Jason Khoh from mochiwa mochiya
Jason is the founder of mochiwa mochiya and has a long career in translation and an impressive network. He says he prides himself on meeting and connecting with people and is always introducing people to each other, widening the Japanese community in Sydney and setting collaborations in motion. He was on a Q&A panel at the 2016 Careers in Language Fair and we caught up with him for a quick one-on-one.
What was your first introduction to Japan?
Jason Khoh: When I was a little kid and I was watching cartoons on TV, so Astroboy. I remember I was a big fan of Astroboy. I think that was probably my first introduction to Japanese culture even though I didn’t really know what it was at the time, it definitely left a lasting impression.
When did you take your first Japanese lesson?
That was in high school. I was at North Sydney Boys High School and they offered Japanese. I originally wanted to take Indonesian but I thought there would be more opportunities with Japanese and it was apparently ‘easier’ as well.
What made you decide to stick with it?
I guess it all came down to that one fateful day when my Japanese teacher said there is a Japanese government scholarship available so please come to my office if you’re interested in perhaps studying in Japan. I was the only student who went to her office, Miss Sugimoto, and yeah I applied for it and was chosen as one of the scholarship recipients that following year.
What was the scholarship for?
The Monbusho scholarship, now I think it’s the … MEXT undergraduate scholarship.
So that means that you finished high school and went straight to Japan? How was that?
My first year in Japan I was at one of the smaller campuses of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo Gaikokugo Daigaku (Tokyo GaiDai) and it was just a bunch of 50 or so international students from all around the globe and it was one of the best years of my life, it was just a bunch of us living in a dorm going to study Japanese every day and getting paid to do it as well.
Were your classes in English or Japanese?
Japanese. I guess I had some high school experience which helped but that year was an intensive course to get us prepared to be regular Japanese students. I still maintain friendships with a lot of my fellow classmates.
That’s pretty intense, how were the classes?
It was a lot of kanji tests, and I was not good at kanji tests at the time. It definitely helped, the teachers they were really really good even though I wasn’t the best student.
How did you get better at kanji?
I guess I kind of started to enjoy kanji more when I, because I love art, then I looked at kanji more as an artistic expression and I really enjoyed trying to write kanji as a form of artistic expression, which is my way of overcoming the relatively mundane task of learning kanji. And because I have a Chinese background as well it’s nice because that’s kind of like my heritage as well, so that’s my way of enjoying kanji, I love kanji.
So you came back and what happened afterwards?
Well, I worked for a few years in Japan and then I came back and I did a double masters degree at Macquarie University, International Relations and Translation and Interpreting. I figured by that time I was going to be a bridge between Japan and Australia and the greater world so to be able to get some formal education and qualifications, I thought that would be useful.
What was your first working experience in Japan?
I was working in kateikyoshi, so tutoring. I would tutor English. I did a lot of that on a part time basis and then my first proper job was teaching English at a local private high school, Joso Gakuin. Very famous for their baseball team which often does well at Koushien, the national high school baseball championship. That was also a fantastic experience as I had my own classes and was able to develop my own lesson plans and curriculum.
How did you find your way into the Japanese community here in Sydney?
I’m pretty well known within the Japanese community, I mean I have my group of friends from my translation and interpreting days and through that I’ve gotten to know a lot of different people in this community. Now, with my own company, mochiwa mochiya, obviously there are a lot of contacts and people in Sydney that I’ve gotten to know because of that. At CLAIR Sydney, I’m working with a lot of different Japanese organisations and groups as well. I wouldn’t say I’m aggressively trying to make myself known in the Japanese community, but enough people know me through work connections, etc.
What’s your advice to anyone studying Japanese who want to get a foot in the door?
Go out there and you’ve gotta network, you’ve gotta make yourself known. Because you’re a student you have a little more free time to go to events and stuff like that. Make a business card, maybe make a website. Something to promote yourself and things that you’re passionate about. You know, just have a talk to people that are well entrenched in the Japanese community. Never be afraid to ask people for help. If you don’t ask, if you don’t go out and make moves, nothing’s going to be handed to you on a plate. It’s just really about output. Keeping busy and setting goals, you know, ‘I want to get in touch with so and so person to tell him about this idea that I have’, just set short term goals, medium term goals, long term goals. You’d be surprised when you write something down it actually happens. I remember back in 2015, I think, I wrote that I wanted to set up my own translation company. I wrote it as a New Year’s resolution and it’s still on my wall, today, just to remind me that if you actually put pen to paper it has a magical effect because it’s not just in your head, you’ve taken the time and effort to write it down.
As long as you try and even if that goal doesn’t materialise you might, from that experience, discover a new one. Your life journey doesn’t always just go to plan – it never goes to plan. But that’s the fun of it, you know, just doing what you think is best at the time and setting goals that you want to achieve at the time and then just trying to achieve them.
What’s something you’re most proud of?
One of them would be, honestly, setting up mochiwa mochiya. I think the translation industry is dominated by multinationals that say that they handle 200 different languages and they’re experts at every document. It’s basically just a commodity now. ‘We can do it for X amount of dollars in two days time’. There’s no respect paid to the profession, and translation is a high value and highly nuanced profession that takes years to master and people now just look at it as ‘oh I’m just going to submit my document online and I’ll get it back in two days’. Where it’s more about what can a person, a professional translator, can understand what you’re writing, the messages, understand who the audience is, how that message is going to be conveyed, whether it’s through social media, whether it’s through a website, whether it’s through a book. There’s a lot of thinking that’s required before even a single word is translated.
All these things are involved with translation, it’s like a lawyer, you don’t just submit something online to a lawyer. You sit down with your lawyer and you talk to them and it’s the same for translation. If you want the best results it’s always working with people. I think I’ve brought back the people element with my company whereas other translation companies, they don’t advertise any of their people because it’s just freelancers on their books. I’ve assembled a team of Japanese specialist translators that are well respected, have relevant qualifications, have extensive experience, and the results speak for themselves. We’ve got a 100 per cent satisfaction rate from our valuable clients.
Just growing and growing, we’ve got a dozen people in the team now. That’s one of the things I’m proud of. With every job I’ve taken I feel like I’ve always been a positive contributor. At CLAIR I feel like I’ve done the best to reach the gap between local governments in Japan and local governments in Australia and New Zealand and do new things.
I’m also proud of my achievements as an innovator. I was the first person, when I was working at Nichidai Igakubu (Nihon University School of Medicine), to introduce an e-learning system for medical students in Japan. And that e-learning system was an Australian system as well, so I brought Aussie tech to Japan. I didn’t just introduce it, it was successful as well. As you know, a lot of Japanese students aren’t particularly web-savvy, they know how to work things on their mobile phones but when it comes to computers their literacy is a little bit lower. At the beginning they hated it! I did a weekly survey and it started at 20 per cent approval rating but by the end of the year it was up at 90 per cent, it’s all about giving the proper support. So I felt that I really gave the proper support for students and guided them and showed them, look you can actually get something out of this and they realized the value of e-learning in the end.
Never accept the status quo, that’s my motto, I always try to improve myself and I think it’s reflected in the results that I’ve achieved to date. Doing my own thing, mochiwa mochiya, is one of my proudest achievements but being elected as the Vice President of the Friends of Sydney Town Hall committee this year, their 175th birthday year no less, that was something very unexpected, but I put myself in the position to make it happen. Just by networking and putting your name out there you start to realise there are a lot of groups that actually need help and if you have the right set of skills they’ll call upon you. I just try to stay busy and see where my skills, my talents can help people in a positive way.
A lot of people that are studying languages will do it with the idea of being a translator, but like you said it’s multinationals taking advantage of freelancers, what advice do you have for them?
Do what I do. Find your own group of translators through people you know, your own personal connections, and form your own company. This is how we shift the tide. If more people see that there are boutique agencies that are doing amazing things, then it’s going to provide enough competition and differentiation between us and these faceless multinationals translation behemoths, that’s how you can fight those kind of cheap and nasty commodity-based translation service providers. If you want to be a translator, I think one thing translators lack, and it’s not a bad thing, a lot of translators are naturally introverted. They enjoy working with documents in their own time and in their own space and that’s fine, but I think that because of that, we haven’t really been able to properly advocate for our industry in the way that perhaps we should.
Partner with people that enjoy that kind of advocacy as well, promotion of the industry, promotion of professional translators and interpreters, if you’re going to call yourself a communication expert it’s not just about written communication, it’s about verbal communication, non-verbal communication, in a variety of different mediums so don’t limit yourself just to written communication. If you can also work on other aspects of communication it’s easier for other people to recognise the value you can provide.
What’s one thing you wish you knew before you started?
Do what you’re passionate about. Find what you love and do it and try to make a career out of it. Because I was looking for a very long time in my twenties and my early thirties, what do I really love? What do I really enjoy? You have all these pressures around you, whether it be your parents, society, you need to do this kind of job or you need to do this to be successful, to be happy. Finding out what you’re passionate about, and surrounding yourself with likeminded people, the sooner you can do that, the better I think.
I’m very passionate not just about translation but also about education and so forth, which is why my career has been so eclectic. I think it’s just finding what you really love and making moves. Don’t sit back and think that everything’s just going to come to you. Stay busy, stay hungry, stay humble.Find out what you love and take the steps required to make a career out of it. If you can do that you’ll be unstoppable.
What was your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge probably was setting up the business. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so it took a while to get things ready but I’m glad I took the time to do it right and do it my way. My wife really supported and encouraged me to do it and I’m forever grateful for that. We’re only in our second year and we’re already doing a lot of great things with many different clients, it’s probably my biggest challenge and my proudest achievement.