For TV anchor, learning the lingo is key

NHK's Gene Otani says foreigners have much easier road if they can speak the local language

by Minoru Matsutani

Gene Otani, a Japanese national who attended an international school in Kobe throughout his youth, had to take Japanese lessons as a salaried worker when he realized he needed more skill in reading and writing.

Convinced that “communication is everything,” Otani, now a main anchorman for the “NEWSLINE” program on the NHK World English-language channel for overseas viewers, gives foreign residents in Japan the same advice he gave himself — take Japanese lessons.

“If you want to live in Japan happily and successfully for a long time, please take Japanese-language lessons,” Otani, 45, born to a Japanese mother and part-British and part-Japanese father, said in an interview.

“I have seen many foreigners who have lived in Japan about 10 years and cannot speak Japanese well. Japanese people are very kind and make them feel it’s OK, but I would say Japanese spoil them too much,” says the self-acknowledged surfing addict.

“In the U.S., foreigners would be told, ‘Why can’t you improve your English? Why can’t you get along with others?’ “

Otani grew up speaking Japanese with his mother. but English was the main language when he talked with his father. At the Canadian Academy in Kobe, which he attended from kindergarten through high school, he experienced a unique culture — a mixture of Japanese words in the Kansai dialect mixed with English sentences.

He says the only thing he regrets about high school — and most of his former classmates share his thoughts on this — is that the school back then offered a third-rate Japanese-language program.

But all in all, he says, he can’t completely blame the teachers or the school. Otani says he wasn’t really into studying during his youth. He was more interested in baseball, basketball and skateboarding.

“The first time I enjoyed studying was when I went to Lewis & Clark College,” a school in Oregon where he majored in international politics and Russian, he says.

Some of the professors didn’t use textbooks. And a former CIA agent was teaching international politics, which made classes extremely unique and interesting, he says.

After graduating from Lewis & Clark, he came back to Japan to work for Recruit Co., a magazine publisher known for nurturing future entrepreneurs, in 1986.

Recruit paid him for the round-trip air fare between Oregon and Los Angeles and a hotel there for a job interview, he says. He was among nine Japanese and an American being interviewed. Only Otani and the American were eventually hired.

“At Recruit, I realized how bad my reading and writing was. I got frustrated and began studying Japanese at International Christian University” in Mitaka, western Tokyo, he said. He also began learning Japanese in the Kumon method, in which students repetitively practice languages and math until they are memorized. He said the Kumon method worked better than going to ICU.

After working as an advertising salesman for an international travel magazine at Recruit for just a year, he moved to California to start a real estate business in 1988 — when Japan’s economy was at the peak of the asset-inflated bubble boom.

That didn’t last long. In 1990, he closed down the business and went to a broadcasting school in Portland, Oregon, because he wanted to get involved in work that involved more creativity. He was tired of dealing with interest payments, construction framing, sheet rock painting and all the other tasks involved in real estate development, he says.

He sent demo tapes to radio stations in Japan, and FM Osaka hired him later. Since then he mostly forged a career path as a radio or TV personality, including seven years as a news anchor and reporter for the financial news broadcaster Bloomberg TV.

On Jan. 17, 1995, he was working for Kiss FM in Kobe. Due to an abrupt change in management, he was told his three-month contract wouldn’t be renewed and would expire in a few days.

Early that morning, Kobe was devastated by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. He spent two hours getting to the radio station, walking through collapsed buildings and pulling people out of the debris in a commute that normally takes only 15 minutes.

He then worked 50 hours straight airing news in English and Japanese, broadcasting information about where people could get food and shelter.

“It still brings tears to my eyes. I was supposed to be laid off at the end of the three-month contract but was given an award by the company instead (for the effort). That gave me a taste of how important a journalist’s job can be.”

Otani says he often hears complaints from some foreigners that police tend to target them in questioning over bicycle thefts, possessing a knife or other illegal acts.

He says the situation is unfortunate and doesn’t know if there is an easy solution “because xenophobia to a certain extent exists in almost every country, though Japan may have it more than other countries.”

He suggests following the “when in Rome” concept. He travels to Bali, Indonesia, and says people there treat him entirely differently when he speaks a few Indonesian words — an approach that he believes is more friendly toward the local people and conveys a feeling of gratitude on his part.

Foreigners may also be better off if they know how not to look and act like a magnet for police questionings, Otani says. For example, most of his male foreign friends never ride a “mama chari,” or a bicycle for mothers typically equipped with a grocery basket and a baby chair, because police think men don’t usually ride one, he says, adding his friends also usually wear bicycle helmets.

Otani remembers being called a “Jap” when he was studying in the United States. It took him by surprise because of the international surroundings he had been brought up in Kobe. He says wherever you go there are bigots and suggests spending no time with people who use such words.

He also says some non-Japanese here don’t like to be called foreigners or “gaijin.” He can relate to such feelings and believes any words that can offend should not be used. And what specific words are offensive “should be defined by the person who feels offended, not by the person using the word.”

Otani also has a piece of advice for “kikoku-shijo,” or Japanese students returning from overseas — a sense of humor bridges the gap with their Japanese classmates.

“For instance, if people say you are different because you speak English, you should say, ‘Sure and I can do a few other tricks, too!’ My point is you have to play catch (like with a baseball) in conversation, or the conversation stops,” he said. “This is a technique kids learn at international schools.”