On 2nd February at Imperial College London, the Third Japanese Speech Contest for University Students took place. Applications had been as far back as November last year, but with the encouraging enthusiasm of my teachers, I took the plunge and submitted my short essay.
The essay required was entitled: ‘Watashi to Nihongo’ (私と日本語) – ‘Japanese and Me’, along with an application form. All applicants would undertake a telephone interview in early December, which I was dreading, but my teachers Morimoto-sensei, Oeda-sensei and Takewa-sensei at the University of Leeds kept supporting me. If I’m honest, I wasn’t at all confident that I was capable of such an undertaking. Still being in my 3rd year of 4 studying joint honours Japanese and Philosophy, my Japanese language skills leave much to be desired. God forbid we have a surprise test on kanji! My vocabulary is terribly lacking too. But what could it harm to submit an essay and take a phone interview, right?
On 10th December, I headed back to my home in Kent. I’d been working hard part time on my job as a catering assistant to gather some much needed funding for Christmas finances. I headed to bed early that night with the knowledge I’d be phoned at 9am the next day…
The following morning, how can I describe it? I woke up in time, had breakfast and ran through a few things I might be asked sitting in bed with my laptop resting on my lap. Just after my clock had reached 9.00am, sure enough the phones rang throughout the house (we have several…)
‘マイケルさんですか？’ (Is this Michael?)
‘ああ・・・はい。そうです・・・’ (Uhh…yes, this is…)
And so we began. I forget exactly what I was asked now, but I distinctly remember my voice trembling and mispronouncing words and myself rapidly pacing around the whole house with anxiety. I’m one of those people who just can’t keep still while talking on the phone… At one point near the end, I was asked why I had chosen my decided topic of ‘Omoiyari’ (Japanese compassion) and I completely froze…
The most important question! How could I not have had a readily prepared answer for the most important question?! I um-ed and ah-ed and paced around and around.
‘Ah, I can’t quite put my finger on it right now…’
‘It’s coming to me, please wait a second…’
‘Yes! You see it’s like this…wait, no.’
Of course, this did little for my nerves. My heart pounded faster and faster, my brain whirred and chugged at the impossibility of choking on the main question trying to conjure up some response. But no. 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 40 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes passed…
‘Okay… Well, I think that’s good enough, we can finish he…’
‘Ah! Hold on! I got it! You know, Japanese omoiyari, it’s just different from what we have in the West. Like, that…thing, the… Ah! You know there are many expressions in Japanese for describing omoiyari? Like Ki kubari (気配り), ki ga kiku (気が利く), kidukai （気遣い) and so on. In English, we don’t have such a great variety of expressions for consideration. That’s got to be some sort of proof, right there!’
‘I see, it’s interesting. Thank you for explaining it. Well then we can come to an end here then.’
I kid you not. That was more of less the end of my telephone interview. I put down the phone, sighed a defeated breath and swore under my breath at my brain clamming up at the most inopportune moment. That was all to be of my application this year I thought, and busied myself with playing Luigi’s Mansion and making some last minute preparations for the arrival of my girlfriend the next day.
I am delighted to inform you…
Roll on 18th December. Mr Warner from the Japan Foundation sends me an email. I got through? Somehow! Somehow I’m in the final. 6 finalists from all over the country going head to head in London as soon as February 2nd… Not only that, but my biggest challenge is none other than rival classmate David Tucker. His spoken Japanese is amazing, he’s ace at keigo (polite form) and literally injects compound kanji into his writing. If there’s want thing I didn’t want, it was competing with a friend…
But no time for worrying about that. My girlfriend helped me pick out a couple of books in JP Books in the Mitsukoshi department store in London about omoiyari and I began pulling ideas of space and having talks with various people about all manner of things related to my topic.
Once back at University, I quickly enlisted the help of my Japanese teachers. Oeda-sensei would prove to be a saint advising me and correcting my Japanese over and over, often even in her own time. Morimoto-sensei frequently corrected my pronunciation and Takewa-sensei put up with my non-stop visits to their shared office to ask questions. I think I had a whole new take on the term ‘taking liberties’. Most teachers would have told me to take a hike, but I effectively moved into my teacher’s office for a couple of weeks… o.O;
And not just my teachers. I was around and about the University accosting Japanese students left, right and centre asking them about omoiyari, the hotel example I used in my speech and generally chatting about all manner of interesting social concepts. My girlfriend gave a lot of thought to the subject for me too, and even came up with the hotel example and several good points. And my friends at AIU also helped astoundingly with my research and questions. That’s without mentioning my host family in Akita, all my teachers at AIU (Akita International University) who advised me and gave me resources and my first Japanese teacher from my time at Chatham Grammar Boys School – Yuki-sensei, who criticised me over and over again about my speech and pushed me to develop it more. I can’t imagine how much it all helped me organise my thoughts and develop them…
So the speech was written and all that was left to do was drill it so much I could dream about it. In fact, I think I did dream about it! I recorded myself reading it in parts, slowly building up the 4 sides of double-spaced text until I could recite it by heart a week before the speech contest. Then, I had Morimoto-sensei record himself reading it. He gives us the Japanese Speech classes and pronunciation lessons, so who better to learn from? This was invaluable to improving my clarity of speech. I still feel as though I might cheated though… Was it wrong to have a Japanese person give me the correct pronunciation of my words and for me to memorise them? But how does one improve without listening to native speakers..?
Moral dilemma aside, I decided to attempt subliminal memorisation. Learning while you sleep – does it work? Who knows, but for 5 nights I had Morimoto-sensei’s rustic voice drifting into my ears as I slept soundly and awoke every morning to the words of my speech. I can’t say whether this helped, but by this point I was able to give my speech from memory alone and concentrate my final efforts on presentation technique. I also had invaluable help form my language partners Hiroki and Reiko and other friends who listened to my speech and questioned me in preparation for the Q&A session to take place after I gave me speech on the day. I learnt a great many new expressions in Japanese, some of which I even used on the day.
Now credit goes to my house mates, Louis and Shu-Chien, who listened to me practise many times. I had Louis throwing pillows at me and making irritating gestures mid-way through my recitations to try and distract me. I found it frustratingly hard to not lose the flow of my speech. At first, if somebody so much as coughed, it was all over. But gradually, I was able to focus more and keep going – catching pillows and enduring the angry and bored looking faces of my mock audience all the way.
Lastly, I had my parents record me and listen to me – evidently not understanding anything – several times the night before the big day. It was good I could see my posture and hand gestures in advance. There’s a lot to giving a good presentation, as I learned in my lessons under Ayusawa-sensei at AIU. Eye contact, hand motions, posture, movement, reading the audience – etc. We also decided on clothing together, from which tie to wear, down to whether I should go on stage with a jacket or not. I even had advice from a couple of my classmates to wear bright colours as it draws attention and makes an impact.
Suit on. To London.
Up early, I affixed the suit I bought in Japan, Windsor-knotted my tie and stepped into my seldom-worn shiny black shoes. All I can remember of the train ride to London is one old lady quietly trying to read her book and giving me annoyed looks as I practised my speech under my breath in Japanese. What could I do? Was I supposed to be silent? Or was it fact I was whispering, which some may say is more annoying than just talking normally. And on top of that, in Japanese. Hmm. Morimoto-sensei’s voice graced my ears a few more times as I confirmed some pronunciations in my final hours before the real thing.
I arrived with my parents in good time at Imperial College London in the Tanaka building. My Japanese teachers were already there with a few of the other judges, and gradually the other nervous-looking finalists began to arrive. Dave arrived too, looking smart but equally anxious. My parents left for a while, preferring to come back for the second lot of speeches including my own. There were to be two sections – 6 finalists that don’t take Japanese as their main degree subject and 6 finalists who do have Japanese as their main degree subject including myself.
You can view the line-up here: BATJ
Everybody mingled in a small room for about an hour beforehand, eating pre-prepared sandwiches and generally rehearsing or chatting energetically about their chosen topics or interest in Japanese. I felt rather calm, but took a trip to the toilet to give myself a last minute pep talk just before going in to watch the first lot of speeches. One guy, Handoo Seo gave an amazing speech on Magic. It was clear then that he would win. For one, it was the only speech I could understand fully, and secondly, he delivered it with such an air of confidence and dignified charisma that you couldn’t help be taken in by his words. He was so relaxed and had humour, clarity and diligence all rolled up into one little package. Great stuff – he could have easily been in the latter group with us.
After a short break, the second group would speak. I met Yuki-sensei and a few other students including my kouhai Jacob to whom I owe a great thanks for snapping so many shots of me during the contest. Dave and I went out to rehearse our speeches one last time – only to find ourselves in the same room as a really irritating Japanese man on the phone. He kept yapping and yapping for the whole 20 minutes we were trying our hardest to refresh our memories. I dreaded the real thing after that through fear I would inadvertently reproduce some of the rubbish he was talking on the phone about! Fortunately it didn’t happen…
I was second up. I didn’t hear a word of the first guy’s speech through my nervousness. Before I knew it I was being introduced to an audience of over 100 people, mostly eager Japanese people who had come to listen with my parents sitting smack-bang in the middle of the lecture theatre grinning at me. I walked onto the stage, clipped the mike to my waistcoat (I’d decided to go on without my jacket – for impact ^^;) and laid out my speech and small memo I’d prepared in front of me. I had my speech there on the off chance that I had a complete memory-block and I’d prepared a note listing the first sentence of every paragraph of my speech.
Taking a breath, looking up at the wash of faces scattered about before me, I paused.
And began. Pause. Speak. Pause. Speak. Emphasis. All running it off from memory. Minimal hand movements, eye contact, smile, be aware of the audience, look around, don’t move your head too much… Several times I stumbled over the Japanese, pausing slightly to regain my step and pronounce words clearly, but otherwise I managed to go to the end of the 10 minutes without forgetting anything. Even at one point when somebody’s water bottle went off and sprayed water everywhere… Wait… A water bottle? Since when is water pressurised like carbonated drinks?
But do you know what the worst part was? My throat. My lips. I hadn’t been speaking a minute before I felt it, creeping up my chin and permeating my lips. The dryness. The back of my throat, starting to scratch. 5 minutes in, my lips were beginning to gel together at times with their stickiness. This only made things worse. At this point I had at least two lines of thought running through my head. One was my speech, the other was something like this:
‘Oh shit. Oh shit. My lips are dry. I can’t speak properly. It’s getting worse. What shall I do? If I take a drink, I have to pour out the water into a cup, and I risk my hands shaking and spilling water, not to mention splashing water down my front, making the audience wait and possibly even losing my train of thought. On the other hand, if I don’t take a drink, can I go on to the end of my speech correctly pronouncing everything..? Gotta’ decide now… What to do, what to do?’
In the end, I stayed it out. I managed to get to the end without water and messing up too much. But as soon as I uttered those words ‘thank you for listening’, I grabbed that water bottle and quenched my thirst. The judges didn’t even wait! I was pouring water and drinking while I was being asked the first question! o.O;
The questions were not like anything I’d anticipated… I got asked why I thought the book I referenced had sold so well in Japan, what I thought about おせっかいな人 (busybodies – i.e. people who look out for others too much) and finally a philosophical question. I was thrown by it as it used vocabulary I didn’t recognise on the day. I asked for a repeat and clearer explanation, but even that didn’t help. I had one word to go with – 経済 (economics). What is the link between economics and omoiyari..? What?! I fluffed something about social relationships having a direct link on the economy, so omoiyari was important, but I didn’t really capture the nuance of the question.
When I looked it up after getting home, I found out: ‘物質的に恵まれている’ – something along the lines of ‘blessed with materialism’. Oh!! If I’d known the words, I could have nailed it for sure! You know, the old argument about how the soul is destroyed through love of material things and such, and omoiyari is basically a humane warmth, so through materialism we are losing sight of what is important. Blah blah. Argh. I could have clinched it, if only…
After I was clapped off the stage, I sat down in a daze for the rest of the speeches, only regaining conciousness to see Dave at the end. It was an unfortunate thing, but his cue cards became mixed up midway through his speech, which resulted in lots of pauses and problems. If he’d been able to recite it properly, I’m sure his speech on the absence of Japanese fathers in the home would have blown everyone away…
There was an interval before the award ceremony where we sang songs, had a quiz and a huge lottery, where I think the aim was to give everyone a prize, as my parents alone made off with a poster, a calender and two baseball caps… I spent the time recovering, chatting with my teachers and just milling around. I was also introduced to a friend of Yuki-sensei’s, Shunsuke Mutai, who works at the Japan Local Government Centre in London. He seemed acutely aware of much deeper social issues I had barely touched on in my speech and hence offered to send me some materials. I only hope my Japanese was up to scratch when speaking. Conversations with real adults like this still leave me reeling from the realisation my Japanese language ability is far, far from worthy enough.
Time drew to a close and the Award ceremony began. As expected, Handoo Seo took first prize for category 2. Then came category 1. After many sub speeches and formalities, our group of 6 were invited up on stage. A tense couple of minutes ensued before the runner up was announced. Antoni Slodkowski from SOAS who gave the speech ‘Living in a Japanese teahouse – cultural experience in Kyoto’.
I wasn’t sure what face to put on at all. I couldn’t smile, as that would look weird. I couldn’t frown, as that would look too grumpy. I didn’t want to look like a nervous wreck and I didn’t want to try hard to keep a straight face through fear of appearing constipated. I don’t know what face I made in the end, nor how it changed as I was announced the winner of the speech contest. Dare I, did I smirk? Did I grin or looked genuinely shocked? Don’t tell me I tried so hard to avoid putting on the wrong face I looked grumpy??
Those were the thoughts running through my head the whole time I was given a huge mock plane ticket and certificates. Flashes of various cameras and not knowing which way to look. A couple of news reporters questioning me with recording devices, various heads of organisations congratulating me and smiling with me to have pictures taken. I didn’t really know where to step for about half and hour. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I had to give a final speech upon receiving my award…
In all honesty, I had been thinking about a few phrases in my head beforehand on the off chance I came up trumps, but I was pretty high strung after being flashed by so many cameras. I look like the cat who got the cream in the pictures… *cringe*. But anyway, I threw in so many ‘anos’ (um and ers) and slung together such a horrible mishmash of Japanese that I could have sworn I saw one of the judges regretting her decision to give me the award.
I don’t quite know what I was trying to say, but I said thank you about fifty times and then tried some futile attempt at promoting World Peace by saying something along the lines of ‘I hope Japanese can continue to become an international country but to do so while holding onto that which makes it uniquely Japanese’… (I no doubt said ‘Japanese’ instead of ‘Japan’ and other similar blunders…) *Shakes head*. Upon listening to my parent’s recording, I also heard someone laugh out loud just after I said my final words! I guess my Japanese really was a bit strange… ^_^; Oh well.
But it wasn’t over yet! Oh no! After that everyone went to drink wine and snack on fingers foods. I found myself sore from smiling, doubled over from the constant bowing and head thumping from the barrage of Japanese being thrown at me and business cards thrust into my hands. My first Japanese-ish networking event. Tiring, but ultimately so satisfying and fun.
Afterwards I went to celebrate with my parents at Garfunkels and we talked about the contest non-stop for several hours. It was probably the first time I’ve been in a restaurant and talked so much I didn’t even notice my eating something. Usually I find it difficult to make conversation, but I guess it was the result of several weeks work all culminating in something great.
Personally, I feel this is just one small milestone in a long line of important things I need to do and there are far bigger things than this. Perhaps it’s selfish of me to think so and I shouldn’t downplay it, or perhaps I should downplay it and be modest. I don’t really know. But I’m back here in Leeds now, doing homework, forgetting kanji and passing time. Nothing has really changed, but it’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget. An I did gain more confidence in public speaking. If nothing else, I can say I can learn a 10 minute speech by heart and recite it from memory!
Makes me think of Guybrush Threepwood’s claim that he can hold his breath under water for 10 minutes! What a guy… ^_^;
Below are various other places where the Speech Contest is mentioned. I probably look vain posting them all, but it’s just for reference and a small thanks to the institutions and people that have helped me to date.
News Digest wrote about the event in their weekly e-zine. I print-screened it for easy viewing below or you can view the entire February 14th issue here.
News Digest Article (Japanese)
Another of the 6 finalists I competed with who gave a great speech on NGOs. Go and read about Joseph Tame’s interpretation of the events that unfolded! Tame Goes Wild
Shunsuke Mutai’s record of the day. An interesting friend of Yuki-sensei’s who generously sent me some helpful information related to my topic. Mutai-san’s blog (Japanese)
Read about the Speech Contest on the Japan Foundation website: Japan Foundation News Page