediate or advanced levels. More Japanese lessons that help people make transitions from basic living to really engaging and using professional Japanese would help people a lot, I think, especially if they were offered through the government and not private lessons.

Hierarchy among foreigners in Japan –– is the issue governmental, societal, or both?

I think, the longer I’m here, and the more I meet people from lots of different countries with different backgrounds... I find there’s a hierarchy in Japan about who gets hired and who gets longer-term visas, and who gets sort of accepted into Japanese society.

I’m not sure how to really fix this... I don’t know if it's a governmental issue or societal issue, or a combination of things. It would be beneficial if people in Japan would broaden their ideas about who a foreigner in Japan is, and who an English speaker is. For example, even within teaching English, there are plenty of people from India or the Philippines who speak English very fluently but can’t get jobs as English teachers here because that isn’t seen as ‘proper’. English teaching is one of the best-known ways to come to Japan, but even just getting here is very difficult if people’s perception of who should be allowed into Japan is dictated by outdated perceptions.

With the Covid situation, you see where the priorities are. Even if you’ve lived here for a long time, even if you have a family, a business here, or a whole life here, if you aren’t Japanese by blood or citizenship, you aren’t valued as much by the government or society at large. Even within the foreign population, there are still hierarchies. People from some countries are favoured over people from other countries. The Covid situation has really reminded me of this. I always knew about it in the back of my mind, but now it’s clear.

Y: Foreigners now can’t go home due to the ongoing Japanese Covid countermeasure.

J: Yeah, it’s really an issue here. I’ve been too afraid to even try to go home and visit. So many people outside Japan –– they have family here, they want to study here, or they had a job –suddenly they can’t come and some have spent years now waiting, being shut out.

Y: Visa status?

J: I’m a permanent resident. I came on a humanities visa, and when I got married I switched to a spousal visa. Two years ago, I got permanent residency.

Y: But you still have a different feeling, like you said.

J: Right. Even though I’m technically a permanent resident, I don’t feel like my place is always 100% secure. I’ve seen several examples here... people are married to a Japanese spouse but aren’t Japanese themselves. Either they’ve been here and struggled to adjust, or those outside Japan couldn’t get back in for a while... really difficult situations.

(Interview took place on December 2021)

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