[From April Issue 2012]
Yannis PANAYOTOPOULOS, a post-doctoral fellow of Geophysics at Tokyo University, first fell in love with Japan watching television programs in his native Greece. One of them was the American show “Shogun.” The most important one, though, was “Manga Nippon Mukashi Banashi” (Cartoon Once Upon a Time in Japan), an animated series of traditional Japanese fairy stories. “I remember watching this classic manga when I was a kid, and was always fascinated with the Japanese culture and values portrayed in the series,” says Panayotopoulos.
Though Panayotopoulos wanted to start learning Japanese straightaway, a language teacher suggested he wait until he had finished high school and could handle the English in the textbooks. “Once I finished high school, true to my dream, I asked my parents again if I could now finally start learning Japanese. Less than a week after that, I was sitting in a classroom at the Japanese-Greek Friendship Institution getting myself introduced to Mrs. SUZUKI, my Japanese teacher for the next six years.”
Those lessons paid off: In 2002, after finishing a degree in geology in Greece, Panayotopoulos made his way to Tokyo University on a Japanese Ministry of Education scholarship where he earned a masters degree and PhD in geophysics. Because there is so much seismic activity, for a geophysicist, Panayotopoulos says, “Japan is the place to be!”
While Panayotopoulos uses Japanese 99% of the time, it wasn’t always easy. “Although I knew some Japanese when I arrived, attending lectures at the university was a whole different game. In the beginning, I had hard time understanding the scientific terms used in the lectures.” But these days, he says, he can give lectures in Japanese himself.
Some of this growth is thanks to the people in Panayotopoulos’ life. “When I first arrived, my best friend that I met back then – and the guy that gave the welcoming speech to my wedding – was a Japanese guy. I remember taking turns sleeping at each other’s houses when we were both university students. His mother just loved me!” Moreover, Panayotopoulos says, “My colleagues and supervising professors have been extremely supportive for all my years in Japan.”
A strong advocate of cross-cultural communication, in his free time he runs Japan’s International Gamers Guild Tokyo. “We have lots of Japanese members joining us not just to play games, but also to make foreign friends. You can hardly say that everyone in the club is fluent in both Japanese and English, but people willing to communicate always find a way to do so and have fun on the way!”
He says he’s never experienced the same language barrier that other expats seem to come up against. “I tend to think that people that have problems communicating in Japan are probably bad communicators to begin with,” he says. “These people are not willing to embrace a different culture. Which makes me wonder why they bother leaving their country in the first place.”
Ultimately, Panayotopoulos’ Japanese wife probably explains his Japanese growth the most. “I always joke with her that after I met her, I wanted to study Japanese harder so that I could fully understand what she said, but now that I can, I wish I never had. She complains that when she first met me, my Japanese was cute because it was really polite. Now she says I sound like a Japanese oyaji.”
Text: Gregory FLYNN