Weekly Local Biography

 Junji Taniguchi


There is a small, but growing Japanese community in Chiang Mai. This is mainly retirees, but there is also an active younger Japanese contingent here, and Junji Taniguchi, the site director of the Princeton Review, is a fine example of the ‘Eastern’ ex-pat community. He is a man who has spent more time away from Japan than he has spent within it, and despite having culture shock problems in Japan, is still proud to be Japanese, but is living here in Chiang Mai by design.

Junji was born in Osaka and his first exposure to Thailand was when he was three years old when his father, an engineer, was seconded to Bangkok. He was sent to a Japanese school in the capital, but in his everyday life he had to talk Thai with other children in their neighbourhood. Like all adaptable children he was very quickly bilingual. When his school devoted one hour a day to English, he then became trilingual, a portable skill that should have been an asset to the young Junji. However, this was initially to be a great stumbling block for him.

When he was 11 years old, his father was transferred back to Japan and Junji experienced just how cruel children could be - even those of his own kind. Because he had learned English, the Japanese school children looked upon him as a foreigner. “They changed their attitude and 9 out of 10 would ask me where I learned Japanese! This was the hardest period of time in my youth. I was not accepted because I had studied abroad.”

He had been in Japan for two years when his father was given a job offer in Singapore. “I was anxious to leave the country (Japan) and when father confirmed Singapore I was overjoyed.”

He stayed in Singapore with his parents for the next eight years, and when tertiary education was looming, his mother wanted him to go and study back in Japan. This was not what Junji wanted and he managed to convince his parents of this, even though his mother wanted him to attend school in Japan. He went to America for his final schooling and university education, where he gained his bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Education.

Like many graduates, employment in his chosen field was not instantly available and he went to work for a construction equipment company in Wisconsin. “I wanted a job, and I wanted to work in America. I didn’t want to go back to Japan, even though my parents had returned there.” This ‘interim’ employment was to last for the next three years, but eventually he had to go back to the land of his birth. Fortunately, the construction equipment company had a branch in Japan and he transferred to be with them there.

However, after one year a position came up in the educational field and he took a job as an education advisor in Japan, where he stayed for the next three years. Following this, he joined the Princeton Review group’s Japan office in Tokyo, where he spent the next ten years.

Even with Junji back in Japan, the family was not united, as his parents moved back to Thailand when his father retired from work. Bangkok had become like a second home for him and they settled in Thailand.

His mother unfortunately passed away in Bangkok, but even then, his father did not want to return to Japan. By this stage Junji was married and had a young son. “I felt like I wanted to come back to Thailand (too) and did not feel that Japan was the place to raise our son. I wanted my boy to learn the virtue and niceness of Thai people.”

Bangkok was too large a city for them and he had previously experienced Chiang Mai on a visit to see his parents. Another factor that influenced his decision to migrate to Chiang Mai was the serendipitous meeting with an old childhood friend at his mother’s funeral. This was a boy he had played with in Bangkok during those years before he had returned to Japan when he was eleven. His old chum lived in Chiang Mai and extolled the virtues of living here and Junji and his wife made the decision to relocate. Fortunately, the Princeton Review was also here and the decision was easy.

I asked him if his Thai had returned, after all these years, but he looked disappointed to report that, “It is coming back, but it is only slowly.” It was for me heartening that even other Asian people have problems with my personal nemesis, the Thai language!

I asked Junji if his boyhood bad experiences in Japan had coloured his attitude to his country of birth, but he said that he was still Japanese and that Japanese culture had changed very much from the time when he was a young boy. “It’s a different era,” he said.

Junji comes across as very fit, almost athletic in build, so it was no surprise that he listed playing tennis as his first hobby, but after that physical pursuit came books, “I read anything,” and movies, where he does movie reviews for some Japanese internet home pages. In fact, he enjoys movies so much that one day he would like to be a movie scriptwriter, a pursuit that he has added to his other long-term goal, which is to start some kind of teaching institution.

For young Japanese about to embark on their lifetime’s career, his advice was very definite. “Get out of Japan and go anywhere. You need to be exposed to different cultures. You need a goal.”

Junji Taniguchi has certainly followed that advice, and even though he says that Japanese culture has changed, he obviously still feels that exposure to different cultures will produce a “rounder” Japanese character. I would agree with Junji, but extend that to young people from all cultures.