What a day it’s been! One I shall never forget. A real highlight of my Japanese Studies degree course.

Four years ago, I never would have believed that in February 2008, I’d be one of the finalists on stage in a national Japanese language speech contest. Looking back on the day’s events, I can still scarcely believe it.

I was one of six finalists chosen following the first two rounds which involved submission of a short essay, then a ten minute telephone interview (from hell!).
Everyone was so good! Really exceptional speakers. I think the judges had a really hard job choosing the winners (first and second place) – we were all pretty evenly matched. As it was, I didn’t make it to first or second place, but I must say, I don’t mind at all. There really was such a strong feeling of us all doing so well – amusingly reinforced by the singing of a SMAP song (twice), “Sekai ni hitotsu dake no hana” – the first line of which is “It’s OK if I’m not No.1”.

Prior to departure for London, I gave mum and dad a taste of my speech in our mock lecture theatre.

The camaraderie between the six of us was strong. Initially, we were gathered together in a small classroom at Imperial College and taken through the rules (no props! Stand between the microphones!), given cheques to cover our travel expenses, and told “Good luck”!

Then, it was down to the lecture hall. Not too big, but seating about 100 people nonetheless. First to present were those students who studied Japanese part time. They were amazing, and one guy, from Korea, blew everyone else away. I seriously couldn’t distinguish his Japanese from a native speaker’s (2 years education in Japan as a child may have had something to do with it…!). His speech was very funny, all about his hobby, Magic. He played on the fact that we couldn’t use props, telling us how disappointed he was that he couldn’t show us some amazing tricks that he’s learnt especially for the event!

Us finalists had a funny seating arrangement. We were to sit in the front row, in order of appearance, and every time someone went up to speak we’d move along one place so that the next person to speak was always at the end of the row. Whilst this may have been done for practical reasons, it actually made us feel like we were slowly edging towards a Cliff of Doom off which we were soon to fall.

As the afternoon wore on, so the tension mounted. The first prize was a return ticket to Japan, £1000 and a Japan Rail Pass, amounting to well over £2000 of ‘stuff’. Second prize was a digital camera and £500. There were goody-bags for the four runner’s up. Thinking about all that though only make me even more stressed, best treat it as ‘an experience’.

Finally, the questioning of the speaker before me came to an end. I took one last glance at my parents and uncle at the back, and then my teacher, Miyuki sensei, who had come all the way from Sheffield to support me. She smiled back with thumbs up …and onto the stage I walked.

I remember starting the speech; talking about the NPO law and it’s special place in Japanese political history. Then, I sort of started to drift. I’d gone onto autopilot. I have a vivid memory of actually saying to myself, “Gosh, Joseph, you don’t even have to think about this! You’re giving your speech, and talking to yourself at the same time!” Then another voice said, “Joseph, no! NO! Concentrate!” and I was back there in the lecture hall.

The only shot I have of me actually giving my speech. Suitably blurred, like my memory of it.

There’s one section of my speech that I really like. Having talked about NGOs in Japan in general, I then went go on to tell the Trailwalker story. For this section I do some acting, staggering across the stage as I make my way out of a dense forest to be greeted by the beautiful Mt. Fuji gleaming in the sun’s rays. Then, there I am on the final stretch – I see the support team ahead of me at the finish, tears fill my eyes – I can’t believe I’ve made it to the end!!!

After that, as I went on to talk about the way in which civil society (and in particular NGOs) can play a vital role in the democratization of Japan, I mucked it up a bit, skipping a bit, repeating a bit. I forget what happened really, it was like a dream. Having said it so many times I couldn’t remember if I’d said that bit today already, or perhaps it was yesterday – or last week..?

By the time we’d reached the Q & A section I was just being me, having discarded any speech-persona I’d previously had. The audience liked it, but I doubt it did me much good on the judges score cards!

The poor chap after me really had a tough time. He’d been pretty relaxed, but once up on stage he was completely thrown by something. It later emerged that his note cards were out of sync. Mind you, I was barely listening then, my lower back oozing with stress-induced pain.

Following the end of our speeches we had an hour of entertainment as the judges made their decision. That, I really enjoyed. Myself and the other finalists, so relieved to have got our speeches out of the way, were kind of celebrating together as the college’s student-run Japan Society did a silly japan-themed quiz. We then we sang that SMAP song a couple of times (I wondered how mum, dad and Uncle E were getting on with it at the back as the lyrics were all in Japanese!). Oh, and there was a raffle too, which I took part in by shouting out all the winning numbers in English, trying to sound like Jim Bowen on Bullseye (no “One-hundred-and-Eightyyyy!” though.)

There was also a little musical interlude. A student, with her guitar, playing the most beautiful song. I don’t know what it was, but hearing it, and seeing her fingers move so fast to create so many beautiful sounds made my hair stand on end. I was happy. And relaxed.

We were called up on stage for the announcement of the winner. I thought I might be in with a chance at 2nd place, but no, that went to the Polish chap, Antoni Slodkowski, who handled the Q&A session wonderfully (as well as giving a really interesting speech about living in a tea house in Kyoto). The winner was Michael Downey from Leeds, who had given a superb talk about the manner in which the Japanese show consideration for others, and the disappearance of this phenomenon from modern society. As with Antoni, his Q & A skills were fantastic.

The twelve finalists from the two groups with the event sponsors

When the announcement was made, I didn’t really feel disappointed. Such was the sense of achievement for having got that far (and having been given so much praise by the judges and the president of the Japan Foundation (UK)), that I could do nothing but grin madly as a stunned Michael was presented with his prizes. (The chap next to me, who I actually already knew of as he was a classmate of my classmate Jon at Keio University last year in Japan, didn’t look best pleased though!).

I myself received a certificate recognising my achievement, a traditional Japanese tableware set from the Japan Centre, a book and a couple of CDs from JP Books.

Following the presentations was the reception: lovely sushi and tempura, washed down with wine (or juice in my case). I was grateful to the President of the Sasakawa foundation for his seeking me out to tell me how much he enjoyed my speech, and how much he was impressed by not only by my Japanese language skills, but also by what I had got up to in Japan. (He also told me of a friend of his whom I should contact re. NGO links between Japan and the UK, which could be handy for my dissertation). Nice chap – I may see him around as the Sasakawa Foundation is sponsoring a new position at Sheffield Uni as a part of the White Rose project.

One of the judges sought me out too – Mizutori san, Minister and Director of the Japan Information and Cultural Centre at the Embassy of Japan. She knew of Trailwalker too, as one of her friends’ sons had participated in it. I’d been meaning to talk to her anyway as I’ve dealt with her office quite a bit in the past through Sheffield Japan Society – and of course, as she heads the department that oversees the UK branch of the JET program I thought she might be one of the people interviewing me on the 12th February. No, she’s not on that panel, she tells me.

A couple of people commented on my performance skills too – is public speaking something I intend to pick up in the future? Not if it requires that much preparation and tension! Oh, but that reminded me – I’m making my national (Japanese) TV debut this month I think, starring alongside Tokiwa Takako in the Fuji TV drama, ‘Bizan’. I think they said it was going to be broadcast in February. Must look it up – I need a DVD copy!

Whilst I may not have received a big cash prize for my efforts, the experience I gained was priceless. Making my way back to Uncle’s on the train tonight, I sat in a dazed silence and thought about how much I love Japanese …and what was this? Did I feel a renewed enthusiasm for studying the language?! Yes, I think so… Seeing what people could do with their acquired skills was truly motivational. It made it ‘real’ again, taking it out of the classroom and into a situation where our achievements were truly celebrated.

It also helped put exams in perspective. Exams, compared to that, are like a leisurely walk in the park! 3 hours in which to express yourself – luxury! And my upcoming interview at the embassy too: there’ll only be an audience of three, not hundreds!

At the reception afterwards my mum and dad were able to have a good long chat with Miyuki, my teacher. I’m glad they’ve finally been able to connect with the one person who more than anyone else has encouraged me to keep trying my best at my degree (since leaving Imperial College this evening, both they and my uncle haven’t stopped saying what a lovely person she is!).

Myself and Miyuki

I am deeply grateful to her, not just for being there for me and all my class mates over the past few years, but also, more specifically, for encouraging me to enter the speech competition. It’s been a hell of a lot of hard work (mid-exams too!), but boy has it been an amazing experience.

I’m also grateful to my mum and dad for all their advice, and faith in me. And for providing me with an idea of what being responsible for about 10 children whilst crossing London is like! And Mum’s #2 and 3: without your patience, understanding and support I couldn’t have prepared as I did, thank you so much, and my apologies for the knock-on effects.

And of course, thank you to *Twinkle*.

With there being no such thing as ‘failure’, I think putting myself through experiences like this is one of the best ways in which I can learn and grow. I’d strongly encourage any other students that are eligible to enter to do so – you won’t regret it. Sitting on that conveyor-belt cliff for almost three hours may be one of the most stressful experiences you’ll have to endure during your degree course, but it certainly gives you confirmation that yes, you have actually learnt a thing or two!

Anyway, tomorrow I turn my attention to my final exam, that being Population and Environment in China, on Friday. Following that, I have three days to prepare for my trip to the embassy, and then it’s into the final semester of my five student years. Then finally, I will have achieved the goal I set myself in early 2003 – to return to Japan with a visa that will allow me to live off more than a credit card.


10 Responses

  1. Congratulations on your performance. If you look at where you were 10 years ago with your Japanese knowledge and consider what you just did, it’s pretty remarkable. I bet you never could have seen yourself capable of this.

    Recently, I’ve come to realize that holding your feet to the fire once in awhile in situations like this propels you ahead in ways you need, though it’s really hard when you make the attempt.

    Putting yourself out there in a way where you can concretely succeed or fail gets harder as you get older, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I’ve had an experience like this recently (which I’ll blog about some time soon) and am glad I did but am still a little terrified at the prospect of continuing to put myself out there. I guess if you’re not a little scared, you’re probably not growing.

  2. Congratulations, Joseph, on your hard work
    and your ability to enjoy the success of the experience
    despite not walking away with a top prize.


  3. Shari,

    Thank you! My feet did indeed feel the heat of the fire, I don’t think I’ve ever felt such tension for such a prolonged period.

    I look forward to hearing about your own experience, and totally agree that by putting oneself through such things which see one many light years outside of one’s comfort zone really does create inertia, helping one move beyond boundaries.

    I was thinking, if I was eligible to enter next year (which I wouldn’t be) would I do this again? I decided that no, this was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would never want to be without.

    It really does seem that sometimes, striving to do the ‘impossible’ has benefits way beyond the reach of those things we are comfortable with facing on an everyday basis.

    (having said that, I look forward to a bit of ‘normality’ once my final semester gets underway! All this boundary-breaking is tiring stuff!)

  4. Mark, thank you! …and I really appreciated your messages prior to the event.

    You’ll also be delighted to hear that Edmund’s printer is now working wonderfully! The next task is to get him over to Australia!

  5. Hey, congratulations! I’m glad it was as valuable an experience as you were hoping for, and I’m sure it will become a more and more valuable experience as time goes on. Good luck with the embassy interview coming up, if I don’t speak to you about it before then!

  6. Wow, congratulations mate! I have this piddly intra-university gaijin speech contest thing on Friday with absolutely nothing at stake (well, maybe my grades) and I’m still contemplating turning up drunk, so MASSIVE respect to you for partaking in such a huge challenge (in the middle of exams!) out of self-motivation.


  7. Strange that I’m only looking at this now, a good 9 months after the event, but the speech contest was brought up in conversation with me by a 3rd year and I started reminiscing.

    Just out of interest, how did you get involved in staring in Japanese dramas? And do you have any contacts in Japan for this sort of thing? I’m desperate to get back to Japan after I graduate, although at this stage am really not sure what form that will take. I need ideas!

  8. Good to hear from you Dave. Hope all’s going well with you.

    I got involved in Japanese dramas by registering with an agency in Tokyo – there’s quite a few that are often scouting for foreigners. Some of the work pays pretty well, although there’s always a lot of uncertainty with auditions and so on. Good fun if you can get it though.

    I recommend you contact Group Echo after you return. You’ll need to have a work visa (work / working holiday / spouse / cultural etc)


    Keep in touch.