Improving Japanese Ability by Being the Only Non-Japanese in the Workplace

[From January Issue 2015]

Lewis Winglam PONG
“I started studying Japanese when I came to Japan in September, 2013. I took the N3 (Japanese Language Proficiency) examination in December and passed. I took N2 in July, this year, and passed again. This month I took N1,” says Lewis Winglam PONG, from Hong Kong. In 2013 he began working at the Japanese head office of Sojitz Cooperation. Now he is working as an investment advisor in the structured finance division.
Pong majored in risk management and finance at Hong Kong University. Then, he went to study finance and management at a graduate school in the U.K., staying on to do an internship for two months. Before long, he got anxious about his parents and returned to Hong Kong, where he started job hunting. Then, he bumped into a friend who was employed by Sojitz who told him about working conditions there.
“What impressed me was that the company was hiring people who were not able to speak Japanese at all and giving them six months intensive Japanese instruction,” recalls Pong. Pong did some research into Sojitz. Learning that the company was a general trading company of a type unique to Japan, and that it was doing businesses in various fields around the world, he was intrigued.
“I became curious about Japan, too. Japan is poor in natural resources and suffers from many natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Despite suffering heavy damage in World War II, Japan regenerated itself in only a few decades to become the second biggest economy in the world,” says Pong.
Pong applied for a job at Sojitz and was hired. There, he received intensive Japanese instruction. “During the first three months, I received lessons to prepare for the N3 test in the morning at Waseda University and studied in a group of two to three people with one Japanese language teacher in the afternoon. Over the next three months, I studied with a Japanese language teacher in the morning and did on-the-job training, in other words learning Japanese from my colleagues while we worked.”
“Since I’m surrounded by Japanese people at work and the majority of business is in done in Japanese, it’s quite a challenge. For instance, at meetings, everybody speaks quietly and it’s sometime hard for me to catch what they’re saying. There were occasions when I could finally understand what the meeting was about after reading the minutes afterwards. In Hong Kong and the U.K., people try to show how confident they are by expressing their opinions in a loud voice, but in Japan it is a virtue to speak modestly. Also, when you have an objection, rather than say ‘I object,’ it’s customary in Japan to mention the reasons against it,” says Pong, smiling wryly.
He also had trouble with honorific expressions. “It is much more complicated than in Cantonese. In Japan you have to adjust your level of respect depending on whether you are talking to your manager or to a senior colleague. With people outside your company, you have to use another set of expressions. Honorific expressions used for communicating with them change according to which side is asking for a favour. Now, however, I naturally produce honorifics whenever I feel a sense of respect,” he says.
“I am hooked on snowboarding, which I started doing last year. I’m also enjoying golf,” says Pong, discussing his private life. “I used to think that if I’d gotten a job in Hong Kong, I wouldn’t have had such language difficulties. But now I feel that through studying Japanese I have widened my job opportunities. If I improve my Japanese, I’ll be given greater responsibility at work.”
Sojitz Cooperation
Text: SAZAKI Ryo[2015年1月号掲載記事]


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