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Number 1 Shimbun

Profile; Meri Joyce

08-1

 

By DAVID McNEILL

 

As Kumiko Torikai, a doyen of Japanese interpreters like air – nobody notices it until it is polluted. On the few times interpreters stand out it is usually when they make a mistake. Meri Joyce can be said to have thus quietly and assiduously toiled at the FCCJ for years, her seamless bilingual skills under- pinning countless major press conferences. As any interpreter will tell you, however, behind that seemingly effortless surface is a lot of effort.

The building blocks of Joyce’s Japanese were laid in the small town of Hakushu in the Japan Alps. As a teenage exchange student there in the late 1990s, the Melbourne native had to adapt quickly. First to go was her image of Japan as a uniformly high-tech society. “The only computer in school was in the principal's office and he never turned it on,” she recalls. Five English books sat on the shelves of the library, where she was banished during English lessons to save the teacher’s blushes. Children ran from her on the street.

“It was challenging,” says Joyce, smiling, during a recent interview on Zoom. But she was also lucky enough to find what she calls a “very welcoming” homestay family for the duration of her one-year exchange in Yamanashi. She is still close to them. “Within that insulated community it was not exactly warm but familiar. It was also part of what I was looking for. And because it was so isolated it was a good place to learn Japanese.”

Like many FCCJ luminaries, happenstance paid a part in her journey to Japan. She had won a scholarship to Indonesia but the fall of the country’s leader, Suharto, in May 1998, and the subsequent violent unrest put paid to that. Joyce doesn’t know why she took to Japanese life so easily. She had spent the first three years of her life here (her Australian father’s job took him to Tokyo), and though she remembers almost nothing about it, perhaps the roots were planted then. In any case, at Melbourne University two years later, she opted for a Japanese component in her politics degree, spending a year in Kyoto (2002-3) where she says she conquered the language.

She stumbled into her profession, beginning as a student when she interpreted for, among others, hibakusha survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasa-ki. “Seeing how language and words could be a bridge between different issues was very powerful,” she says. In 2005, she joined Peace Boat, the Japan-based NGO. Her first three-month voyage as a volunteer interpreter was, in her words “right in at the deep end” – travelling to about 20 different countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe, interpreting daily for Japanese experts on board and local visitors who came to talk.

Political activism is the other side – perhaps the most important side – of her life. She still works with Peace Boat and spends half her life outside Japan, much of it campaigning against nuclear weapons or for the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, a network of civil society organizations. Her activism began inhighschool.“It was during a period in Australia when there were huge protests around the uranium mining (much of the uranium was exported to Japan). It was also the time of Seattle and the (anti-globalization) WTO protests.” Her stay in Kyoto University coincided with the U.S.-led war in Iraq, when debates about Japanese involvement raged in student dorms.

 

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Interpreter Meri Joyce takes notes during a press conference by Lee Young-Chae, professor at Keisen University and Rui Matsukawa, member of the House of Councillors Liberal Democratic Party, who are speaking about possible solutions to Japan-South Korea tensions, Wednesday, July 24, 2019.


It was through interpreting press events for nuclear-related NGOs after the Fukushima nuclear accident that Joyce came to the attention of the FCCJ. She found the club a good fit: her activism had given her the skills to interpret social issues, in an industry where the bread and butter work is on the corporate conference circuit. “I’m never going to be a completely bilingual person but being involved in the social and political side of what’s going on in Japan gives me a cultural context that I might otherwise lack.”

She does up to six events a month at the FCCJ. “Its like a sport - you have to do it often and stay agile.” A natural news junkie, she skim-reads all the main daily Japanese newspapers to keep on top of what’s going on. “It is a very heavy responsibility,” she accepts. “Your choice of language expressions, getting the accuracy of what they’re saying; the tone and the message. I do take it very seriously,” she says, especially when it’s an “ongoing” legal or political issue. “There are dozens of hours of preparation that go into a one-hour presser,” making sure she can cope with the gig by knowing as much as she can about the speaker.

One way of making the job easier is to build a rap- port with the speaker - difficult when most arrive a few minutes before they take the FCCJ stage. “The technical terms are easy to prepare for but knowing the nuances is the hardest thing.” As for politics, she has learned to roll with the punches. “You will be interpreting for people right across the political spectrum and often you will have to say things you would not say yourself – including using discriminatory language. It is even more important that you be accurate and professional because if you water down what they say it is not going to accurately portray what they say. That took a lot of training.”

Among her FCCJ highlights was interpreting for the lawyers of Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s disgraced boss, and trying to explain the nuances of “sontaku” during a press event for Yasunori Kagoike, the president of an ultra-na- tionalist school at the center of a political scandal involving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife. And who could forget meeting Pikotaro, the extravagantly bedecked surrealist crooner who scored an unlikely global hit in 2016 with Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen. “I still have children of friends who come up to me about that.”


DAVID McNEILL is co-chair of the FCCJ’s Professional Activities Committee and a professor at the Department of English Language, Communication and Cultures at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo. He was previously a correspondent for The Independent and The Economist newspapers and for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Published in: July 2020

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