When Mark Rubiner drove tens of thousands of kilometers from Arizona to Mexico and through South America when he was only 21 years old, his high school Spanish skills became a key tool for survival.
Although the trip took place over 40 years ago, the lessons he learned there — on life and communication — continuously traverse his everyday life as a language teacher in Sapporo. From his first evening in Japan over 15 years ago to his interactions with his students today, Rubiner sees communication as “the key to personal or professional success.”
His road to becoming a language teacher took some unusual detours after many false starts. He grew up in Arizona, and his brother Joel, two years his senior, moved to Spain when Rubiner was in high school. His world expanded when his brother invited him on the South American trip, and he experienced firsthand the complexities of communication.
“It was a quite a deep experience for me. I saw poverty for the first time, people living in cardboard on the streets of Guayaquil in Ecuador. I saw incredible wilderness in the Andes mountains, and that opened me up to nature as I had never really experienced. The rigors of travel were quite profound, the differences between civilizations. And it became obvious to me how important it was to have communication skills.”
Rubiner’s trip lasted six months, but as he explains, “it was like being gone six years.” Coming back to Arizona in 1971 and the added confusion of the Vietnam War, he no longer knew which direction to follow.
“I was rudderless. The world was so incredibly open and varied, ” he said. Rubiner postponed university and opened himself to travel. For the next few years, his journeys took him across the United States, into Europe and finally to Morocco, where he helped his brother communicate to the Western world a new ethnic sound by recording what is now known as a cult classic album “The Master Musicians of Jajouka” in 1974.
Rubiner and his brother returned to Arizona in 1975 to open a Moroccan restaurant, hoping to introduce Tucson to the wonders they had discovered in their travels. As Rubiner soon realized, they were not so easy to translate: “I cooked 125 dinners on Friday and Saturday nights, but after two years, I knew the restaurant life was not for me. It was a great business education. We made every mistake you could make, and it was a miracle we did not go bankrupt because neither of us had any idea how to run a business.”
One of their partners in that venture, who was a law professor, became a mentor to Rubiner and encouraged him to move on to law school. After graduation from Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, he returned to Tucson in 1980 to start his own practice.
Rubiner had difficulty, however, accepting the sometimes dysfunctional communication practices of law. “I could too easily observe how people’s lives could be ruined by the legal system,” he said. “Especially in family situations, the legal system exacerbates bitter emotion. In legal thought, there are winners and losers. It is about how much you can get — financially or through custody issues.”
Investigating alternative possibilities, he discovered the practice of mediation. “Mediation is basically facilitating a resolution with both parties in the same room or nearby rooms in a nonadversarial way,” he explained. “As a mediator, you are not an advocate for any one individual but an advocate for the process of peaceful resolution.”
The whole process appealed to Rubiner as a more enlightened form of communication. Although many colleagues advised him not to work in mediation because “there is no certification across the U.S. and I was warned it would weaken my credibility as a lawyer,” he took a training course from John Haynes, the founding president of the American Academy of Family Mediators, and began accepting work as a mediator alongside his law practice.
Rubiner’s shift into this new form of communication was a success. He led over 120 mediations, and eventually moved into institutional mediation.
Although he loved his new work, the long hours and stressful negotiations took their toll. Already convinced open discourse was the key to any type of success, Rubiner looked toward a different language as a way to relax and relieve stress.
Long interested in Eastern thought, Rubiner began studying Japanese as a hobby. Two years into his studies, he met a Japanese businessman from Sapporo looking for an English teacher. “I needed a change. I was burning out as a mediator, so I closed up my law practice in October of 1990 and moved to Japan,” he recalled.
Starting all over again at 42, Rubiner discovered he loved being a language teacher. His first evening in Sapporo, he drank sake at a local yakitori bar, and conversed with the locals in his textbook Japanese: “I realized in an instant that a love affair had begun, a love between me and Sapporo.”
Rubiner worked two years with the original business partner, before moving into other local English schools. He was excited by the act of teaching: “The students were eager and kind, the other teachers like bobbers floating on the surface of Japanese society. It was an attractive, international environment, and an exciting new career opportunity for me.”
Quickly adapting to Sapporo life and becoming adept at the language, Rubiner simultaneously began the process to become certified as a foreign lawyer in Japan, hoping to stay long-term and not yet ready to give up law completely for teaching.
He became embroiled, however, in the intricate application process. “It was the worst bureaucratic challenge you can imagine. Three years of daily effort, 122 pages long in Japanese and English, the application had to be completely revised five or six times. Law colleagues in Tokyo encouraged me to move to the big city, but I loved Sapporo already.”
Rubiner settled more deeply into Sapporo society, marrying a local girl in 1992 and finally obtaining his law license in 1995. At that time, he was only one of three independent foreign lawyers throughout Japan.
But the reality and cost of running a law office in Sapporo soon overwhelmed him, and he was surprised at the weak support and resistance from other area lawyers in the bar. “I had underestimated how difficult and expensive it would be,” Rubiner admitted. With a family now to consider, including his first daughter born in 1994, he decided to take his newfound expertise on language back to the U.S.
Soon after his return to Tucson, Rubiner opened the Bernard Language School in 1997 with his wife, Yoko. Taking his father’s first name and using a logo designed by Yoko, the school started with only the three of them. The school soon exceeded his wildest expectations.
“We started with Japanese and English and we ended up teaching over 15 languages, using over 20 part-time teachers. Chinese, Serbian, Italian, German; the University of Arizona was there, and offered a great resource for language teachers,” he said. “We had contracts with military intelligence, taught engineers and sales staff at Raytheon, a defense contractor in Arizona with many international outreaches. We tutored foreign players with the Chicago White Sox, who brings their farm team to Arizona.”
The language school synthesized for Rubiner the lessons he learned so many years earlier in South America. “Language underpins every other profession. Good communication skills are critical to the success of anything in life.” Rubiner ran the school in Tucson for 12 years, but after the death of his parents and an economic downturn, began thinking of a return to Sapporo.
“We were losing students with military budgets tightening and discretionary spending falling as people were not traveling as much. My wife’s mother was 87, and we thought, ‘We may as well use this opportunity to give our daughters, Alia and Maya, life experience in Japan.’ “
The Rubiners returned to Sapporo in 2009, where Rubiner continues the language school on a small, personal scale. “In Tucson, I was working 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, but now in Sapporo, I have the chance to slow down and enjoy life with my family.”
Rubiner started with several of the same students he taught in Sapporo back in the ’90s, and through word of mouth, has built up a comfortable base of students near his home. He also volunteers on the board of his older daughter’s school, employing his skills as a mediator for the community, and enjoys the chance to learn about Japanese education through his younger daughter’s experiences in a local elementary school.
Rubiner also continues his “love affair” with Sapporo: “The first time I could have a real conversation in Japanese, it was just amazing. I thought, there are 120 million people I can communicate with now, who I could not even talk to before.”
“Connecting with people, communicating well is the key to happiness, to peace, to a good life. If you never develop good communication skills, you can never enjoy life fully,” he said. “Honest, clear communication is so complex. It’s not just language skills. There are so many people who cannot really communicate, even in their native language. Even if you have all the answers, it does not matter if you cannot communicate with the people who need to know.”