Interview by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Jennifer A. Hoff
Mail to: email@example.com
National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter
After 2020, many of us have had the longest and hardest time we have ever experienced. Nevertheless, we believe that all of you who are now visiting us have overcome, or are about to overcome, such hardships. We would like to introduce you to a gentleman who has been working in one of the industries that the New Coronavirus has hit hard.
Soichi Tatsuzato is a National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter. He considers his job is to be an “entertainer”, and has been providing an enjoyable time to people who came to Japan from all over the world.
In 2018, Tatsuzato gave up his stable position as an executive officer at a listed company, and set up his own business as a National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter with a strong desire to “live my own life to the very end”. The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were just around the corner, and his own small boat was catching the wind and cutting through the waves with vigor as it sailed forward.
Tatsuzato’s ship was forced to make an emergency stop due to a global pandemic, which humankind has never experienced before. “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” – now Tatsuzato is looking for a way to utilize the experience and knowledge he has accumulated, while assuming that he will have to open up a completely new route for the day when he will be able to make a fresh start.
*Interview at Fuchu, Tokyo
Now is the time to become an entrepreneur
I left a medium-sized trading company to start my own business. Now, due to the new coronavirus, my incoming work as a National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter is almost zero, but I still have no regrets at all. From the year 2019 to 2020, I was invited to teach at universities, and every time I was invited, I told my students, “The future is uncertain. You should aim to start your own business instead of entrusting your life to a company.”
Now that we are in the midst of a period of total darkness, I am becoming more and more convinced of this idea. People’s thinking has changed from “buying luxury brand products at department stores” to “buying directly from sincere producers”, and small companies are now being given opportunities. I would like to share my past experiences with young people who are about to take their first steps into the world.
Learned English like I’ve always wanted to and got a job overseas
I have lived abroad for a long time, 19 years in total, including a year of study in the United States. However my heart was always in Japan no matter where I was. I think that is the origin of my desire to work as a guide interpreter, and at the root of this desire was probably my longing for English since childhood.
However, I don’t know the reason for why I got interested in the language. No one around me, including my parents, had ever been abroad, and I had little interest in Western culture and art, such as music and paintings. Even so, I attended a weekly English class for children at a local assembly house for about two years around the fourth or fifth year of elementary school. Then I majored in English at a university in the Kansai region after I left my hometown in Fukuoka Prefecture. Since I have loved trains, buses, and other vehicles since my childhood, I decided to pursue my career in the travel industry where I might be able to satisfy those interests of mine.
After graduating from university, I went to study abroad, which I had been interested in for a long time. I studied travel and tourism at an American business college. While in school, a Japanese travel agency approached me and then I left college to join them. After taking training at its head office in New York, I was assigned to the Chicago branch, a small office of about 10 people, where I eventually became the branch manager. I then set up another branch in the suburbs to manage both operations while selling travel products mainly to Japanese automotive and finance companies based in the Midwest.
Returning to Japan, changing my career
Time had passed, through the bubble economy and into the 1990s. At a time when the Japanese government was making an effort towards Japanese language education businesses for overseas customers, I joined a Japanese language learning material publisher as a sales person in charge of North America at the Tokyo Head Office through referral by an acquaintance. I had some reservations about leaving the culture of the company that I had gotten used to—in moving away from my life in the US, and leaving my life of freedom behind with it. On the other hand, I was not being actively persuaded not to resign at my existing company, because my reasons for leaving were to move the foundation of my life back to Japan and to change my job to another industry.
After joining the publishing company, I mainly worked at the head office in Japan, while conducting sales activities in North America during my business trips several times a year. While I was in Japan, I was mainly engaged in sales of Japanese language learning materials for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan Foundation and JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency). These public organizations bought up our teaching materials, actively distributed them to Japanese learners around the globe, and dispatched Japanese language teachers, which eventually led to the global expansion of Japanese contents, especially anime. I feel deeply that I may have made a small contribution to the movement towards spreading Japanese culture and language around the world.
Wandering abroad again
Later, I became interested in expanding sales of Japanese language learning materials not only in North America but also in Europe, Australia, and other regions where Japanese language learning was flourishing. So I moved to a trading company that was a partner of the publisher I was working at that specialized in content products. The publisher didn’t beg me to stay, probably because they expected that my transfer to the partner company would enable them to distribute their materials more widely.
The company had its own sales offices overseas and I was transferred to Australia the month after I joined the company. In 2000, just as the Olympics were being held in Australia, I was assigned to manage the company’s bookstores in Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast.
After returning to Japan in 2004 and working at the head office for a year, I was transferred to Europe. I managed a bookstore in the basement of a Japanese department store in London, and eventually I was assigned to operate and manage a bookstore in Paris as well. I was assigned as a director of both the London and Paris subsidiaries, but since most of the staff at the stores I was managing were part-timers, I took the initiative in tasks such as cleaning the stores in order to show them my positive attitude towards the work. And since London and Paris are only two hours apart by Eurostar (an international train connecting the UK and continental Europe), I went to Paris every weekend while living in London. However, even though they were geographically close, the nature of the customers was completely different, especially the Parisians who tended to be very assertive about their individual rights, reflecting their national character, so I had to change my mindset every time I crossed the Strait of Dover.
The First Step to Hospitality
My days of traveling back and forth between the UK and France to the extent that I needed to print more passports came to an end, and I returned to the Tokyo Head Office in 2014. Although there was not much room for me to utilize my overseas experience, I was able to learn about the systems that support listed companies in Japan through my experience in negotiating with banks, insurance companies and various ministries, managing real estate and accounting, and taking measures against labor unions. Moreover, the experience of working in the back-office also gave me an opportunity to think about starting my own business and becoming independent.
In 2016, while working as a salaryman at the company, I started working as a volunteer guide for tourists visiting Japan. In addition to maintaining my English skills, I thought that I could provide what they were looking for as a guide because of my experience in the tourism industry and also because I had been immersed in different cultures as a foreigner during my life abroad. I have met many people overseas who were interested in Japanese culture, but the tourists who visited Japan were the very core of Japanese culture lovers who spent the time and money to come all the way to Japan. Through the NPO volunteer guide organization I registered with, I met people like them who really loved Japan and had a great time with them while guiding.
Throwing away the status I have achieved and jumping into rough seas
Based on this experience, I began to think about obtaining one of the national qualifications in Japan called “National Government Licensed Guide Interpreter”, which would allow me to guide tourists to Japan for a fee utilizing the extensive knowledge of Japanese culture, history, geography and society. After carefully researching the job such as incomes by visiting seminars, I made sure that I would be able to make a living if I worked hard for two to three years.
Also staying at a company as a salaryman in an age of uncertain future was no longer a stable option. No matter how much you like your job, as long as you are a company employee, you have to accept various restrictions. Eventually, your company life will come to an end. I wanted to work as long as I can, even after the age of retirement.
Thus, at the age of 53, I decided to start my own business and took my first step as a guide interpreter in 2018. My first job was to take Western visitors to Japan from Tokyo Station to their hotels, and I continued to market myself to many travel agencies and was introduced to projects through various channels, including the Japanese travel agency in the U.S. where I used to work. In 2019, my second year of independence, I was busier than I had expected. With the strength of my uniqueness, such as “I am able to look at Japan from the same perspective as tourists visiting Japan,” “I can understand what customers are expecting,” “I can show my guests the good things about Japan that even local Japanese people don’t notice,” I was envisioning a bright future for the Olympics next year, but…
Photos provided by Soichi Tatsuzato
Overcoming hardships together
Since I was a child, I have always loved to make people laugh, and I was a member of a rakugo (comic storytelling) club in college. To do my job, you need to like the person in front of you, observe him/her, provide services based on what he/she wants, and sometimes use props to take the person into an unknown world and make him/her have a good time – Those are the same things that you need to do in rakugo. I feel very fortunate to be able to work a job where I can enjoy myself and be paid for it.
That is why I am not comfortable with this situation where my activities as a guide interpreter have been put on hold. However, I have always led myself out of my comfort zone, as I did when I left my hometown to go to university in Kansai, a place away from home, and later I left even my home country to go to the United States, Australia and Europe.
Photo provided by Soichi Tatsuzato
Even if I’ve been forced to be away from tourism, where I feel comfortable, I would like to overcome the current difficult situation with all of you by assisting in the development of human resources for the hospitality industry, and discovering hidden tourism resources in various parts of the country for the forthcoming post-COVID.
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