Some pointers for communicating better with a Japanese audience

(Email originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Wed, 11 Nov 1998)

(Contents presented as a paper at the Japan Association for Language Teaching(JALT) Annual General Meeting in Omiya, Sunday, November 22, 1998)

On September 19, 1998, I had the honor of attending a presentation by Tony Laszlo on how to become a writer for the Japanese media. Speaking to members of JAT (I'm not sure of the acronym--it's a group of professional translators), Tony made many salient points; one was that people with Japanese language abilities should try to interact with the vernacular media, if not to get some voices of non-Japanese heard, then to at least dispel the myth of the inscrutability of the Japanese language. It is necessary to get people here used to the fact that we can communicate in Japanese, to Japanese, directly, without involving native translators or third parties.

With this post, I would like to build on that goal. You must be sick of me after my 100Kb on Gender Issues, but this essay is not merely soft science and softer substantiation. It is about developing a skill, and a useful one at that, of interpersonal communication through established public address systems. Even though I'd usually leave a week or two between long posts, this time I have a deadline: I will be giving a talk on this at Omiya on Sunday, November 22, 5:30 to 6:15 pm, with Hagoromo Dai's Daniel Walsh. Please attend if you like (and see if I can practice what I teach), but I thought that as I rough this speech out, I might share it with you. Comments, as always, are welcome. Especially from Daniel.


Well, first of all, who am I to be talking about this? Because this is something I do quite frequently.

Live presentation experience in Japanese (as of November 1998):

1) "Comparisons between Japanese and American high schools" (Nichibei Koukou Hikaku), Atsubetsu Hight School, 1995. Japanese-ish text of speech available at http://www.debito.org/koukouPTAspeech.html

2) "Airline Deregulation in the US", as panelist on HBC TV program, "Ten Shiru to Chi Shiru Hokkaidou", March 22 1997. Report at http://www.debito.org/airlinederegulation.html

3) "Love, Marriage, and Emigration: The Real Kokusaika", Joint Presentation to Intercollege Sapporo, July 19, 1997.

4) "How to make the bureaucracy better serve non-Japanese residents" (kanryou no kaizenten, takokumin tokekomi taisaku ni tsuite), speech to the Japanese government, National Personnel Agency (Jinjiin) November 20, 1997. Report and links to Japanese text at http://www.residentspage.html#jinjiinspeech

5) "Advice for Improving Hokkaido's Economy" (watashi no mita ookurashou no gyousei, refoumu no sochi), speech to the Sapporo division of the Ministry of Finance, March 23, 1998. Report and links to Japanese text at http://www.residentspage.html#mofspeech

6) "How to put on International Events" (kokusai no tsudoi no moyooshikata ni tsuite), brief to the Ebetsu International Communication Promotion Committee, July 8, 1998. Report and links to Japanese text at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#sensitivity

7) "The 'Japanese Way of Doing Business' is a Holy Grail" (za japaniizu uei wa ranyou shiyasui gainen de aru), Hokkaido Businessman Speech Contest, September 26, 1998. Winner of Chamber of Commerce Award (got a bear statuette. yay)

8) "Towards a more Culturally-Sensitive Society" (ibunka ni kanjusei no aru shakai e), Workshop at the Ebetsu WorldFest, October 18, 1998. A spin-off of item #6 above, also found at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#sensitivity

As well as weekly 90-minute live satellite broadcasts of my Business English and Debate classes via my university's tsuushin kyouiku bu. Plus eight-times-yearly mensetsu jugyou excursions out to the provinces, where I effectively give a presentation for 8 hours a day, three days total, for the aforementioned classes. Been doing both for two years, so I'm developing a flair.

All of this is not to boast. I will be referring to the above events when discussing the lessons and strategies I learned from them.

Commonsensical things to get in order before you even approach the mike.


Get Serious

You probably are all aware of this, but I'll say it for good measure: Around here "form" counts as much as, if not more than, "content"--especially in the first half hour when first impressions firm. Dress accordingly. Get a haircut and wear a somberly-colored suit (your absolute Sunday Best if you are talking to the government) for most occasions. Possible exceptions are semi-formal lectures in humid or non-airconditioned settings, where I would suggest for comfort's sake you wear short sleeves under a removable sportsjacket.

Rule of thumb: when in doubt, dress up, so you don't get all self-conscious, but don't truss yourself up so much that you get all sweaty and distracted. You will have enough challenges to face without having glam trickling down your back!

Still, under all circumstances (and I'm talking to men--I can't advise women), wear a necktie. Some might think that jeans and a polo shirt would be a relaxing exception to the dullards who regularly pose as guest speakers, but that attitude can be a deligitimizer if you are not careful. For I have gotten the impression that the more brightly-colored, informal, and clowny you appear, the more your audience is going to see you as the prototypical genki gaijin, thinking he is again teaching English to Bunka Center permanent-beginner housewives, and thus they not listen as intently to what you say. If you are practicing to be a Jackson-Pollock-painted-shirt-wearing "talento" with Daniel Carr as your role model, fine, but you may become merely renowned as the espouser of Yamagata-ben. Like Tom Hanks, I'd like to think that people like us can graduate out of stand-up comedy and do some serious work.

Know it as best you can beforehand

When you get an invite, more likely than not your hosts will give you a vague topic, like "What do you think about Japan?" That is just their way of saying "you can talk about whatever you damn well please", but this omakaseru style of homework is pretty uninspiring. Worse yet, it leaves you with no idea as to what kind of audience is going to be there and what it wants to hear. You're going to have an uphill battle to make your audience receptive if you don't tailor your talk.

There are plenty of exceptions of course, but these are some audience tendencies I've garnered:

1) SEINEN. If you are talking to young people, meaning high schoolers or fresh college graduates (same thing, really), you will have a crowd that is hip to your jokes but might not laugh aloud or participate much. They generally defer to their elders, and if in a large crowd they will assume elders are present. More likely than not a dead crowd, but they are the easiest bunch to lecture to.

2) SEIJIN. If you are talking to middle-aged, family types at a PTA meeting or whatnot, they too will be hip but more set in their ways, not easily convinced of your assertions without good reasons. And if it is a group of housewives, they particularly will want to be entertained. That may tend to dilute things if you want to talk about serious business, but that will be pleasantly offset by their higher level of participation. They generally love Q & A sessions, so make sure you have one (more below). Thus they are the easiest bunch to communicate with.

3) ROUJIN. If you are talking to more elderly people, you will have to take more care about your kotoba zukai, as their stock of Japanese is often pristine, full of memorized written-style Japanese without newer concepts or katakana loanwords. Doubt that? Watch any TV program where they dig up some inaka fossils and hen-na-ojisan and essentially humiliate them with questions about recent popularities. With a society that has changed as much as Japan in the past two decades, many of these people still have prewar Kyouiku Chokugo mindsets and either know little about other countries (and not really care--after all, baachan in my family still cannot read Roman numerals!), have more stereotypical or secondhand images about you as a country rather than you as an individual, or be somewhat negatively predisposed or innately xenophobic (but not incurably so--else they probably would not be attending). So if you introduce any concepts that diverge from proverbial knowledge, ground them in lots of explanation, and expect very little of what you say to actually sink in. This is the toughest bunch to communicate with--even for young Japanese!

4) KANRYOU. If you are talking to those in power, the bureaucrats, you will have to learn their lingo--which often the average Japanese will not understand unless they've been reading the newspapers during a scandal. Japan's mandarins live in a very vertically-structured and self-perpetuating system, and the name of the game is often a matter of mastering The Ministerial Jargon and Concepts; to them the apparation of leadership can be using buzzwords correctly at first, creatively at the highest levels--but with little bottom-line change over the years. This insularity is not unique to Japan, but the point is that for you, the Japanese language will differ from ministry to ministry. Unless you as a commentator are hip, you're not going to be able to quip. So bone up on the most recent issues before speaking, particularly in the most recent scandals (so you know either what to avoid or subtly refer to).

Nevertheless, bureaucrats are some of the more intelligent, issue-oriented, debating bunch in Japan. Unfortunately, their inculcated sense of mission of making the Japanese polity serve them will make them the toughest bunch to convince of anything.

Those are the four types I've gotten to know. There is as yet no clear type to avoid--every group I have addressed, bureaucrat or burikko, has been salvagable, and on every occasion I walked out feeling like I left them thinking. The point is that you will in all circumstances have to tailor your talk.

To better anticipate your audience, meet your hosts face-to-face well in advance of the speech date, then patiently tease out what people will want to hear with clear questions.

Are you really into doing this?

Mission accomplished? I would next suggest you make some personal decisions before you agree to speak--for if the topic turns out to be trite or even demeaning, you should exercise your right of refusal. For example, if it turns out the audience wants a cute gaijin to serve up vague platitudes about Japan, consider whether that's the position you want to assume. If your hosts say something like, "Teach us about kokusaika", go ahead and give it a try if you need to cut your teeth, but you'll have your work cut out for you saying something that doesn't leave you a little wan inside; personally, I would suggest you avoid those speeches because you're not going to be doing much more than shucking and jiving. However, if they say, "Well, we'd like some advice on how to assimilate foreigners" or "How should Japan face the Twentieth Century?", brill!, if you're into it. Just don't allow yourself to be surprised at the last minute.

Anyway, make your hosts inspire you, if possible. It will save you a lot of time and worry, and make the whole project far more fulfilling for you.

Don't do anything on a volunteer basis

Honoraria for public speaking in Japan is, like most countries I've spoken, obvious. Although they may be shy of giving you a quotation, nail down a price before you say yes. Be firm on this or else you may wind up disappointed. Many venues (the MOF, for example) have speaking fees determined by your age, but I think the market price for a young Turk is around 20,000 yen per hour you speak. Don't settle for less. Believe me, with all the work and nailbiting that goes into one of these gigs, you'll have earned it.

Minimize the unknown variables and try to nudge the atmosphere your way

The following are all ways to make the experience more enjoyable for you--for a talk that is excruciating for you will definitely be likewise felt by the folks out there. As Neil Young said, "If I'm not having fun, you'll never have fun." Egocentric but in this case true. Some tips that are not particularly Japan-specific:

THE "FEEL" OF THE ROOM. Are people in chairs or behind desks? Is the lighting fluorescent and laboratory, or dim and movie-theater-audiitorium? How far is the farthest corner from you? (since without assigned seating, most people anywhere tend to sit in the back--and you must allow for the possibility of having to write something for all to see, or speaking through a dead mike for all to hear) I would even advise you, if possible, to prowl the room alone before anyone arrives. Not all hosts, and few typically-anal bureaucrats, will understand your need to do this, so make an excuse: insist on a sound check. Few will deny you that.

THE P.A. SYSTEM. A word about microphones, since they are crucial for making yourself understood to those faraway kadogiwazoku. I have spent some engagements (a disastrous one in New Zealand) wrestling with the amp, focussing more on my voice volume than on my delivery. I would suggest you get a pin mike (the type that you clip onto your necktie with batteries in your breast pocket), especially if you have to move around and write on a blackboard or use multimedia. The other alternative, having a mike on a stand on the table, is undesirable, since you will have to crane your neck at it throughout the talk, and thus will be servicing the PA system instead of the other way around. Avoidable at all costs (unless you like to be a superfreak like Rick James) is a corded mike with no stand, because not only do you lose the use of one limb for the duration of your speech, you also be constantly snagging or tripping up on the cord if you like to stand while speaking.

Then switch on the system and test-speak for awhile, walking around (especially if you have the habit--I do--of trolling when you really get going on your points) to see if there are any mike "dead zones". Having your amplified voice drop off in mid-sentence is incredibly annoying, like having a pen whose ink only comes out sporadically.

YOUR WORK STATION. Finally, for your own personal comfort, make sure you have your own table and chair--the former to set your speech materials on, the latter so you can take a load off. Sounds pretty petty but you'll see the advantages when it's your turn to talk.

Now it's time to talk

Let me walk you through a typical presentation process and give you my points as I go along.

It will hardly ever happen in Japan

I learned at my last presentation, at the Ebetsu World Fest, a very interesting conceit in Japan--the veritable NEED for a introducer. I was putting on a "workshop" (where I would be talking for a bit of time and throwing ideas out, then inviting audience participation and brainstorming), the concept of which Japan is yet unfamiliar with. I quite frankly just wanted to be turned loose in a room with locked doors with no assistance. However, the organizers insisted I have a third party to introduce me. I bucked at first, feeling no need for either a "buffer" between me and the audience, or a "filter" screening my points. I explained this sentiment and they replied interestingly:

I wasn't quite convinced, but at least I lost the suspicion of subterfuge. So accept that you will have somebody else introducing. Problem is that you'll need to write up and FAX your hosts a profile, often a proforma document to fill in. Information generally found satisfying: age and nationality, length of stay in Japan, schools graduated from and personal experience pertinent to the topic. A rounding out with some family details--particularly your kids by name--brings out smiles, puts a human face on the speaker, and goes a long way to softening up the crowd.

Let's focus on a fully formal situation (like when you're speaking to the government) to give you the deluxe version of a presentation opening.

From the moment you enter their building to the minute you get out of their chauffered car home (no kidding) you will be escorted everywhere, sometimes including the toilet. You will often be given a prizewinner-ribbon on your lapel to identify you as some big cheese. You will be let into the room only minutes before the speech, and will have had to pull hair to get your precious soundcheck.

Before or when you walk in, somebody at a standing mike will bark "kiritsu" (stand up), and everyone will of course stand, like a British schoolboys do in many public schools when the teacher walks in. "Rei", and everyone bows towards you (bow back, of course), with a hearty "ohayou gozaimasu" on some occastions. "Chakuseki" and everyone meets their seats. Do the same.

The standing mikeman will then read out your profile. Take this time to look around and survey the audience demographics. About a minute later will be your cue.

How to make yourself the sympathetic character in this drama

You saw how stiff and formal things started off above. How to break the ice? Gently.

It is a good idea to look a little slow and talk hesitatingly at the start; great public speakers like Frederick Douglass or Michael Collins did (while mediocre orators like Abraham Lincoln immediately jumped right into the deep end; apparently nobody at Gettysburg, including the official photographer, actually realized that Abe had started his most famous speech until he had finished it and sat down; that's why no picture of Abe at the podium exists). Do not read from your prepared speech yet (more below)--ad-lib something banal for the time being, with lots of pauses and whatnot, because it doesn't really matter. Nobody is really listening yet, so be sunny with lots of eye contact, and give the audience time to settle down and get into a mode (you will have to do the same anyway).

Rule of thumb: give them some slack and they'll soon take it up.

Look, you're not a native speaker. Use that to your advantage.

Despite all the hype and hoopla about your speech, nobody, really, at this stage is expecting you to speak Japanese. The reason why many of them are there is in fact cachet, not wide-eyed interest, and they will probably spend the first fifteen minutes or so overcoming their expectations of a foreigner's lack of language. You have plenty of time to impress them with your abilities and ideas, so give yourself a few crutches at the beginning. Such as:


It doesn't hurt to explain to everybody that you face several challenges by speaking today. Say something like, "My linguistic abilities are not up to par, my written Japanese is full of mistakes, my points might even be incomprehensible. So if there is something I say which you in the audience cannot understand, please raise your hand at any time and let me know. You won't hurt my pride. I promise." A bit of humility usually gets both a chuckle and goes a long way to break down the katakurushii atmosphere, and hence becomes a welcome change from the garden-variety Japanese orator.

Then explain the rules (i.e. If this is a workshop, what a "workshop" is. If this is a speech, the schedule--how long you will plan to speak and how much time you will allow for Q & A.). Eventually direct their attention to a piece of paper they have before them on their desk.


Have your bullet points (in proofread Japanese, naturally) ready on a separate sheet of paper, passed out to the audience before you even come into the room. Two pages, one sheet of A4 front and back in size 12 font, if you can manage it. Have headings and enough explanation so that even if other people were not able to attend, they can read your handout and get the gist. That will serve as an advertisement of your abilities and get you more gigs in future.

A handout will also give your audience a visual record to compliment the aural stimulus, and provide them someplace for them to make notes. Later on, when it's Q & A time, they can point to a point, clue the rest of the audience in, and speak at length without having to half-assedly recall something you uttered an hour ago.


I have been told that reading a speech will make you sound wooden. It will if you don't find ways to compensate. Read a little bit, stop after every bullet point you make, and offer commentary and explanation using your better-oiled spoken Japanese. A hybrid of both hard-copy fact and amusing anecdote can make for a very clear, efficient, and effective presentation.

Anyway, if you give a handout, I say you MUST read from it, otherwise it will become a distraction. Your audience is going to want to read the handout no matter what--often while you're speaking. Don't fight for their attention. Cooperate. Read sections verbatim, stop, and kaisetsu.

Now, I know that reading Japanese aloud may be a pain in the butt for you (it was the weakest of my Japanese skills, and repeated practice and a semester doing newscasting practice at Hokkaido Broadcasting Corporation's Announce Academy has finally gotten me up to a decent clip), but there are ways to compensate for that too. Rehearsals, furigana, a pencil following along so you don't lose your place, whatever. But give yourself a break: nothing short of years of practice will make you proficiently pera pera. So just read it as best you can and break with smooth commentary. It will balance out.

Bring out the Q & A

Reading a two-page document spiced with funny but poignant stories will take up at least 45 minutes--usually half of a regular speaking engagement. You've given people lots to think about, so now it's their turn to speak.

ALWAYS allocate between 30% to 50% of your speech time for questions if your host will permit it (they haven't refused me this yet). It will give you a break, give them an outlet, and let them do half your work for you. Bring out your electronic dictionary (book dictionaries take too much time and interrupt the flow) for their harder words, and watch them spout off. You would be surprised how much people will talk if you let them--and a long Q & A time period only compels people (especially your hosts) to come up with comments. Not once have I needed a "sakura" (a "plant" in the audience to ask the first question and get the ball rolling). If possible (but only rarely permitted), give a short 5-minute intermission so that you can use the restroom (your metabolism will certainly have been high), and they can consider what to say and talk amongst themselves.

It does work, even in formal occasions in Japan

Japanese speeches rarely, in my experience, use much humor--the Beginning Joke as Icebreaker is definitely a more American phenomenon. But well-timed jokes once the speech gets going, and especially during the Q & A session, are often refreshing and provide the audience with the entertainment they were probably looking for. Humor is also the spoonful of sugar which will make your more controversial points go down.

The best kinds of jokes are those involving puns (the specialty of language learners, since they serve as mnemonics), self-deprecation, and absurdity (the speech I gave on "'The Japanese Way' as Holy Grail" above got more laughs than any I've ever given, despite the serious tone I was aiming for; for when I described the impossibly inhumane working conditions I once faced in a Japanese trading company, people did not get depressed at the backwardness of some Japanese companies--they laughed their butts off at how absurd they were).

On the other hand, avoid jokes that involve word play in your native language (it simply does not translate well), ethnicity (Dave Spector's once-frequent snipes at Mormons set his respectibility back years), logic (which actually CAN work but is pretty hit-or-miss), or sarcasm (which does NOT work in Japanese no matter how you try to contort it). You will either drown the belly laugh in a deluge of explanation, or simply come off looking like a fool or worse.

In any case, use humor if you want, either to illustrate a point or send them off once you've reached the "falling action" part of your talk. The laughs are what they will remember as they take the handout home.

Mission statement

Obviously I'm assuming a degree of Japanese abilities before taking on a task as significant as standing up in public and speaking at length on something you find important. Still, it is surprising how many opportunities there are to do this in Japanese society. A latent common interest in or curiosity about foreign cultures, a search for interesting proscriptions for social problems or different points of view towards life, even the cachet of guestism and tokenism, provides fora and fawners. Open-mindedness of the listener is certainly another matter, but people here do sit silently at the venue, and even take the initiative and ask questions. But it is thus up to us ("us" because that is how we are usually seen in this society) to utilize the advantage of being different as a means to comment--perhaps even push for improvements--as we individually see fit.

In fact, for our future in this society we NEED to do this, because it is becoming more and more commonly acknowledged that non-Japanese can speak Japanese and communicate on Japan's terms. However, we need to tweak things to make them more "our" terms from time to time--stressing that it is not because we are different that we are worthy of a microphone, but rather because we are members of the same society. Although there are many topics we can speak about, I feel the most productive topic is speaking in the name of increased cultural awareness, tolerance, and assimilation of both ideas and people (my personal banners, of course) into this society. That would make a self-sustaining, virtuous circle, creating both well-practiced, earnest orators and interested audiences.

One good way to start this ball rolling is to get exposure in the print media. My complementary way is to get involved in the lecture circuits, reinforcing the idea in a live performance that it is in fact my White face making these points. Enough of this from enough people of enough views and shades, making use of some of the advice offered above, and we will get people believing that we both can, and will, speak our minds in ways that they can be receptive towards.

Dave Aldwinckle

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