Peter Sharpe

Lexicographer Peter Sharpe Interview

Getting to where we are: an Interview with Lexicographer Dr. Peter Sharpe

June, 2009

Dr. Peter Sharpe.

Peter Sharpe is a British-born professor, lexicographer, and writer of fiction, intimately connected with Japan.

I interviewed Professor Sharpe on the advent of the recent publication of two books: a Japanese-English dictionary for English-speaking learners of Japanese, and a book about language called Language: The Big Picture.

Professor Sharpe first came to Japan in 1974, at age 26. With just one significant period since then of life spent back in England, he has lived in Japan most of his life. I therefore began by asking Professor Sharpe about what brought him to Japan.

"I think, oddly enough, that coming to Japan had very little to do with Japan itself. It had more to do with the experience of just going abroad. I left England and went to Sweden, and I was teaching English there to adults. I was 25 at that time, and it was my first experience of working abroad.

And, suddenly, for the first time in my life, my work hours were halved, and my salary doubled. And I thought to myself - I was just a country boy - and I was thinking "Well, how's this?" You know. And it's to do with the law of supply and demand. And I thought, well if my work can halve and my salary double by just going to a foreign country, then if I go even further, maybe it will be even easier."

Supply and demand

Language The Big Picture.

"Before that I had been teaching at an ordinary British state school, teaching children of about 11 years old, teaching them English. My subject, my specialty, was English language. Every year my salary would go up by about five pounds. And all my friends, most of whom didn't have an O-level between them, were earning really good money, with nice cars, etc, and I thought 'I'm getting nowhere.'

And so I decided to take this job in Sweden. It was a good move, and I had a great time there. It's a beautiful country, great people, a huge amount of space, lakes - and actually, yes, there is a Japan connection. A good friend of mine over there, a guy who was living in the same block, Sven Svenson, a photographer, his wife was Japanese, Yoko.

I used to go round to Sven's place and hang out, and I noticed that Yoko used to come in from the kitchen and was putting down more and more lovely food, and I said to Sven:

'Sven, man, don't you ever do anything?'

And he said, 'No man, no, no.' He'd travelled around the world, and he'd been to Japan, and that's where he'd met Yoko, and he said, 'You want to go out to Japan, great place,' and then somebody at the school gave me the address of an English girl in Japan, because I was talking about going out to Japan, and I wrote to her asking what Japan was like. And she wrote back and said that for Western men this is a fool's paradise. And I thought, 'Well, what am I to make of this?' with Sven saying 'Go!' and this girl who was over there telling me it was a 'fool's paradise'."

Thatcher's England

"So, I went back to England at age 27 after two years in Sweden and I realized the situation in England. England changes very quickly. I got back to London and thought I would just walk back into a teaching job. No way! Not anymore. I remember a few years earlier, before I went to Sweden, I'd go into an office, walk into the local town hall, duffle coat and wellies on, and you'd say 'Have you got any teaching jobs?' And they'd sign you up as what was known as a supply teacher, so you could just go to schools where somebody was ill. Those were the tough schools, but that's what I was doing.

But all that had changed. So I thought to myself, 'Well, what will I do?' and then I had to do a course - a one-month course - at a school in Mayfair called International House. I paid 100 quid to do that - a lot of money in those days. And, anyway, the course ended, and I'd already been interviewed for a job out here, and I didn't do very well on that course. I think the reason was that I wasn't extrovert enough. Some of the people there, they'd be jumping around on the table, more or less, demonstrating what a word meant, whereas I would just write it on the board or something.

And anyway, I thought, 'Have I lost 100 quid?' So I telephoned the guy who'd interviewed me and said, look, I only got a 2/2 on this, and I'm really sorry about that. The competition was very strong, and he said 'Oh, that doesn't matter, doesn't matter at all,' so I thought 'thank God for that,' and then the next thing I was flying out to Japan, in 1974. And what a flight! I mean I had never been more than about an hour or two by plane out of England before."

1970s Tokyo

"It was a very, very different Tokyo then from the Tokyo of today. The first week I was so jet-lagged I could scarcely keep my eyes open. We were having to go in to the language school, not teach, just get acclimatized. A couple of the people at that school took me to a place in Koenji where they had a room. And in Koenji there were only one or two other foreigners - very few other foreigners there, and I was riding the crowded trains going to the language school, which was in the Iwanami Building in Kanda, down from Ochanomizu Station, and there used to be a cinema - maybe it's is still there - called Iwanami Eigakan. In fact, at that time, the British Council was in the same building."

First job in Japan

"The school was International Language Center, ILC, a chain of schools run by a British company with the head office in Hong Kong for tax reasons. I think it was taken over about five years ago. It was a bit like being on a fur conveyor belt, you know, you have one lesson, then you have your tea break, and then in ten minutes you've got another group of students coming in. Sometimes they'd send you out to a company, a factory, or something, out in the sticks and you'd have to stay in a dormitory out there. I didn't mind it, but I could see that it wasn't my cup of tea. I wasn't interested in becoming a manager. Some people were and they were making a career out of it, because TEFL was becoming a career then, so I dropped out after two years and started studying Japanese."

Things Japanese

"I was already interested in things Japanese like shogi, and I was doing aikido. There was a negative reason why I was doing that. I wanted to play a sport like badminton or tennis, or something like that, but the facilities were so crowded, and so few and far between, that I thought, well I'd better do as the Romans do. So, I started doing aikido, and I really enjoyed that. That was at Kichijoji, the temple there, and I was well into yoga and stuff like that. I was a vegetarian at the time, and have never been so healthy since."

International Christian University

"I was studying at ICU, the International Christian University, for one year. I was attending what was called a semi-intensive course. It was mornings. But three afternoons a week, I was teaching at Takudai University as a part-time teacher. And I had one evening job teaching five doctors way out in Saitama somewhere, but at that time they were paying something like ten thousand yen an hour, which meant 80,000 yen a month."

"The ICU course was mainly kanji - the hardest course I've ever taken in my life! The sheer load on your memory doing about fifty kanji a day, a test the following morning. I didn't do very well in the end of year test. I had a shocking cold at the time, sitting in the language laboratory, writing down the answers, but I sort of realized that I needed another year - no shame in that - but I couldn't do another year. I really wanted to but I couldn't because it was so expensive, and at that time I was living with the woman who would become my wife."


"We were living at some small place in Nishikokubunji in a place that was sort of like a hut, and the rent was only 50,000 yen. But I liked it - in fact I chose it because there was a tiny garden, and we had a little engawa, [verandah] and I would sit on the engawa and meditate throughout the year. It was very close to nature. There were country houses nearby and fields, but all the time, the city was encroaching, and gradually it all vanished. But our daughter was born in the nearby hospital. I will always remember that experience, coming back from the hospital with my wife, carrying not a dog or a cat but a new human back to your home, thinking 'This is something.'"

Back in England

"So after ICU I came back to England one year, and I remember how everybody - I mean my brothers and relatives - they were all talking about money, cars, mortgages, and I felt "What I have I got to talk about?" You know, I wasn't going to start talking about zen, or about how I was on some spiritual path or whatever, because I knew nobody would understand. They thought it was pretty weird anyway - the fact that I was with a Japanese, etc.

But when I returned to our hut at the end of that summer break and walked up the path and I saw the dog, the collie, that belonged to the oya-san [landlord], and it was in a filthy condition, I always used to wash it and take it for walks, chained and filthy, I felt like, who is it in that Greek classic, I think in Homer, Odysseus comes back and the dog has died and somebody's taken his wife - and I saw the dog and I thought, 'my God!,' and a few more steps and I saw our hut, and it was totally hidden. Everything had overgrown - all these plants had completely gone over the roof, and I had this sort of mini-satori. I realized in an instant 'Right, I know what I've got to do. They will never understand me back home until I do what they've done, and then leave it, otherwise they'll just think that you're a hippy or a dropout.'"

"So from that point on, I worked like crazy and my wife was just teaching the local children, but that was paying the rent. I went back, bought a terraced house, nothing much, for 20 grand, cash down, and so we were back in England, and it was 1984, Thatcher's England, when I was 36. I went back to this England in one of the worst recessions they'd ever had, almost teetering on a depression, with massive unemployment."


"And so I find myself in this country town, Plymouth. My wife is not making any friends. People aren't very friendly in that city. We have a young child of just 10 or 11 months. I don't even have a check book, no car, no telephone, and within months I'm on the dole with the rest of the other millions. What we were doing was we were selling stuff at the local markets. We're selling mompe [women's work pants], happi, kimono, and stuff like that, which we had bought a big pile of before going back because we knew it was going to be tough. So we're selling this stuff at various markets just making do, and I realize that I'm applying for jobs but I can't get any because there are hundreds of people after the single job that's advertised."

Exeter University

"So I go back to university. In this case, it happens to be Exeter. So I'm going up there, and staying up there, four days a week doing an M.Ed. - a Masters in Education in language teaching. I get through that in two years. The first year is the course, and I'm staying up there four nights, coming back for the weekend. It's not far away, it's only about 40 miles. In the second year I do the dissertation, and by this time we're doing translation from Japanese."

The lexicographical connection

"And my wife, my ex, I should say, she's also into writing, and is writing the occasional book, and these books take time for research, about one year per book, and don't make a lot of money. But I don't mind that. I'm not worried about the lack of money because it was a challenging time, and I'm enjoying all the reading about linguistics. By sheer luck I happened to do something in the dissertation about vocabulary and words and meaning. And the reason for that - and here I have to backtrack a little bit - is that prior to going back to England, I'd been working as a sort of native informant on a dictionary for Shogakkan publishing house, and that was very interesting work and I enjoyed it. It was part-time, so I was like a hijokin [part-timer] and a native informant: a bit like just studying Japanese and getting paid for it."

First break

"The guy who was there at the time, doing the same job, was Jim Wagner, an American. He's now, I think, second in charge of Japanese Time magazine. I think I saw him on TV a couple of weeks ago. He was a very intelligent bloke. He did very well. For him, that job was a piece of cake, and he got out of that job. But Japan opened up with the crash when the Bubble burst, and there were big American companies coming in, and people like him got really good jobs. So, I did that, and just by pure chance, Dr. Hartmann, an Austrian who is a big name in the world of lexicography, happened to read my M.A. thesis, presumably because my tutor mentioned it to him, 'Oh, we've got a chap interested in lexicography here,' and he said to me, 'Look, why don't you go for a Ph.D.?' And here was I still looking for a job, and there still aren't any jobs."

Sasakawa Foundation

"But I got backing, and that's why I went on to do a Ph.D. I got backing from the Sasakawa Foundation. Sasakawa was a gambler, and he was lucky to avoid being charged as a war criminal. He's trying to get a Nobel prize and is setting up foundations in various countries in the hope of getting a Nobel Prize for Peace, because his father was basically a war criminal. But anyway, I'm very grateful for the three years' money they paid while I was doing my Ph.D."

"Although I applied for the grant, applying to various foundations, it was a fluke in that I was doing the right research at the right time. Thatcher was saying to the Japanese, "Look, you know about us and we're buying all of your exports" - well, not all of them, but a hell of a lot of them - 'We want to export to you but we don't know anything about you. So your companies, your big banks, have got to help us academically, set up foundations to encourage study.' And they did."

"So I got my first grant from the Sasakawa Foundation, and that went for three years, and I got my Ph.D., which was in linguistics under Reinhart Hartmann. And then I thought, OK, by this time I thought 'We need to get a dictionary.' Foreigners don't have a good English-Japanese dictionary, so I applied for research backing to a prominent finance company and got a big grant to prepare for one year's research - to prepare a sample to interest publishers."

"And by that time, I think five years after going back to England, I could say we had gotten out of the poverty trap. Not easy, I can tell you. By this time, we'd moved about three or four times. That's the other way you make money in England, by selling houses, buying another one. The property keeps going up in value. Bloody mad. Didn't realize it at the time, you know, I'd almost forgotten that satori. I wouldn't say I was so into it, but I was doing the motions, doing what people do."

Kodansha International

"So then I did that, worked on the sample, and then Oxford were supposed to do it, but the letter got lost in the system, and Stefan Kaiser, who was at London University at the time, he said, 'Why don't you try Kodansha International?' I did. I got a fax back the following day, 'We're very interested,' I sent a sample over. I got a contract straight away, signed the contract, and then, of course, Oxford rings me: a guy called Robin, Robin Shepherd. I said, 'Robin, I'm really sorry, I mean I wrote to you.' He was very disappointed and expressed regret that the letter they sent me had got lost in the system, but it was too late. I got four years to put the basics down. Very hard. A very hard four years."

First business

"I got my Ph.D. in 1990 or 1991. I was 36 when I went back, 38 when I got my M.A., 41 when I finished my Ph.D., 41 or 42, and then another four years, that was when I was about 46, when I finished the basics of the dictionary. Now during those four years, by this time we'd set up a tiny little, not a company, but a partnership: Japan Anglo Services, so we were doing translation from English into Japanese - that was my wife doing that, and I was doing all the computer side of it, the word processor, and I was teaching part-time at Exeter on the M.A. course, two modules in the lexicography course, and we always had one Japanese on the course, and my work on the dictionary would bring me to Japan now and again."

Japan Foundation

"On one occasion I was over on a Japan Foundation grant for six weeks at Tsukuba University - Stefan Kaiser was there then, but it wasn't him who sponsored me, it was Ishida-sensei, who was my Japanese teacher at ICU who happened to be over in England, and I'd met her at some conference. And when I was up there I contacted a Japanese whose M.A. I had read, and I'd been teaching him on one of the Exeter University M.A. modules. Kokkawa he was called, and we met up in Tokyo and I asked him where he was teaching, and he said 'Oh, I'm at the Bouei Daigaku, and Takudai.' And I said 'Takudai, oh really? Is Mori-sensei still there?' And he said 'Yeah, he's the gakka-cho [head of department] there now.' 'Oh, fancy that.' The following day I get a call from Mori-sensei. So I go down to Tokyo again, and meet Mori-sensei because he hired me as a hijokin at Takudai years before. And he really wanted me to link up Takudai and Exeter."


"So when I go back to England I start doing the nemawashi [a Japanese phrase meaning literally "circulating around the roots," i.e. "doing the groundwork," "setting things up"], you know, getting things fixed up, and they come over. And I fixed them up two colleges: Exeter and a place in Plymouth. They're very pleased."

"Just when I've finished the contract, done some of the basics for this, I get a fax from Mori-sensei saying that the university is going to establish a graduate school. And, to do this, we need a foreigner, and he spells it out: a professor with the following qualifications. And that's me he's describing. 'Do you know anybody?' And so I wrote back and said, well, that's me! So I came back, and I said to myself - my daughter was 13 at the time - so that's exactly 12 years ago, I said to myself, well, it'll be good to go back, because I'll be able to finish the dictionary over there. I got paid four years advance royalties, but when that stopped, my salary plummeted. So I came back over here and then I was earning very good money at the university, and in the first few years it was a piece of cake, you know, really, the last gravy train."

Mid-life crisis

"And then I had, almost, if you like, my mid-life crisis. But that mid-life crisis brought me back to the things that I had, in a sense, forgotten. But it also had something to do with the dictionary. The dictionary - that kind of work - is terribly difficult. You know, there are many people who understand Japanese as well as, and probably better, than I do, but who can do this kind of work? First of all, this kind of work is kept within the academic establishment. The name on the dictionary isn't going to be some outsider. Don't ask me why, I didn't make the system, but you have to go through all the ropes and wheels and stuff, and then you are appointed. And then later it's fed out to other people. Among the consultants there are top experts there, people who frankly I would be embarrassed to compare myself to: Geoff Garrison, an old friend from Koenji days, when I first came over. He's a top, really, an extraordinary person. Charles de Wolff, and the others: bilingual people."


"So, I come back, and after this incredibly intense, finickity, pernickity, tight work on single words and stuff, and in a funny way I suddenly had this free time. And what do I do? Quite naturally, like a piece of elastic, I boing off in a totally different direction and write two novels, which have not seen the light of day, unfortunately. They have not been published, but I will return to them. And that was an extraordinary experience. By this time I would have been 47, 48. So I was really excited by it, it was totally different, a wonderful experience. I'm convinced the stories deserve to be published. If I don't believe it, nobody will."

Language, the Big Picture

"But then something else happens: I begin to get back into linguistics. And the book that's just been published with Continuum, Language, the Big Picture, I draw your attention to the name. It's the exact opposite of a dictionary. The dictionary is so incredibly focused. If you imagine a beach of pebbles, it's like wandering along, and each word is a pebble, and you pick it up and you describe its minute difference to the next pebble; but with language, and when I got back into talking about language, I really wanted to present the panorama, the wide picture, hence in the introduction to that book I talk about several views of this phenomenon that we use to describe the world. And I compare it to, say, Hokusai's views of Fuji, where he's walking and stopping and enjoying Fuji-san from various viewpoints, and, in a way, I felt with that book I was wandering - well you know how much I like hiking - and it was a bit like hiking and stopping at one chapter and then on to another and on to another, and all I've done really is reach a base camp."

"I'm still writing about language and I'm doing another book which I hope I will find a publisher for. I'm preparing the manuscript, getting it really ready to send off to a publisher to interest them, and I hope it will be published maybe in one or two years' time. It might be my last on language, because I must admit I'm finding this one a bit of a struggle. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but, my God, it's quite an effort."

The Last City on Earth

"But I think once I finish this one, I'll go back to the fiction. The fiction is a trilogy, and it's called The Last City on Earth, and because I've been out of England for so long that I don't know what England's like anymore, and because I'm a foreigner here and I don't really know what Japan is like, so I deliberately set the stage in a future city so I could be like a master puppeteer. But the background theme is 'What is human?' and therefore I introduce into the story humans, clones, robots, savages, and people who return from having been stranded upon the Moon. And by this juxtaposition of various kinds of life forms, I try to hone in on what quality it is, what quality can define human. Very ambitious. But despite that being a heavy theme, the story is fast. I really put tempo into it. I'm going to go back to that, I'm going to try and finish it, and really do my utmost on that - probably when I'm in Portugal."

"When you're writing fiction, it's a terrible thing when people say 'Oh, why didn't you do it like Hemingway?' or 'Ian McEwan does it like this.' And, my God, it's my first novel, and you're talking about a master writer! You know, you can only do your best. And I like to think that editors might do some judicious trimming. And that's something, like with Language, The Big Picture, the editors did nothing. You look at other academic books, particularly by Americans, and you see an acknowledgments page acknowledging maybe twenty other people. And, say, with people like Chomsky, those twenty other people are top ranking intellectuals who have gone through it. Twenty other people! like philosophers, top linguists - that's collaborative work. It's like when you see the credits at the end of a movie. This is a one-man show. The dictionary wasn't. I'm really grateful to all those people who helped."

The journey

"So, to get back to the fiction, yes, that's what I want to do. And once I've done that I think I'll just put my feet up. So it's been a sort of journey, in a way, and the only thing I can say with the work I'm doing now on language is that what I am doing now is getting quite philosophical, and very difficult, and I've got to admit that I'm pushing myself to my limits, and all I can say is the only point in it is that we can know where we are in the time that we find ourselves in. That's all. Because I think we've reached a point, and this is something that I am writing about in this book, is that symbols, in other words, language - language is a symbolic system - it has opened up possibilities, and the possibilities lie in the interpretation. The interpretations create perspectives."

"So we have all these different perspectives, like biological, psychological, sociological, artistic, religious, and so on, on the same reality. So we reach a point where all we can do is just interpret. This is no final word. It's an impossibility. And yet, in a way, I feel that all we can do is just do our best and get to where we are. And like I say, if I can finish this one and get back to the fiction and finish that in a way I feel satisfied with, then I shall have done my best."

Kodansha's Communicative English-Japanese Dictionary

"And I hope that, going back to this dictionary, it has recently been attracting more attention. It is definitely the best dictionary in the genre of dictionaries aimed at English-speaking foreigners learning Japanese. I do wish the publishers would bring out a paperback so as to bring down the price, but, on the other hand, I would say to anybody who's thinking about coming out to Japan, or studying Japanese, 'If you're going to study Japanese, it's not two or three years. You're looking at a minimum of seven years. And even then you've only really just scratched the surface. So if you're going to be studying as long as that, then you might as well get yourself this dictionary, as it's worth the money. Get it, as well as a good kanji dictionary, and a good Japanese-English dictionary, too, and listen to as much Japanese as you can.'"

Interviewed by David Stormer

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