A Japan Guy Email Interview with Abasa Philips: The Importance of Learning Japanese

That's him on the left, the man himself.

Greetings Japan Guy readers! I’ve got a special treat for you today. I just finished up an email interview with my friend and long-term Japan resident, Abasa Phillips. I wanted to talk with Abasa because he’s been living in Japan for more than seven years now and has been studying the language for far longer. I enjoy talking about teaching, but I want to start branching out a bit. He is one of the first foreigners I ran into (that wasn’t a teacher) that really schooled me on what life can be like for a foreigner in Japan. Well, actually can’t say I ran into Abasa. I trained with a cousin of his back in Atlanta at the Tony Young All-Star Karate Academy. I got Abasa’s contact info just before coming to Japan.

Abasa happens to be an all-around good guy. Please check out the interview I did with him. I thought there was some really great advice in this interview! I hope you get as much from it as I did. Here you go…ENJOY:

Where are you from?
The US.

What do you do?
I set up Japanese online payment solutions for overseas e-commerce companies.

Most people come to Japan to teach. How did you get into your line of work?
I originally came to Japan as an exchange student. When I came back in 04 to look for a job, I used those connections here, as well as connections in the US to find a job in Tokyo. Since then I had a window of opportunity to start my own business and have been doing that ever since.

If you want to find a job other than teaching English, you have to hang out with people that do other things besides teach English.

What’s your weirdest “foreigner in Japan” story?
I was a bit freaked out by how jaw-dropped a group of young girls from Osaka were after I gave them directions to the station.

hate to sound like a detective, but where were you at 2:46pm on March 11th, 2011?
I was on the 8th floor of a fairly new building and it swayed like I never knew a building was capable of swaying.

What made you stay?
I speak Japanese so I was able to get news updates as they were released, and didn’t have to rely on the foreign media wich was riddled with exaggerations, scare tactics, and flat out lies which in my opinion created a panic. I also had/have a pretty good escape plan to Southern Japan if it ever came to that.

With been the scariest/most unsettling thing about all that’s happening right now?
The scariest was when the quake hit, and I thought the building I was in was going to collapse.

Are you married? What are some of the challenges of starting a family here in Japan?
Yes, I am married. I haven’t had any real challenges thus far since we don’t have children yet, but as a word of advice, in international relationships couples come from different cultures which generally have very different views on what marriage is. Make sure you are on the same page with your partner before getting married!

Will you stay in Japan forever?
I have no idea. I don’t think in terms of countries per se anymore.

Japanese? How would you rank your skill level 1-10 (one = complete beginner, ten = native speaker)? How did you get to that level?
I would say a low 9. I never stopped studying. When I began studying Japanese I thought that I would have to study for 4 years and I would be good enough, but I never felt “good enough”. I have been studying for 13 years now.

I’ve been out with you before and seen your Japanese skills at work. Pretty freakin’ amazing. If someone wants to go from zero to fluent, what’s general study plan/advice you would give them?

-Start at a language school or in college.
-Learn all of the basic grammar and vocabulary.
-Carry a notebook, and jot down words that you don’t understand, and then review them before bed.
-Get Japanese friends that share the same interests, and hang out with them as often as possible. Same gender friends are very important.
-Study 10 kanji daily, and on a strict schedule.
-Get a Japanese girlfriend that doesn’t speak English.
-Read Japanese as much as possible.

What was the toughest thing about picking up the language?
Polite grammar is difficult.

When did you notice the biggest change in your ability to speak Japanese?
After I learned 2,000 kanji. This is not as difficult as it seems actually. I learned 22/day for 3 months. It took 1 hour after I woke up, and 1 hour before bed for review. My Japanese ability easily doubled in just those 3 months, and I was able to read newspapers, books, and manga which had a snowball effect.

Do you think it’s necessary to learn the language if you’re living here?
Absolutely. Your life will be 100 times more fulfilling. Imagine living in the US without speaking English. Not being able to go to shows, watch stand-up comedy, watch movies, buy concert tickets, shop online, meet friends that have the same interests that don’t speak your language, dip into any restaurant and order whatever you want etc etc.. If you only speak English, you will get Japanese friends, but many times your friendship is based on just that one aspect and it will be difficult to develop a deeper relationship.

What are some doors that have opened up for you as a result of learning the language?
Where to begin..
Jobs – since I can speak to clients/coworkers in Japanese.
Apartments – since I can negotiate with the real estate agent, and they can negotiate with the apartment owner. Even if they don’t accept foreigners, many will let it slide if you can speak Japanese.
I was invited to be on TV because of my language ability.etc.
If for example you happened to meet the most pig-headed, racist, person with a chip on their shoulder in a bar, you could turn them in to your biggest fan the second you show them the respect of speaking to them in their language at an advanced level.
When you speak, everyone within earshot will understand that you made a big sacrifice to learn their language, and how much love you had for their country to be able to make that sacrifice. Whereas if you only speak English, it kind of feels as if you are taking advantage of their hospitality.

What are some things that you wouldn’t be able to do if you couldn’t speak Japanese?
I wouldn’t be able to eat at the restaurants that I eat at, have the job that I do, live in the apartment that I live in, or meet the amazing wife that I have.

What’s Your Favorite Japanese Saying?
七転八起 (Fall Seven Times Get Up Eight)。or 猿も木から落ちる (Even Monkeys Fall From Trees)。

If you have any questions for Abasa please feel free to leave them in the comments section, and if he isn’t able to drop by to answer questions, I’ll compile a list and send them to him.

Abasa, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate you.


Donald Ash

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  • Ceci

    Awesome interview! The prevailing view in the U.S. seems to be that the only jobs a foreigner can get in Japan are teaching English. So it’s great to see someone breaking that mold. Then again, he’s likely very talented…something special.

    I was teaching myself Japanese for a while, but here in rural MS, there’s no one I’m aware of that’s a native speaker. Plus, I started grad school and my life is fuller than full between working full time, classes and studying. I fear that what little skill I’d acquired has completely vanished. But I’m going to keep plugging away. :)

    • Donald Ash

      Abasa really inspires me. I’m going to keep plugging away, too. I’m also feeling like the professional dunce because I the only English speaker at my job, it’s not easy, but it really is putting a fire under my butt to study more.

      Keep at it, Ceci. Good luck!

      • Donald D Ash

        Hey some dumb guy. I know you can do it you have that Ash tenacity to hang in there. Even when everyone thought you should leave (family) even me, you hung in there. So becoming fluent in Japanese is something I know you can conquer also. By the way have you checked your e-mail lately. I’ve sent you e-mail also.

        • Donald Ash

          I hope you’re right, Pops. I’m gonna hang in there until I get it. It won’t be easy, but I think the language and culture are interesting enough for me to keep at it. I have been terrible with my e-mails lately, but I’ll make sure to reply. I love you, Pops.

    • http://www.japanesefromscratch.com/ Char

      Hi Donald,
      This interview was awesome. Did he ever tell you how he learned kanji? Did he use Heisig’s RTK? I am curious about that because learning 22 a day is really allot it seams in one hour and then another hour later to review.

  • Anton

    Great interview! I appreciate the clear, concise advice and guidance.

  • Julia

    22 kanji a day! Wow that’s amazing! The average high school student study about 20 a week.

  • LanceT

    Amazing determination. This is really an inspirational story. I’ve been looking at applying to the JET program when it opens up this fall. I really want to drop myself within the culture and see what I’m made of, challenge my preconceptions, make great friendships, study historic sites, the whole ball of wax.

    Though I may be considered too old for the program (just turned 30 this past January), even though I think their age limit is 40. This past year I’ve put all of my determination to getting my body in a healthy state, which I have done (lost 218 lbs in one year). My next step is to work on bridging the language gap and applying for the program and see what happens.

    Thanks for the inspiring article Donald! :D

  • MAK

    I came to Japan like 6 months ago and im still struggling with fluently speaking Japanese i school in University that offers Japanese language courses and the past semester was soo hectic and everything happened so fast that i barely understood because the classes move at a very fast phase. Im asking for your advice thank you.

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