CT is one of the most inspiring people I know in Tokyo. This down to earth and humble Singaporean moved to Japan in 2015. What I find incredibly motivating is how CT had a dream to work in Japan and he made it happen.
First, I wanted to know a little bit about how his interest in Japan started.
“There are three things that started it: TV dramas, games and manga.”
“My interest in Japan and the language started when I was 10. During those years, instead of the Korean dramas we have now, we had Japanese drama shows on TV. In 1998, I got my first PlayStation, and back in those days Japanese developers generally dominated console games. Finally, manga was a huge influence. When I was young, I read a lot of manga. They were all already translated to Chinese Mandarin though. I remember one interesting episode about Doraemon. Doraemon has always been known as 小叮当 in Chinese Mandarin, but around the early 2000s, even the Chinese translated version of the manga had a paragraph to remind readers that Doraemon should not be called 小叮当, but by the new “official” translated name – 多啦A梦 instead – which is the Japanese pronunciation.
So these three things primed me up for Japan, and all I really had to do was to find the motivation to start learning the language other than “just being interested.” And the opportunity came just before I entered National Service in 2007. After Junior College, there was no more “compulsory learning” in a sense, so other than playing games all day I was looking for new things to do, and I thought – it was finally a good time to start learning Japanese. Fast-forward 9 years… here I am!”
I wonder when he started having the dream of working in Japan. I also wondered if he had a lot of naysayers. When I fell in love with Japan a few years ago, I had so many discouraging people telling me to stop dreaming or rather, not even start dreaming about working there because it was plain impossible.
“I fantasized about moving to Japan from 2003, before I even started learning the language. I thought it would be cool to have an overseas working experience, and Japan sounded like a nice place for that experience! Before learning the language I did think it was impossible – at the time I didn’t really know that there was an option of being transferred to Japan via an MNC. I was also a slightly discouraged, because even while I was learning Japanese in Singapore, I get the feeling that even some of the teachers didn’t take me seriously when I said I wanted to work in Japan. They tend to think of us students more as “hobbyist language learners” – after a few years, we’d quit and that’s it. Many students did quit after a while. But in any case, for those who didn’t, it was certainly not impossible, just not easy.”
To give you a perspective of CT’s determination, he has passed the hardest grade of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are five grades, the easiest beginning from 5 and the hardest being at 1. CT has completed JLPT 1, while in the meantime I am still trying to learn Katakana and a far way from JLPT 5!
Now that he’s living in Japan, what are the best things he loves about Japan?
“From a practical standpoint, Amazon Japan. Haha! 99% of the reason is because of the speed and ease of free delivery.”
“From a spiritual standpoint, the best thing about Japan, is that it’s not as competitive as it is in Singapore.”
“In general, it is still a very competitive society with school entrance examinations and job interview systems but in the inaka (countryside) region, life is a lot more relaxed, and I got to experience that, so it’s quite nice. In the inaka, the Japanese can actually be contented with so much less, which I respect and like a lot. I suppose it’s the same for everywhere else? But since I’m from Singapore I never really felt like it was possible to slow down.”
Does CT have any advice for foreigners who want to learn Japanese? The language structure of Japanese is very different from English, which can be a slight hindrance to learners.
“My advice is to have an end target in mind. Is it to watch anime without subtitles, to read the original version of a Japanese book or to talk to Japanese girls? It helps with the motivation. Obviously, language learning is not something that can end, but I guess it’ll be helpful if one has a target to reach. For example, for many people, the next JLPT level is a target for them.
For me, my target for learning Japanese was always “so that I can get a job in Japan.” And I did, so that was cool. I’m by no means “very fluent/perfect” even now, but because I’ve achieved what I set out to do, learning Japanese for me becomes much more stress-free and enjoyable.”
This is a prime example of CT’s humility. The level of exam he has passed, the JLPT 1, is known for being notoriously difficult. If you meet CT, you will find him genuinely insisting that he speaks very bad Japanese and is still a beginner – which is probably a sign that shows he has really assimilated into Japanese culture of great humility!
I ask CT what are his insights on Japan, given that he can speak the language with his Japanese friends and colleagues.
“When I was working at a part-time job in 2014, the store manager was a guy who was a year older than I was. On like my third day on the job, I overheard his boss (a big-sized woman) screaming at him from inside the manager’s office. I was outside the office with the other co-workers, but no one said anything. Everyone just quietly did their own thing while she screamed lots of vulgarities and personal insults at the store manager.
All I heard coming out from the store manager was “Sumimasen, sumimasen“, (sorry in Japanese) as if he had been set on repeat mode. It was really jialat (pitiful in Hokkien) and I was on the verge of knocking on the door and telling them that the customers outside could hear all the screaming. When my boss came out he looked very shell-shocked and depressed. I felt so bad for him.
A few months later, I managed to have a casual chitchat with him, and I took the opportunity to ask about this particular incident. He told me that he knew this woman from his early days in the company, even before he became a store manager. So his explanation was that since they go way back, the reason for all the scolding and screaming was because she ‘cared for him and really wanted him to succeed’.
“If she didn’t care, she wouldn’t be so strict on me.”
And he was genuinely grateful about the whole experience, which was weird to me. I thought, “Erm, okay, this is very 80s and 90s style Japanese work culture,” and I couldn’t even imagine this happening anywhere else on the planet in this day and age. But it does show me the high pain threshold Japanese salarymen have when it comes to workplace abuse I guess.
Sorry if it’s not a happy insight on Japan. But it’s probably true across Japan as a whole. I’m obviously going to keep the company name anonymous, but it’s been listed as one of the “blacker” companies in Japan. Google ‘black company’ for more info.”
CT likes to tell me a lot of stories about Elon Musk, his current inspiration and motivation. While I of course know who Elon Musk is, I’ve never delved into any of his books. What about him did CT find so fascinating?
“I knew about Elon Musk from a while back, when he started X.com and eventually cashed out from the PayPal sale to eBay. The reason why I know about him back then was because he was still very young at the time, and I guess he was the most famous Silicon Valley entrepreneur – I mean, he still is. I didn’t read much about him after PayPal though – I only knew he was an inspiration for the Iron-Man movie in 2008 and that was about it.
Last year, a book about him was released. I had just started reading biographies of famous people. So I picked up his book in January this year, (after the successful land recovery of the Falcon-9) and found out more about SpaceX and Tesla, and it went on from there. The thing about reading biographies about famous people is that you find out how they’re really just like the rest of us – well, of course they have their genius, but their weaknesses which are not as widely known are also more exposed in the books. Which in turn, makes me feel so much better about myself. That hey, these people were just like me, maybe I can do better as well – that’s where the inspiration comes in.”
With all that reading, I wonder if CT had any New Year resolutions and where he was at with them, since it was July. He provided me a list, much longer than I expected!
- Stop drinking beer – Haven’t had one sip in 2016!
- Exercise – Been swimming 1km 2-3 times a week!
- Write a short story in Japanese and submit it for competition – Zilch
- Saving more – Going well!
- Read more books than I did in 2015 (over 29) – Read 28 books so far!
“Well, as you can see, my list is not exactly very inspiring or very successful. But, for me personally, it’s good that I have them listed out in the first place. As Elon Musk puts it, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself. All that’s possible only if you have that ‘list’ to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing them.”
Being a Singaporean male, CT was once enlisted into National Service. There was a story he once told me which I found both hilarious and terrible.
“To recount that episode- it was the second to last week of a VERY tiring training phase, and rumors were going around that the last week is going to be the toughest. So naturally over the weekend I dreaded going back to camp. It’s normal to dread going back to camp – but that particular weekend I was actually terrified. To take my mind off things I decided to meet some friends for a movie, and as I stepped out of my house a car promptly knocked me down. I would like to emphasize that I did not jump in front of the car on purpose.
I was sent to the hospital and given one week of medical leave. Hey, problem solved. However, according to my batch boys, that last week actually turned out to be the easiest week of training – the hardest thing for them was that they had to help me clean my rifle before returning it. So that kind of sucked. Lesson learnt – stop dreading things so much because things may not be as bad as they seem, and go do whatever you have to do, and not try to avoid it in case the higher powers really decide to give you a hand.
That said, I also have a lot of fond memories of NS. Many guys diss NS as a waste of time, but I think most people don’t really mean what they say.”
“I’m sure many of the guys are as proud as I am, having gone through NS.”
I ask CT what makes him happy.
“Having a good day makes me happy. I realize if I don’t do a good day’s work, I can’t sleep at night. By “good day’s work,” I mean 8-5 work, exercise, and also any personal projects or hobbies I’m pursuing at the side. So for me if the work-life balance is good, I’m more or less happy. In a way if you tally all these days up to make a good week/year/life, it kind of all adds up. So maybe happiness is just all about heading in the right direction.”
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