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Fifty years of the Japanese Speech Contest: Chris Nailer

Reflection: Chris Nailer 


 …I wrote my Japanese essay on the life and works of Thomas Mann. Not a very Japanese topic. Anyhow, it was the only thing I’d written in Japanese up until then, and Mrs Sherriff said, “It’s fine; have a go!”

There were about ten of us studying second-year Japanese at Melbourne University that year. It must have been early in the winter. Our Japanese tutor Mrs Chizuru Katayama (Pat) Sherriff had just marked our annual Japanese essays – usually done during the first-term break – and she mentioned, “There’s a Japanese speech competition coming up. It’s in Sydney. You might like to enter.” She suggested we turn our essays into speeches. “I’ll coach your pronunciation,” she said. 

Dr Chris Nailer, then and now. 

Problem No. 1: We’d only been studying Japanese a bit over a year, so the annual essay topics were always really simple, like, “Write an essay about what you did in your holidays.” Boring. I’d been reading novels by the German writer Thomas Mann. So I wrote my Japanese essay on the life and works of Thomas Mann. Not a very Japanese topic. Anyhow, it was the only thing I’d written in Japanese up until then, and Mrs Sherriff said, “It’s fine; have a go!”

Three of us entered the competition: Monica Pinda, Jane Chidgey and myself. Monica had lived in Gifu for a year as a high school Rotary Exchange student and her Japanese was already very good. She entered in the ‘Lived in Japan for up to One Year’ category. Jane Chidgey and I entered in the ‘Beginners’ category. Monica’s speech was a lively account of her experiences during that year, when she had lived with a local family, going to school with their daughter at a convent school run by Spanish nuns. I don’t recall what Jane’s speech focused on. But the contrast between Monica’s entertaining stories about her first encounter with Japan, aged about 16, and my pompous pseudo-academic analysis of the writings of Thomas Mann couldn’t have been greater. 

Problem No. 2: The competition was to be held at UTS in Sydney on a Saturday. As students, none of us had any money. We were all very young. I had a motor-bike licence but I don’t think any of us had car licences then. So Monica’s father kindly drove all three of us up to Sydney all through Friday night along the Hume Highway – much of which was still just a single lane each way, the three of us dozing in the car as we sped through the night. I remember waking up at one point to feel the car swerve and the sharp sound of loose stones scattering as one wheel momentarily dropped off the narrow strip of tarmac into the gravel edges. Anyhow, we got there. Monica’s father checked into a motel close by UTS and slept.  

The competition started early in the morning, in classrooms at UTS, with a preliminary round of speeches to screen the number of contestants to a final group of five in each category. We each did about the first minute of our speeches; a bell went off ‘ding!’ “Next…” There must have been 20 or so in the ‘Beginners’ category and about the same number in the ‘Up to One Year’ group, who were screened in a separate classroom; there was a third category, maybe for high school students.  Five finalists were chosen in each group. Monica was selected in her group. I’d done a lot of acting in student plays and was used to memorising speeches, so I got though into the final five… We were then told, “Come back to the main lecture hall this evening for the finals.” So, from about 11.00 am till late afternoon, we played tourists in Sydney. 

In the evening, we returned to UTS to do our final speeches. There were a few more nerves this time. The main lecture hall held a lot of people, the auditorium was dark, with a high platform brightly lit with stage lights. We sat anxiously waiting our turn down below. Then it seemed like a long walk up and across the stage to a raised podium into the hot spotlights. They started with the ‘Up to One Year’ category. Monica’s speech went down very well, her lively stories bringing quite a few laughs from the audience. Then it was the ‘Beginners’ turn. I remember clunking up onto the stage wearing my motor-bike boots and launching into my speech: “Tomasu Man-wa Doitsu-no yumei-na sakka desu…” “When he was a young child, Thomas Mann’s family fortunes changed suddenly when his father was declared bankrupt…” (It came out as 発散 [hassan] instead of 破産 [hasan])… And I’m sure the judges marked me down for ‘relevance’: “Why on earth is this fellow going on and on about Thomas Mann and German literature? Doesn’t he realise we are the JAPAN Foundation?” Anyhow, I got through it, blundering on blindly through my over-serious speech into the glare of the spotlights, with the audience just an invisible dark blur in the distance. Monica came second in her category. I came last out of the five ‘Beginners’.

And perhaps that’s the point of the whole thing. It doesn’t really matter what you choose as your topic, or where you come in the end, or even whether you get into the finals. Monica has had a remarkable career and continues to work at the highest levels as a Japanese translator and interpreter. Jane Chidgey went on to have a very successful career with one of Australia’s largest natural resource companies. And yes, in my case, you guessed it, I became an academic. It’s all there in Mrs Sherriff’s comment: “Have a go!”

Profile: Dr Chris Nailer

Christopher Nailer is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Research School of Management, College of Business and Economics, at The Australian National University. Chris studied Japanese and Chinese at Melbourne University and participated as a second-year student in the 1971 Japanese Speech Contest (Open Beginners). He got through to the finals, with a speech on the works of Thomas Mann, but came last out of 5.

After graduating, Chris was awarded a Mombusho scholarship to complete a Masters at Waseda University in Tokyo, then worked in translation, being appointed manager of the local Translation Section of Fujitsu in Sydney in 1983. He later completed an MBA, and worked as a consultant in Australia and Singapore. Moving back to Australia, he finished his career as a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship and international business at the ANU.

He notes that although he later moved beyond a narrow focus on Japan, his studies of Japanese and Chinese provided the initial foundations for his entire career.

Read Monica Pinda’s interview here

Read David Harvey’s interview here

Read Veronica Taylor’s interview here

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