When Jason Hancock took the grand prize at the NHK-televised 42nd International Speech Contest last June, he surprised everyone — not least of all himself. After a series of impeccable orations by the other finalists (on such topics as the Japanese political system and Japanese linguistics), Hancock first introduced himself, by his adopted Japanese name, Tsutomu Miyakoshi, then spent the next seven minutes regaling the audience with humorous anecdotes about the wonderful people he’d met here — in less-than-perfect Japanese.
After the awards ceremony, Toru Ito, former principal of Niitsuru Junior High School in Fukushima Prefecture, where Hancock works as an assistant language teacher, made an honest admission: “Jason’s Japanese ability did not compare to that of many of the other 12 finalists.”
It seems, however, that something else took precedence over fluency. As one of the judges of the speech competition put it, Hancock won because his words “spoke directly to the heart.”
Speaking heart to heart has become a mission for Hancock since he arrived in Japan, and beneath his friendly humor lies a sober message. “There are many stereotypes that Japanese and foreign people have about each other,” he says. “For me, humor is a way to break the ice, so that a more personal friendship can develop.”
Breaking cultural stereotypes was not, however, Hancock’s intention. He entered the annual nationwide competition to set an example for his students.
“I found it hypocritical to try to motivate them to speak English, without making any effort to study their language,” he explains.
It was by a stroke of good fortune that Hancock was even able to compete in last year’s competition. Noticing the contest advertisement in an English-language magazine for foreigners, he decided to apply. The application forms arrived just four days before the submission deadline. That night he jotted down a first draft of his speech and took it to school the following day to show it to the Japanese teachers.
“They were rolling on the floor,” Hancock says. “They thought it was great! The math, English and Japanese teachers, and even the principal, joined in to offer their suggestions. By the end of sixth period, the final draft was finished.”
The next evening, he worked late making a demo tape of his speech at a Japanese friend’s house. With only one day to go, however, Hancock was worried that his tape would not reach Tokyo in time.
“Luckily, one of the junior high classes was taking a field trip to Tokyo the next morning,” Hancock explains. “A teacher offered to hand-deliver the demo tape.”
Two weeks later, Hancock received word that he had made it to the finals. “I was really nervous hearing the news,” says Hancock. “I had only a month to practice before the finals, and I knew that I’d be competing against contestants from Korea, China, Australia and Canada whose Japanese was much better than mine.”
There was something that worried Hancock even more. “I did not want to do something embarrassing on national television,” he says. “My students would never have let me live that down.”
The night before the national finals, held in Joetsu City, Niigata Prefecture, Hancock went to sleep in his hotel room with his school’s flag draped over his bed, patched with pictures and encouraging messages from teachers and students. He slept in the school’s jersey.
“It filled me with the school’s spirit,” he says.
After introducing himself to an audience of several hundred people from around Japan, including nearly a dozen Hancock supporters from the Niitsuru City Office and the local education board, he went on to tell the story of his “Japanese father,” an elderly man in Hakodate City, in Hokkaido, whom Hancock met during his first stay in Japan, from 1995 to 1997, as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary.
“Though Mizukoshi-san knew no English and I understood very little Japanese, in the months that followed he showed me his world,” Hancock explains. “He took me to the local fish market and my first festival. At his home I wore a yukata for the first time and we prayed at his family altar. He told me that I was the son that he never had and always wanted. He gave me my Japanese name, Tsutomu, which means ‘working hard.’ Being with Mizukoshi-san, I found a Japanese papa and suddenly Japan began to feel like home.”
The audience was deeply moved by Hancock’s speech. When the awards ceremony began, a special audience award was the first to be announced. “When I was chosen for the award,” Hancock recollects. “I was so happy that I didn’t hear any of the other names being called out.” Finally, when the MC announced the grand prize, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs award, he had to call out the name twice before Hancock realized he’d won.
“I never imagined that my name would be called again,” Hancock explains. “After they repeated it, I was confused. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Hancock received not only a large trophy and a certificate signed by former foreign minister Makiko Tanaka, but also a domestic round-trip airline ticket on Japan Airlines. He used it to visit Mizukoshi-san in Hokkaido.
How has life changed for Hancock since the competition?
“I have had incredible opportunities to share with the Japanese people a part of myself that I would not have been able to otherwise,” he says.
Hancock, who is completing his second year on the JET program, has also begun writing a series of essays on life in Japan that he e-mails to his friends around the country.
“My dream,” he says, “is to someday compile these essays into a book.”