[From June Issue 2012]
New Zealander Carl ROBINSON is the CEO of Jeroboam Co., Ltd., a wine importing business based in Japan. “In the wine business,” he says, “the people you meet are happy to see you.” Being a social animal, he’s just as happy to meet people. A natural communicator, since coming to Japan in 1990, Robinson acquired his language more through immersing himself socially, than studying textbooks.
“I still think immersion is a good thing because you just have to figure it out,” he says. Robinson originally came to Japan with his wife for a working holiday. One option was to stay in Tokyo as English teachers – they could make a little more money, but maybe experience less of the language and the culture. Instead, they did the exact opposite: for six months they lived as the only foreigners in a small town in Oita Prefecture.
“It was certainly tough not having anyone to help you, but it was also very, very satisfying once you started to realize that people could understand you.” Robinson admits he’s no “kanji freak” totally focused on studying, so ultimately, the desire to interact drove him to improve his Japanese. “I certainly wanted to communicate with the people I was working with and the people I was seeing every day.”
After that half year, Robinson and his wife moved to the UK. But they still loved Japan, and six years later they arranged a transfer for Robinson’s wife to her employer’s Tokyo office. Robinson, who had been working in the wine business, found a job as a sommelier for the Tokyo American Club. The timing was perfect. “We came back here in 1996, and it was just at a time when wine was starting to take off in Japan.”
After eight years of consulting and organizing events, Robinson chose to move into importing. As CEO of Jeroboam, he says, “I needed to improve my formal Japanese and to learn a lot of technical language that I hadn’t been exposed to before.” In deals with bankers and lawyers, he enlists the help of bilingual staff. “Because you don’t want to make mistakes in situations like that.” Still, all internal communications are in Japanese. “It’s important to have your own style, especially if you’re running a company,” he says.
Robinson’s Japanese has been put to the test under stressful situations. Last March, Robinson was at work when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. “It was certainly challenging when you’re making decisions that seriously affect other people,” he says. And before that, Robinson faced a crisis of a different kind: the economic shock of 2008. He had to use his Japanese to nurture his employees during uncertain times, both to lead and to inspire. “It really pushes your Japanese ability.”
It’s situations like these that reinforce Robinson’s philosophy. Relying too much on memorization, he believes, gives too much emphasis on language structures and gets in the way of what you’re trying to say. The best way to learn, for Robinson, is total immersion. His one recommendation for students of Japanese is to go to a place where they can be totally surrounded by the language. “It’s tough,” he says, “but it’s a good way to learn.”
Text: Gregory FLYNN