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Focusing on people, not just words

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

English interpreters in Japan may often be regarded as those who convert English into Japanese or vice versa. However, Mutsumi Katayama, who has worked for more than 20 years as a freelance professional interpreter, focuses more attention on interpersonal communication.

“I ask people questions to understand them,” Katayama said. “I want to work for them knowing their backgrounds, what led them to Japan, and what they want to bring back home.”

Such a working style has been established through each single job she encountered, including many tours and international conferences.

Her first job wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to work in publishing, but instead she found herself doing exportation work for an automotive company in Tokyo. During her three years at the company, she always looked in the classified ads of the newspaper and one day was drawn to a listing. The ad wanted an assistant for renowned journalist Minoru Omori, who established a private institute and was going to write books on the history of the United States. With little forethought, she replied to the ad and got the job, which paved her way to the U.S. in 1980.

“After being hired, I realized that my working place was in California,” Katayama said with a laugh.

Under Omori’s guidance, her mission was to check his manuscripts and type them up as well as perform research in libraries. Unfortunately, it came to an end after only one year due to her boss’ illness, and she spent another year attending a community college.

“It was good for me to brush up my English language ability, but I had no goal to achieve at that time,” she said. “While always being supported by people around, I could do nothing in the U.S. I really wanted to be of some use to society.”

Her two-year stay in the U.S. was capped by a Japanese group tour. Organized by a Japanese study group of Library Planning and Design, it was a tour to see the libraries in California. The members were not only librarians but also architects who were involved in the construction of libraries.

“My father suggested that I join the tour together. He had worked for the Oita Prefectural Government for years and was in charge of the prefectural library at that time,” Katayama said.

Having been in the U.S. for almost two years, Katayama was asked to serve as an interpreter for the group. She understood English, but she could not convert the language into proper Japanese. She did not know technical terms for librarians or architects either.

“I was often lost in translation, but I enjoyed the tour and thought for the first time that I could be of some use to society if I could work better in such a tour serving as a bridge in English,” Katayama said.

Besides giving her a vision of the future, the tour acted as the meeting place with her future husband, who attended as a staff member from a travel agency.

Soon after coming back to Tokyo in 1982, she got married and went through the process of pregnancy and childbirth, which prevented her from being an office worker. She stayed at home to raise her daughter, but she did not just stay at home.

Katayama’s father, who retired from the local government, launched an organization for international exchanges based around the local community in Oita Prefecture in 1983, and invited foreigners who were studying or training in Japan to Oita for winter holidays.

“But he did not speak English at all,” said Katayama, who became much involved in the new activities of her father. “Every winter vacation, I arranged a tour of around 100 to 150 foreigners and led them to my hometown in Oita, where my father organized more than 100 host families. Of course, I took my little daughter, too.”

The idea was to offer foreigners a real experience of Japanese New Year’s celebrations at home in a local environment. A pioneering example of cultural exchange, the homestay in Oita was well received by the participants.

“For me, it was interesting to introduce real local Japanese culture to foreigners and it was also a good experience to lead a tour group of many people,” Katayama said. She continued the homestay activities with her father until 2008.

Meanwhile, when her daughter became 3 years old, Katayama acquired a national license to be a guide-interpreter, “because I thought it would be better to have some license on my resume to start working again,” she said. And the preparation for the national examination gave her a lot of knowledge about Japanese history.

In 1991, she attended an interpretation course for one year and learned the importance of Japanese language skills for interpreters.

“It was good for me to attend a school. I went through all the basic skills, which until then I had done by just watching other people doing them. I developed more confidence,” she said, “and you will get more job offers after completing a course.”

Ever since, she has worked as a freelance interpreter, translator and tour conductor. When her husband was posted to Canada from 1993 to 1998, Katayama followed him with her daughter and continued working, first only for Japanese clients outside Canada, and later for local companies, too, by getting a work visa. After returning to Japan in 1998, she started again as a freelance interpreter and translator, working in a wide range of areas from business meetings, education and medicine to guided tours.

“Yes, there are many events in your private life, such as marriage, child-raising and moving to different places,” Katayama said. “So I did not work as a long-term office worker, but I always did what I could do in my position. I never imagined my life without working.”

As a freelance professional, Katayama emphasized two points: Do accept any job offers from your clients; and your personal network is your treasure.

For example, during a training program for successful applicants of the guide-interpreter license, she met with a key person of one of her current major client companies, which later offered her jobs at various international conferences.

“I expected nothing at that time. We just became friends during the training,” she said. But Katayama’s experiences attending homestay tours for many foreigners from various countries turned out to be quite useful for supporting international conferences.

“Not only simultaneous interpreters in particular areas, but we also need interpreters who support the conference by providing a good environment for every participant,” explained Remi Kasai, executive director of Oscar Japan, which supports various international conferences and events for clients, including the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Japan Hospital Association, Japan External Trade Organization and governmental tourist offices of many European countries.

“Conferences tend to move ahead differently from what is scheduled. Without getting upset, Katayama is able to handle the programs very smoothly,” Kasai said. “Also, with her deep understanding of Japanese culture, she can respond to every request from the participants, such as suggestions for dinner, excursions or souvenir shopping. Thanks to her careful consideration, every participant is able to stay in Japan comfortably from arrival to departure and motivated to attend the programs, which is a key to successful conferences with fruitful outcomes.”

Katayama said, “I am just observing the whole process and playing a coordinating role. Maybe my experiences leading tours with many foreign students and trainees made me prepared for a little trouble.”

Though highly skilled and experienced, interpreters are not always introduced on the stage despite the important roles they play.

“Yes, we are accustomed to remaining in the background. It is better for the business success of our clients. I know that,” Katayama said. “But there are different kinds of jobs in which we find ourselves in a more central role. In my case, my role has gradually developed into a coordinator rather than simple interpreter.”

Today, among various job offers, Katayama mainly focuses on coordinating the library-related outbound group tours and inbound tours for American teachers who were named California Teachers of the Year (CTOY). She has built up personal relationships with both organizers and has received continued job offers every year since the 1990s.

“I started as an interpreter for those tours, but today, I arrange the whole program of the tours,” Katayama explained.

In the last two years, she organized and attended the library group tours to Germany. Regarding CTOY tours, the organizer offers the awarded teachers a tour to Japan every year, including visiting Japanese schools and other cities on request.

“It is a lot of work to prepare for the whole program, including booking hotels and transportation, but I really enjoy attending the tours and introducing the culture and history of Japan to the teachers, who know very little about our country,” she said.

Making use of language skills as well as her past experience, she has developed a creative role to enhance people-to-people communication and deepen mutual understanding, which could never be replaced by speech converters or simple interpreters.

“And, it was only possible for me by accumulating experience as an interpreter to arrive here,” Katayama said.

What is a guide-interpreter?

Guide-interpreters play a key role in introducing Japan to visitors. Not only do they use their excellent language skills, but also their wide-ranging knowledge about Japan from geography and history to industry, economy, politics and culture.

One of the first steps to understanding Japan for visitors is to help foreign tourists go home with good impressions of Japan.

Under the Guide-Interpreter Business Law, individuals who attend to foreigners and give them guide services concerning travel with the use of a foreign language for a consideration have to pass the examination given by the Japan Travel Agency Commissioner and acquire a license issued by a prefectural government.

The number of license holders reached 16,799 as of April 1, 2013.

Foreign languages within the subject of the guide-interpreter examination are English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Thai.

For more information about the examination, call the Japan Tourism Agency at 03-5253-8111 or visit www.mlit.go.jp/kankocho/en .

  • Greg McFall

    Mutsumi Katayama,” Mitzi” is a class act and a person which brings out the best in people. Language barriers do not exist with her at the helm. What a pleasure, that I was able to be introduced to Japan by such a person. Thank you. Greg McFall 2008 California Teacher of the Year.