Interview with Alex Bradshaw
Alex Bradshaw has been in Japan since 2005, when he was accepted into the JET program after a near miss with his application. “My application actually got lost in the post. I called the embassy and asked if they had gotten it because you’re supposed to get a postcard [that says they’ve received your application] and they said it hadn’t arrived. Luckily I had copies of most of the documentation, so I sent it again by first class mail the day before the the deadline to apply. I didn’t think I’d get in, but then I got a reply saying ‘you’re posted to Kagoshima’.
“So I thought great! Where’s Kagoshima?”
Before this, Alex had actually had a decent amount of Japan related things happening in his life. He grew up in Sheffield, England, where the local university, Sheffield University, has one of the country’s best Japanese departments. “My mum was friends with a lecturer who worked at the university. His wife was Japanese and she would bring students across from Japan every year in the summer. They used to come to our house and do afternoon tea in the garden.
“I was about 9 or 10 years old. We’d get 30 odd Japanese students coming to our house and I remember getting presents from them and not really knowing what they were, where these people came from, or what language they were speaking.”
This alone wasn’t what made Alex interested in Japan, he even says he forgot about that whole experience until he was studying at Leeds University. “A friend of mine who was studying Japanese language came back from one year stay in Osaka and I was really jealous.”
Alex had been studying social and economic history, but his friend’s return from Japan sparked his interest and once he started working he found a local 居合道 (iaidō – a Japanese martial art with emphasis on the smooth removal of a sword from its scabbard, striking, and replacing the sword) club where he started practising the art, as well as a little bit of 剣道 (kendō).
He decided to apply for JET while he was working as a systems engineer at an internet service provider. He thought “If I get accepted on the program, then I’ll go. If not then I’ll just keep doing my job here”. And that’s how he ended up in Kagoshima.
Alex stayed for the full five-year term that JET allows for and during that time he started a family in Japan. He says cultural pursuits like calligraphy and 示現流 (jigen-ryū – Kagoshima’s traditional school of swordsmanship) kept him entertained and he also picked up Japanese language while he was there.
“I spoke no Japanese at all when I came here. It’s just a mix of going out with people and chatting and self study, hanging out with people who aren’t interested in English, and getting involved with the community. That kind of forced me to learn Japanese. I would go back to England for a month then come back here again and find I’ve dropped down conversationally, but it soon comes back.”
Despite saying that he learned Japanese “backwards”, Alex has JLPT N2 and uses Japanese for work. When his time at JET ended, he opened his own English school and said people would hang up every time he answered the phone so he knew it was time to get serious about learning business level Japanese.
“I opened my own school and I very quickly learned that business Japanese is very important if you want to deal with Japanese customers. People would hang up when I answered the phone.
“I practised all the time – how to answer the phone, how to handle complaints. The first year and a half was a lot of learning.”
While the business (which at first was just Alex and his wife) was getting off the ground, he also worked as a lecturer for the local university, a translator, and a reporter on a local news show that was sponsored by the prefecture. The show was also all in Japanese. The English school continued for around seven years and at its peak had 130 students, but the English teaching industry wasn’t where Alex wanted to spend the rest of his career.
Coincidentally, it was jigen-ryū which helped Alex get his next job. The Shimadzu family was one of the most powerful groups in feudal Japan and their estate which consists of Sengan-en – a Japanese style stately home and garden, the Shoko Shuseikan museum, Shimadzu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks, restaurants, and a number of other buildings, is a cultural destination for domestic and international tourists alike. Alex got to know the staff through jigen-ryū and a few networking events, and they offered him the opportunity to have one of the buildings to run a business out of. Not wanting to do another English school or a restaurant, Alex ended up joining the company, Shimadzu Limited itself.
As one of only two foreigners in a company with over 350 staff, and the only Westerner, Alex has a mixed bag of responsibilities, but he mainly looks after Public Relations, both domestic and international.
“My job involves creating press releases to both Japanese domestic media and international media and it also involves anything to do with the web because I have IT experience. All the social media, websites, environment design, the signs in the garden, all the English copy”.
He also deals with visitors, organises events, and conducts outreach activities. He has even visited Buckingham Palace on two occasions, as the Shimadzu family sent gifts to the British Royal Family in the 1920s and the friendly relationship is still ongoing.
When asked if there are any advantages to being the only Westerner, Alex said “There are, but it’s a double edged sword really. One would be that I’ve got a fair amount of freedom. This company in particular have been very good about that, they said if I want to do something then just go and do it. I’m left to my own devices to start projects. The downside is it can be difficult to garner support from other Japanese staff who’ve already got their own things going. Getting support within the company takes a long time and the due processes are very long – the company is almost 100 years old and very traditional in its business practices. The family itself is almost 800 years old! There are a lot of Japanese management practices here and it’s huge amounts of documentation. I could have said I’m a foreigner someone else do this, but I do all the paperwork myself. I wanted to prove I could do it.
“There are times when I’ve perhaps overstepped the mark in a meeting. Here, there’s a system to follow. Things like assuming that they’ve asked for your opinion when really you’re just supposed to keep quiet. Sometimes they’ll turn to you and ask you because you’re the only foreigner and you have to give your opinion, but learning that balance is very tricky. The more you integrate into the group the more they expect you to act like a Japanese employee.”
And if there was one thing someone had told him before he had started, he wishes it was “all of the management practices, all the paperwork that we have to do. If someone had laid that out in advance, the system for getting something approved, who it goes to. But they just expected me to know it. I don’t think they had any understanding that I was foreign and I’d only been in Western companies.
“Because I could speak well and I could read and write they automatically assumed I knew everything about Japanese business practices”.
Japan is somewhat famous for being both technically advanced and strangely outdated, but the Shimadzu family is quite forward thinking and has been overhauling their systems and the estate itself, installing new signage all over the gardens and buildings in English as well as undertaking a huge renovation project. In the office, they’re also rapidly taking up more digital systems, much to Alex’s happiness.
It seems like Alex has done some really cool things that are a mixed bag, so we had to ask
what he is most proud of.
“I think this renovation project is one thing, certainly. We’ve put a lot of effort in and it’s come out really well. On a personal level I did a demonstration of jigen-ryū for the Crown Prince of Japan. That was cool”.
That’s not all though, Sengan-en is visited by a lot of celebrities, like Rola, who Alex was in a commercial with. “Through this job I’ve gotten to meet quite a few famous people as well which is quite fun. But I don’t know who all of them are!
“I met an actor who’s quite famous and I was like ‘oh what do you do’ and he said ‘I’m an actor’ and I was imagining like one of those small stage actors, scraping a living together, and I was like ‘wow can you get by on that salary’ and he said ‘yeah I’m doing alright’ then when I went home I saw him on TV and realised who he was. We had a laugh about it when he came back to film a drama here later that year.”
As for learning the language as an adult and self taught, “I do Japanese out of necessity, not
a labour of love”. Calligraphy has helped Alex’s handwriting but he still struggles with 漢字 (
kanji); “I’ve got nice handwriting when I concentrate, but the kanji aren’t in my head so I
couldn’t write a page in a diary without referring to my phone. That’s one of the benefits to calligraphy, you’ve always got 手本 (tehon – a guide book) next to you so you can look at it and just copy!”
What advice does Alex have for current or soon to be students?
“First thing would be have a definite goal about why you want to come to Japan. If it’s
something cultural that’s got you started, that’s great, but to go to Japan simply for that
thing is a little bit narrow, you have to think about where am I going to live, how am I going
to make money, what am I going to do about my visa? Life problems will crop up eventually so if you’ve not got a decent plan you might find yourself disappointed or disillusioned with Japan.
“That will also guide you to what type of Japanese to study. Start from there and you can build a general knowledge of Japan around that skill.
“For me, I suck at literature but business books and history books I can get through quite easily. There’s always someone who’s going to be better than you at Japanese is which is pretty annoying but it gives you something to aim for!”
Alex has been incredibly kind and has offered to help out any schools that would like to take their students to Sengan-en as part of a Japan trip. Kagoshima is the sister city to Perth, so this may be especially helpful to Perth schools.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in contact with Alex.