Hisako Ueno is what some Japanese would call Jyun-Japa, (Pure Japanese), meaning she has never lived abroad. Yet she acquired the sort of English language skills that would floor a native speaker, and now works for the Tokyo Bureau of The New York Times. When asked how she managed to pull off this feat, she greets the question with a modest smile.
“I didn’t do anything special,” says Ueno. “I just went the usual route of studying, then studying some more. I knew that learning English would be an invaluable asset, so I just kept hitting the books.”
Ueno is from the Kojima region, now part of Kurashiki, in Okayama Prefecture, otherwise known as the home of Japanese denim. Ueno herself worked part-time in a jeans factory when she was in college.
“Many locals were involved with denim, in one way or another ,” said Ueno. “Back in the early 1990s we didn’t know Okayama denim would gain such international recognition.”
Now Kurashiki has many foreign visitors, but growing up, Ueno had never met or talked to a foreign person — until she was in her teens, when a woman from the U.S. came and opened an English conversation school near central Kurashiki.
“Her English wasn’t like what we were learning in school and I realized that my true desire was to gain genuine, practical English skills. So I hung around after lessons were over, chatted with the teacher and helped her adjust to life in Japan. Before long, I was able to communicate with her one-on-one, and that gave me a lot of confidence.”
After that first experience, Ueno never looked back. English has been such a huge part of her life and career, she can’t imagine what she would be like without it.
After leaving Okayama and moving to Tokyo, Ueno worked at a publisher of a bilingual magazine and then at a translation company, before landing a job at the Los Angeles Times’ Tokyo Bureau, where she stayed for 10 years until it closed down.
Says Ueno: “During this time, I became really enamored with journalism. I’ve always been curious and interested in what goes on in the world.”
She has been working for The New York Times since 2012, and authored a book last year about learning to speak and write like a native speaker while staying right here in Japan.
“I love the job, despite the hardships,” says Ueno. “And I love the English language for having opened all sorts of doors for me. I really recommend studying it because English empowers you in a way you didn’t think was possible.”
Apart from snaring a position in The New York Times, what exactly are the benefits of learning English at the level Ueno does every day? She says that one of the biggest perks is gaining self-confidence.
“Being able to translate your thoughts into English will have a very positive impact on your mentality. You learn to stand taller, and become a better, stronger human being.”
She added that while this may take some hard work, “you’ll ultimately learn to have fun with it, and to really enjoy the studying process.”
That’s a new slant on English education in Japan, where most of us are taught that furrowed-brow diligence is the only way to go.
“Most of us can get to the point where we carry on a conversation with a native speaker,” says Ueno. “But we have to go beyond that. In order to be truly equal in the international field, we have to be able to hold a discussion, speak our minds and manage crises – all in English. The Japanese tend to avoid confrontation and the language isn’t conducive to constructive arguing. But when you learn to speak English, confrontation happens all the time. Don’t be afraid to speak up and get your opinions out there. You have nothing lose in saying your mind, but if you don’t speak up, you’re invisible . To the Western mind, reticence is not a virtue . So just go for it, and have fun!”
Words to live by