Game Changers of Japan: Larry Greenberg of Urban Connections on Translation in Japan
Meet Larry Greenberg, the CEO and founder of Urban Connections, a trusted translation company that has been providing professional translation, interpreting, editing, and other communication services to clients in a wide range of fields for the past 30 years. #jportlibrary
Larry arrived in Japan when he was 21 years old in 1985. He decided he wanted to learn Japanese because he wanted to learn a difficult language that could be put to practical use, and he knew that coming to Japan was the best way to learn it quick. Starting out in Japan, Larry was asked by someone to help translate a document. Despite his relatively low Japanese ability, Larry found the translation not only entertaining, but also a great way to study and improve his Japanese. Slowly, more friends began giving him translating work, and he decided to fully invest himself in the translation business.
“I did one translation and it went over well, so I did another translation. Suddenly I was doing more translations than I was studying, so I realized ‘wait a minute, this is more interesting than going to school!’, so I finished up school quickly and threw myself into the business.”
Starting a Business
Urban Connections was first started in Larry’s small apartment in Nishi Waseda, Tokyo. Larry hurried to finish school, and focused on getting more translation work. He had 10 helpers working with him “almost immediately”. Larry says he encountered all of the obstacles any entrepreneur would.
“I had all the challenges that every entrepreneur faces--you have to have a good market proposition, you need capital, you need to work hard, but, at least in the last thirty years, there’s never been any barrier to market entry for running or starting a business in Japan, it’s the same challenges that every entrepreneur faces. The fact that my passport was a certain passport; it was never an issue.”
Aside from Urban Connections, Larry has opened about 10 other small businesses. Some, he says, was for marketing purposes. Others were out of passion, particularly his business Digital Meme. Digital Meme was established to “create new content out of existing dormant content”. This mainly refers to visual content such as archived films, television, etc. Larry is particularly passionate about black and white silent films.
“Personally I am very interested in film, and Japan has a very unique history of film--particularly silent film. Japanese silent films were actually made to be performed in front of a live audience by a performer called a Benshi. The Benshi were the silent film narrators that were the top performers in Japan during that era. In the 1920’s and 1930’s people loved them. We worked with the remaining Benshi, and some archived old films, and we remastered and repackaged them and redistributed them.”
Business in Translation
Urban Connections operates using mainly Northeast Asian languages. This includes Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, and of course the world language, English. All of the clientele of Urban Connections are people and businesses needing to communicate in those languages. They work with a variety of businesses from foreign ministries to local ward offices to big corporations like Toyota and Nissan.
“Our clients include everyone. We work for large government organizations like the Prime Minister’s office, as well as big corporations like Toyota and Nissan and Rakuten. Everyone in Japan needs to communicate, and most of them aren’t great at it. Our service can be as simple as translating words and interpreting meetings, to going up to offering design services and publishing services and web design and more.”
Big Changes in Japan
Larry reminisces about when he first arrived in Japan 34 years ago, and the changes that he’s seen in the Japanese work system, as well as the changes he still hopes to see.
“I think that right now is the best time to be in Japan since I came here. All the good things haven’t changed, and all the bad things that I didn’t like about Japan have, for the most part, gone away. The good things about Japan are that it’s safe, it’s well organized, and people have good morals. When I first arrived 30 years ago, when you first interacted with someone, it felt like the first thing they saw was a ‘foreigner’, and that was the basis for your interaction. Now, that has changed a lot. In Tokyo, most Japanese people will see and interact with foreigners several times a day. Foreigners aren’t seen as different so much anymore.”
Larry also discussed the changes he hopes to see here on out.
“A lot of people talk about changing the way you work, changing your hatarakikata, and all that, but really nothing needs to be changed. Those changes are already in place. There have been tremendous new laws and new systems enacted to make things possible. Men can take paternity leave, there are caps on overtime, there are multiple systems in place to do flex time, but the number of people that actually take advantage of it is still small. 35 years ago these laws didn’t exist, but now they do. They’re all there. At this point it’s a matter of each individual taking control of their life.”
Words of Advice
“If you think of yourself as a “foreigner”, you’re limiting yourself. Forget that you’re foreign. If your company is hiring you just because of your passport, they’re limiting your growth. Japan is the 3rd largest economy in the world, Tokyo is the largest metropolis in the world with 38 million people, Japanese companies need hard-working people, it shouldn’t matter where you’re from.”
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