Japanese skills on a shoestring


Studying the Japanese language since the age of eight while hearing my grandmother’s stories of working in Japan during the ‘60s and ‘70s had well and truly given me a taste for all things involving the Land of the Rising Sun. Teamed with my tertiary-level studies in politics and international relations, I became increasingly keen to unearth ways in which I could combine these two areas of my education in the hope of boosting my employability.  There was, however, one major caveat: like many university students, I was low on funds.  As such, any opportunity to improve my Japanese language skills had to be good value, and ensured I spent as little money as possible in order to gain maximum benefit.


An exchange at the Tokyo University of Foreign Affairs

The Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Short Stay Winter Program definitely met these prerequisites.  In January 2013, I, along with around fifteen students from Australia and New Zealand, flew to Tokyo to embark on a month-long program, partially subsidised by our respective home institutions (in my case the University of Melbourne) and the Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO). It was there that we were divided into classes based on a language test, and with the support of our teachers, set about completing a research project and oral presentation on the topic of our choice.  Naturally, I managed to stay true to form by centering my research on public attitudes towards the Abe government, while one of my fellow international relations students tackled the question of whether or not Japan was fundamentally a Western or an Asian country. It’s nothing short of an understatement to say that the experience encouraged me to pursue two of my major areas of study together; I returned to Australia a month later invigorated by the idea that I was now capable of holding a discussion about politics in Japanese, however many grammatical mistakes there were!


An internship at the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Fast-forward a year and a half, and the question of how best to merge my interests in Japan and international affairs as affordable and as thoroughly as possible was back on the radar. Recalling the fact that an old friend had completed an internship with the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Melbourne, I quickly made use of this connection to introduce myself via telephone and arrange an interview with the secretary.  Turns out not even initial attempts to sell myself using broken Japanese diminished the benefits I gained from this experience. With the 2015 Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival at the pointy end of planning, it was up to me to design a social media strategy across Facebook, Twitter and the official website as well as to initiate contact with potential sponsors.  For a professional opportunity, which didn’t require me to fork out $1,500 on an airfare (although in reality a similar amount was probably spent on coffee), I’m grateful to have learned about how to reconcile key differences in Australian and Japanese professional communication styles in a dynamic and welcoming setting.

Looking back on these two distinct experiences, I’m reminded of just how difficult it was to have found opportunities that satisfied the criteria that I had initially set out for myself.  My advice for those in search of similar experiences can, therefore, be framed around three principles: communication, innovation and reflection.


Communication, innovation and reflection

As for communication, while there’s no denying the vast number of Japanese conversation meet-ups out there, use these as an opportunity to build your professional networks. Ask people what they’re studying and how they developed an interest in the Japanese language and culture; chances are you’ll also depart with a few ideas on how to capitalise on Japanese to suit your professional goals.

This brings us to the question of innovation. Websites such as the Japan Times often provide useful commentary on issues relating to Japan and the wider region from the lens of an expatriate, which can allow you to further synthesise your vision of where to look for professional opportunities.  From here, it’s possible to look for an opportunity of which the Japanese language is the central focus but allows you to contribute based on your additional field of expertise, or vice versa.  Consulates, Chambers of Commerce and any of the various organisations which promote Australian-Japanese engagement are an excellent starting point. Regardless of whether or not the aims of these organisations directly align with your career goals, just remember that “transferrable skills” is an overworked buzzword for a reason. Then when you’ve been able to score an opportunity, it’s important to frequently take the time to assess your own progress and evaluate whether or not the opportunity is working for you, hence the idea of reflection.

I can’t stress how grateful I am to have expanded my practical knowledge of Japanese culture and international affairs in this way, especially since I once thought that locating inexpensive professional opportunities relating to Japan was a borderline impossible task.  However, I’ve since learned that by keeping informed and with a liberal dose of creativity and flexibility, the impossible can be achieved. Gambatte!


For those seeking more information

Melbourne Global Mobility Scholarship:

For fellow university students who are also looking to improve their Japanese skills on a budget, this scholarship may help you get there. Whilst it is only open to students at the University of Melbourne who are completing a short-term study abroad program, other universities do offer similar scholarships.  Regardless of the institution you attend, it is always worth paying a visit to the exchange office within a few days of selecting a program, as chances are there’ll almost certainly be a form of financial assistance that caters to short-term arrangements.

Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO):

Described as an independent administrative body created under Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, JASSO aims to strengthen engagement between Japan and other cultures by providing financial incentives and educational opportunities for local and international students. Applying for financial support through this organisation is usually completed with assistance from your chosen Japanese university, so it’s best to contact the student coordinator or other relevant staff members once you’ve chosen a study abroad program to pursue.

Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry:

Established in Melbourne in 1963, the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (informally known as the Japanese Chamber) has a key role in shaping relations between Japanese and Australian businesses by promoting trade and investment opportunities.  It is also the main body responsible for organising the Melbourne Japanese Summer Festival, which is currently in its sixth year and remains one of the largest and most popular cultural events in greater Victoria.


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Bethany Schoer

Bethany has completed a Bachelor of Arts/ Diploma of Languages in French, Japanese and International Relations at the University of Melbourne. She has been something of a professional shape-shifter, taking on an internship with the Honorary Consulate of France in Melbourne in 2011 and teaching English in Budapest last year, to name just two examples. Despite its noticeable lack of soft cheese, Bethany pretty much thinks Japan is one of the most interesting and exciting places in the world.

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