Why Japan?

I have often been asked why I have an interest in Japan and Japanese. Rather than write the reason many times, I have summarized it in this page. (An expanded/updated version can be found in an interview I did in 2014 for a JET Alumni newsletter.)

I guess my interest in Japan over other foreign countries began around 1977 when my eldest daughter, then 6 years old, began to study the violin using the Suzuki Method. My wife, a musician and music teacher, had heard about the Suzuki Method from a lecture and demonstration, had been extremely impressed, and had expressed an interest in our children studying in the method. From that point on Suzuki began to play an increasingly bigger part of our lives as our second and third children began to study within that method. Also my wife began to explore teaching in the Suzuki flute method.

None of this interest was particularly focussed on Japan itself. In 1980 I took most of the year off work to complete my MBA (I was a budding junior executive in Telecom Australia in those days). A fellow student in our classes had studied Japanese, and impressed me by translating some of the titles of pieces in the Suzuki books. Also among the visiting lecturers was a former trade commissioner in Japan, who spoke eloquently about the importance of Japan and the need for people trained in Japanese. I recall going home that night and saying to my wife: "I think I'd like to study Japanese eventually". She didn't think much of the idea, and I concentrated on other things like finishing my MBA and completing a music performance diploma.

In mid-1981 my wife said one day that she thought she really should go to Japan to study teaching Suzuki flute with Toshio Takahashi at the Suzuki headquarters in Matsumoto, as there was no-one in Australia teaching Suzuki flute. I liked the idea, and we agreed to go the following December and January which is Australia's summer period when schools are closed. Our kids, then aged 10, 7 and 3, could easily miss a couple of weeks school in December. I arranged two months' Long Service Leave from Telecom (LSL is a employee right in Australia after you have worked more than 10 years with an employer), and after struggling for a short while with "Teach Yourself Japanese" (all kunreishiki romaji), I also arranged to have weekly Japanese lessons with Brian Drover, who trained as a Japanese linguist in the Australian army in WWII.

So, in late November 1981 five Breens arrived at Narita, made our way into Tokyo, were popped on a Chuo-sen train to Matsumoto by people from the Suzuki organization, and later that day found ourselves being greeted by a welcoming party from the Nagano Girl Scouts(!) (my eldest daughter was a Brownie, so we had set the international tomtoms working.)

We spent two months in Matsumoto living in two tiny 6-mat apartments rented to us by the mother of some local Girl Scouts. My wife had piano and flute pedagogy classes, my kids had lessons in violin and piano (the former with Shin'ichi Suzuki himself), and I did the housework, shopped, minded kids, tried to study Japanese, etc.

Matsumoto Station, Xmas Day, 1981

Back in Australia, I decided I wanted to go on studying Japanese; in fact I didn't want to go back to Japan until I could speak Japanese somewhat more, and read Japanese. As it happened I was heading towards a period of career movement, and it wasn't until 1986 when I had become an academic that I had the time flexibility to start studying properly, and I did three years of Japanese at Swinburne Institute (now University) of Technology in Melbourne. Swinburne's course was innovative in that it concentrated on modern practical Japanese, and was taught entirely without use of romaji.

As someone who had spent much of my life around computers, I had hankered to come to grips with handling Japanese text on computers. I had been told in Japan that it was too hard for Western computers to "do" Japanese because of the need for fonts, etc., so it was a refreshing surprise in late 1989 to read a message on the sci.lang.japan Usenet newsgroup, one of the first groups I subscribed to, that Mark Edwards at the University of Wisconsin was writing a free Japanese word-processor that could run on ordinary PCs. Soon after that came the announcement of a kanji terminal emulator programs (KD) for PCs. I down-loaded Mark's program (MOKE 1.0) and saw that it was indeed possible to see and enter kana and kanji on an ordinary 8086. From then on I was hooked.

MOKE came with a rudimentary Japanese-English dictionary file, which was expanded somewhat (1,900 entries) in the commercial 2.0 release. I had long been interested in the idea of a computerized dictionary, indeed I had helped people at Swinburne publish a student dictionary, so using clues from the KD code, and Ken Lunde's pioneering "japan.inf" information document on Japanese coding (later expanded into his first O'Reilly book) I wrote a C program that searched the MOKE dictionary file and displayed selected entries. Of course the file was too small, so I added several thousand new entries, and in early 1991 released the software (JDIC for DOS) and the expanded file as freeware.

The rest, as they say, is history. The dictionary file, EDICT, has grown and grown, and split, and gone on growing. It's now a much more complicated larger lexicographic database (JMdict) and supported by an online maintenance system.

The initial JDIC program was followed by JREADER, which in turn grew into the "xjdic" program for Unix X11 windows, from which came MacJDic, GJiten, etc. After a release or so a kanji database was added (KANJIDIC) which is now also much larger and richer. In 1998 I finally got around to massaging the xjdic code into being the start of the "WWWJDIC" web-based dictionary. WWWJDIC is now my only supported/maintained public-use software, and I tinker with it continually. It's rather old-fashioned - definitely WWW 1.0 - and could do with a rewrite.

The end result of all this has been that what began as a hobby has taken over a major part of my life. In 2003 I took early retirement from my academic position (teaching and researching in telecomms and networking) so I could concentrate on my dictionary-related activities with a clear conscience. I have been drifting into lexicography-related computational linguistics, so in 2009 I began working on a PhD in this field with Tim Baldwin at the University of Melbourne. My thesis topic is "The Extraction of Neologisms in Japanese Corpora".

In parallel with this, the Suzuki activities continued with the rest of my family. My wife has become a senior and respected teacher in the Suzuki movement, invited to teach and lecture at many conferences and workshops around the world, and is now a member of the Board of the International Suzuki Association. Our children all studied in the Suzuki method, and our eldest daughter is also a Suzuki teacher. Our younger daughter is also a musician, and her husband is a Suzuki teacher too.

As for Japan, I have been back about 14 times, the longest visit being 7 months in 2000/2001 when I was a Visiting Professor at the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. I have tried to keep up with the language through private lessons and formal courses. In 2002 I repeated the final year of Japanese at Swinburne as a refresher.

Jim Breen's Home Page and Japanese Page.