Like many Japanese of his generation, Masashi Hirao’s first encounter with the English language happened in the first year of junior high school, but sadly, Hirao and English didn’t exactly hit it off.
“I didn’t like studying grammar and the vocabulary didn’t interest me,” said the 37-year-old, who is now a bonsai master and performer active in Japan and abroad. “I wound up scoring 13 (out of 100) on my first English test.”
Back then, English was at the bottom rung on his ladder of things to do, and Hirao never thought that one day he would regret not studying it more.
A native of Tokushima Prefecture, Hirao gained entry to Kyoto Sangyo University through his strength, long-distance running. One day, on a whim, he visited Tofukuji Temple, renowned for its beautiful gardens. The Hojo Garden, in particular, stuck in his mind.
“Now THAT encounter struck me like lightning,” recalls Hirao. “It was love at first sight.”
So upon graduation, he apprenticed at a traditional gardening company in Saitama Prefecture.
“My master told me I should aim to spread the word about the beauty and mystery of bonsai not just to Japanese but to people overseas, and I decided to do exactly that.”
Hirao had a flair for communication. In 2009, after his apprenticeship was up, and after a crash study of English phrases from a friend, he booked a flight to Spain with a vague plan to live and work there.
“I stayed for three months, and the following year I went to Argentina. Whenever I had time, I took off and traveled. I once went through 11 countries in a space of four and a half months,” he said.
The youngest of three siblings, Hirao says he’s never been shy and can get through most situations on “personality and an innate confidence, but that’s not the same thing as being a real English speaker.”
He is aware that his English level is far from perfect.
“I think of my English as a public pay phone — at a pinch, I can do a lot of things with it. But it’s not as sophisticated or almighty as a smartphone.”
And though it has enabled him to work overseas, Hirao stresses that “English is a tool, not a weapon.”
Hirao sums up his philosophy like this: “Bonsai is a living creature, unique to Japan. To understand it and to show the world what it’s all about, I need to get out of my head and out of my comfort zone. The quickest way to do that is to communicate in English.”
On that first trip to Spain when Hirao had big plans to turn his bonsai art into an international venture, he ran into an incident he couldn’t forget.
“This was in 2009, and there were no direct flights so I had to take a transit flight out of Amsterdam.”
Hirao had a few hours there, so he decided to step out of the airport and explore the area. Before he knew it, immigration officials had escorted him back to the terminal gates.
“I didn’t understand what customs and immigration was about. They thought I was trying to escape from the airport. I was lucky not to be arrested, but I had to fly right back to Japan.”
Two weeks after his deportation experience, Hirao finally found himself in Spain. He now looks back on that incident and laughs.
In spite of his confidence with communication skills, Hirao knows his weak point. “I wish I could write in fluent, solid English. Before, I was even shaky about spelling the word ‘dream.’ Unless you know how to spell and string sentences, it can get pretty tough to conduct business on an international level.”
His wife “is a person who really hit the books and studied English,” according to Hirano. “She can assert herself, talk to people, have discussions and arguments — all in English. She keeps telling me to study more, but to be honest, if I had the time, I’d work on a bonsai.”
Hirao’s advice to English learners? “Find your passion, and then the will to talk about it to a non-Japanese person. They won’t get you until you start communicating.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words I tell myself
平尾 成志 (ひらお まさし)
1981年、徳島県三好市出身。京都産業大学在学中に訪れた東福寺の方丈庭園に感銘を受け、さいたま市盆栽町にある加藤蔓青園の加藤三郎氏に弟子入り。欧州や南米など世界各国で盆栽のデモンストレーション・ワークショップ、さらにパフォーマンスを実施。平成25年度 文化庁文化交流使として4ヵ月で11ヵ国を回り、盆栽を通じて文化交流を行なった。６月に『異端の盆栽師 平尾成志の世界』（河出書房新社）を出版。