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Job taken on a whim leads to 35 years in Tokyo

Broadcaster Peter Barakan gives insights into language learning, living, working in Japan

by Minoru Matsutani

Peter Barakan, 57, wears many hats. He is a radio DJ, a TV program host, an author of books on music and English language education, a long-time Tokyoite fluent in Japanese, husband to a Japanese woman, and the father of a college boy and high school girl. Barakan said he never imagined spending more than half his life in Tokyo.

Having majored in Japanese language “for no particular reason” at the University of London, he came across an ad for a job with a music label in Japan, went for it and landed a job related to music copyright in 1974. “I wasn’t thinking about it at all,” he said speaking in near-native Japanese about the length of time he would eventually spend in Japan. “I didn’t even think of it when I married my wife,” said Barakan, who prefers to give his job title as “broadcaster.”

Barakan ended his career as salary man after six years, and began contributing to magazines and hosting a radio show as a freelancer. He also coordinated overseas marketing for the epoch-making techno music group Yellow Magic Orchestra for six years from 1980.

With his start as host of the late-night weekly TBS program, “CBS Document,” in October 1988, Barakan’s popularity grew, especially among Japanese eager to study English and Americans starved for broadcasts from their home country.

Barakan has had any number of job offers related to introducing foreign things to Japanese and vice versa. “I like all my jobs because I only do what I am interested in,” he said. In his younger years, however, he was less choosy. “One time, someone told me I should take all the job offers because, if someone asks me to do something, that means I am needed. Since that time, I’ve tried to accept anything that doesn’t go against my values,” he said.

Another criteria for accepting work is Barakan refuses to accept any job at which he believes he cannot excel or give his best. For instance, last month a magazine publisher offered an interview with Paris Hilton, but Barakan declined because he has had no interest in her. His daughter was not amused that her father had turned the interview down. “She said angrily, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ “

On the other hand, music is one of his strengths. He has written six books so far, five of them on music, all six in Japanese.

Surprisingly, he is not confident writing in English. “I’m not confident at all because I’m a native English speaker,” he said. “In Japanese, I can write freely. In English, I can’t write sentences I’m satisfied with.”

Barakan wrote the five music books on request but said it was his idea to do the language book “Saru wa Manki, Okane wa Mani (Saru is Monkey, Okane is Money,)” because he wanted to help Japanese improve their English pronunciation.

One key to improving language skill, Barakan feels, is daily exposure, in much the way he learned Japanese. Exposure and hard study. Though he hardly spoke Japanese at the University of London, he did learn 1,500 kanji Japanese characters while there, he said. “It was tough. I had no time to waste.”

After 35 years in Japan, Barakan said he still has difficulty understanding newspapers and TV occasionally, but doesn’t blame it on a lack of ability. “Japanese newspapers are difficult to read because the way it is written is too formal, whereas English papers are written in a more conversational form,” he said.

“Similarly, I cannot follow TV news unless I really concentrate. The NHK news, especially, is too formal. They way they talk suggests only salary men are interested in news.”

He, however, gives NHK credit for airing “Shukan Kodomo News (Weekly Children News)” on Saturday evenings. “I know many foreigners who find the program useful,” he said.

He was hoping his two children would become perfectly bilingual by sending them to international school, but later realized raising children to be bilingual is extremely difficult.

“Making them bilingual means making them 200 percent in terms of language skill,” he said. When one parent is a native-Japanese speaker and the other a native of another language, “140 or 150 percent is good enough,” he feels. “High-school students can never exceed that level,” he believes.

“Like I did, they can start studying seriously from college. I won’t say I’m fully bilingual, but I’m satisfied. Why try hard to make children bilingual if they have the chance to achieve it as a grownup?”

A successful career and his family were not the only things that kept him going in Japan. His secret to fitting into Japanese society well is knowing when and when not to be self-assertive.

While at the music company, Barakan would leave for home soon after finishing his work in order to protect his private time. Other than that though, he tried not to be overly aggressive in pushing his ideas through, he said.

After becoming a freelancer, he realized not many Japanese ask about payment when they were offered a job, and he decided to do the same. “Being British may have helped help because Brits are similar to Japanese in this. For Americans, not asking about compensation is considered utter nonsense.”