Big in Japan – Stephen Carter

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Many people come to Japan with the expectation of staying only for a short time, and many do go back home or move to another place after Japan.  A few, however, end up staying a lot longer than anticipated, and even fewer find a true niche for themselves here and become successful by turning their passion into a full-blown profession.  In this ongoing series, we take a look at expats who have made a name for themselves doing what they love.  In this edition, we got together with a true Legend in Nagoya, a man whom many lovingly call “The Wizard of Osu”.  -Mr. Stephen Carter

When did you come to Japan?

“I first came here in July 1982 for one year. I was an exchange student living with a Japanese family and going to high school in Sapporo. That year was actually supposed to have been my final year of high school, but the school thought I’d probably make more friends and have a more enjoyable time in general if I was with the second-year crowd and not the graduating third-year kids, whose time and focus would be on studying for their upcoming college entrance exams. I’m sure they were right!

When I got back to the US, I’d already had some college credits from taking summer classes and such, so I used them to sort of slip into university sideways — I managed to enroll as a full-time student without actually having graduated from high school.”

What initially brought you here?

“I’d always been fascinated by languages, and how the same universal human thoughts can be expressed in so many different ways. I studied French and Spanish in high school, took concentrated German and Russian summer classes at a local college, classes in Modern Israeli Hebrew at the local Jewish Community Center, studied a couple other languages on my own…like that. When I was 16 I got the opportunity to be a foreign exchange student for a year. I wanted to go somewhere where I could experience a culture as different from my own as possible and also learn a language as different from English as possible, and the country that had and opening and most closely fit the bill at the time was Japan, and so I applied and ended up getting accepted.”

Why Did you come to Nagoya, and specifically Osu?

“All through college I was intended to go back to Sapporo when I finished school, but I ended up getting involved with a woman at my university who was from Nagoya, and when she finished up her studies and went back to Japan, I followed her here in the fall of 1985. Our relationship didn’t last, but by the time it ended I’d gotten a job I liked — I was an in-house translator at a company near Osu that did a lot of documentation work for a big carmaker — and also my friends in Sapporo had scattered a bit themselves, and were in school in universities all around Japan, so I decided to stay put.

After a couple years with the design company I got scouted by two more-experienced American translators, one in Kyushu and the other in Nagoya, who were setting up their own company and looking for staff. The head office was in Fukuoka, and I was the first employee of the Nagoya branch. For our office location, we wanted a place that was central and close to a subway station, and ended up finding a unit we liked near the skating rink in Osu. That was in 1988. Eventually my boss relocated to Tokyo to start up another branch, and I took over in Nagoya. Then in 1993, the head guy in Kyushu decided to scale back, and closed the Nagoya and Tokyo branches. I talked to my clients and the landlord, and ended up starting my own company in the same location as the former office. In 2011 we moved to our current location overlooking the Osu Kannon temple grounds.”

What surprised you about Japan when you first arrived?

“This is going to sound extremely stupid, but please keep in mind that I was barely seventeen at the time. When I first landed in Haneda, while still on the plane, there was a split-second of shock to realize that all the jobs were being done by Japanese — the ground crew, the baggage-handling, the truck-driving, all of it. I’d had this thoughtless impression that all Japanese were white-collar workers, and it hadn’t occurred to be that of course there would be blue-collar workers as well. How dumb is that?

I was also surprised by how small everything was — houses, roads, cars, food portions. As I heard one person mention later, it was like everything was built on seven-eighths scale.”

Does it still surprise you today?

“Well, I still do occasionally bang my head on doorjambs!”

What is it about volunteering that you enjoy so much?

“For one thing, it gets me out of the house and interacting with three-dimensional people, instead of holed up at home in front of a keyboard or the TV. About ten years ago an Osu neighbor invited me to volunteer at the annual autumn street-performer festival and the summer festival with the samba and cosplay parades. Now I’m involved in the festivals from the planning stages, as a member of the organizing committees, and not only has it been fascinating to be part of all the behind-the-scenes work and planning that goes into putting on a festival, but it feels great to know that my neighbors trust me and depend on me to accomplish my share of the work and responsibilities.

For weekend Osu guide gig, it’s fun helping people find their way. Osu is a big, sprawling place — the arcade proper has some 400 shops and restaurants on eight streets, eight official streets comprising some 400 members shops and restaurants, with about twice that number again in the rest of Osu, and for newcomers, it can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to get lost. Part of the fun is making it a competition with myself — shooting for a 100% answer rate with every shift. Really, though, the important thing isn’t always necessarily a matter of knowing the correct answer, but of being able to make people feel welcome in Osu. We want them to have good memories of their visits.

Osu and its people have also been very good to me over the decades — very open and welcoming — and I’m glad for the opportunity to give something back to the community.

One more thing is that, for better or worse, some people like me who have made Japan their second home are here to stay. Not necessarily all of our neighbors may welcome that, but like it or not, we’re a part of the community, and we, as a group, are changing Japanese society. I enjoy being a visibly active member of the local community, and if in some small way that helps dispel some stereotypes about how foreigners think and act, all the better! The more we non-Japanese take part in local festivals and such and show our neighbors that we’re just as socially responsible as the Suzuki-sans, then maybe the sooner those silly stereotypes we’ve all had to face will get tossed out.”

What do you do when you’re not volunteering?

“I’m still at my weekday job in the translation and document-production business. Our clients range from companies in manufacturing industries to ad agencies and service-sector businesses. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the national government is really pushing to position Japan as a travel destination, and so that’s driving a lot of translation work as local enterprises try to attract and accommodate the growing numbers of visitors, especially from nearby Asian countries.

Also, my early-morning walk to work takes me through the Osu arcade before all the shops open, and I’ve gotten into the habit of snapping photos of what I see while en route. At that hour there are more cats out than people, which makes for a lot of cat photos.

I also spend a lot of evening time drinking beer, though it’s not nearly as much as I’d like to!”

If you could change just one thing about Osu or Nagoya as a whole, what would you change?

“I wish the mayor would take back his comments about the Nanjing massacre. Good grief.”

Now that you’ve got a successful business and have made a name for yourself through that and volunteering, what’s the next step for you?

“Osu’s volunteer fire brigade has asked me if I’d be interested in joining them, partly because of the large numbers of non-Japanese tourists and other people who are in the neighborhood at any given time — in the event of an emergency, the brigade will want to do everything to ensure their safety, and among other things they seem to be looking to me to help with that if the occasion arises. There’s a hitch to joining up, though: in Japan, volunteer firefighters are considered civil servants of a sort, and by default, non-citizens are barred from being members. A small number of municipalities around Japan have enacted ordinances to allow holders of permanent residence to join their local brigades, but Nagoya isn’t one of them…yet. I’ve been told that the city council is studying the matter, and with luck, before too long, all interested and qualified permanent residents in Nagoya — not just me — will be able to join their local volunteer fire departments. For the record, the position is open to all able-bodied men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 who live, work, or attend school in the district served.”

How can people get in contact with you?

“I’m an old-fashioned cat and still prefer to handle business and one-on-one communication by email. You can reach me at scarter@hticn.com. But if it’s cat photos you’re after, you can find them and me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/stephen.carter.”

Thank you very much for your time showing us around today and telling us a little about your story, Stephen. It was a true pleasure!

There you have it, folks… next time you’re in Osu and in need of translation services, or a good tip on where to go and/or what to do, look for a friendly, long-haired “wizard” usually spotted near “the cat” (well-known meeting point in Osu). He’ll be more than happy to share some of his detailed long-time accumulated knowledge about the area, the places, and the people with you.

For now, thanks for reading/watching, and catch you in the next episode!

Video by Don Whigan

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