“Think again, son!” Kaneya Manabu recalls his father saying in 2016 after learning he had submitted his resignation as head of the criminal police division in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture.
“Many people told me I was crazy to leave my family and a stable job behind to move to a foreign country. But I had given a lot of thought before making that decision”.
Manabu, 41, who picked the name Hoc (means learning) when he came to Vietnam, is the youngest of three sons in his family. His father was also a police officer and his mother worked at a regular office job.
He joined university in 1993, and majored in the same subject as his father. After graduation he went to work in the criminal investigation department, where he was in charge of cases involving Vietnamese nationals living in Saitama Prefecture.
Because he was fluent in English he was able to solve many cases and was considered for a key position in the criminal department.
“But it was not the life I had imagined,” he says.
His life revolved around exhausting days of unrelenting, high-intensity work.
Kaneya Manabu while serving as an officer of the criminal police division in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture in 2016. Photo courtesy of Manabu
Manabu had to learn Vietnamese in 2012 as part of a program for police officers.
He and a few colleagues took a two-month Vietnamese supplementary course at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology in 2014. When he arrived in Vietnam, his first impression was of the people’s hospitality and friendliness.
“When communicating with me, people were always smiling. Instead of the stern and cold expressions seen in Japan, they have a happy expression on their faces”.
After he returned to Japan, the image of Vietnam continued to swirl in his mind, gradually sparking a desire to go back.
In the years that followed he visited Vietnam 10 times, with each visit becoming longer and longer.
After the final trip he decided he did not want to return to Japan.
To the surprise of colleagues and family, he wrote his resignation letter in 2016.
“My boss expressed disappointment I had resigned when I was about to be considered for a promotion to a higher position. He even called me a ‘traitor’. I also faced strong objection from my parents”.
A few months later a Vietnamese language professor who used to teach at police stations helped him complete procedures to come to Vietnam to work for a software technology company in Hanoi. His job involved translating and liaising with Japanese customers in Vietnam.
But he recalls that when he received his first salary “the money was only enough to cover the rent for the house.
“I had to use my savings from years of working as a police officer to cover my living expenses”.
He attended information technology training courses and applied for a master’s degree in Vietnamese studies at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities for increasing his income.
Manabu receives his master’s degree in Vietnamese Studies in July 2020. Photo courtesy of Manabu
In 2018 Manabu set up an IT firm with two friends. After a year he resigned and opened a Japanese language school with another partner.
The center folded up within six months due to poor management. In March 2019 he got a job as the principal of a Japanese language training center at a labor export company.
But the longer he stayed, the more he fell in love with the land and its people.
He began a personal YouTube channel in 2019 to speak about his life in Vietnam and teaching Japanese here. It was targeted at Vietnamese living in Japan.
“I wanted to share useful information with Vietnamese people and help them understand Japanese culture and law. I hope they don’t end up in prison like some people I’ve met”.
He says the faces and eyes of Vietnamese when taken to the police station years ago still haunt him.
He began making videos with nothing more than a tripod and a phone. Initially he could not even get 10 views, but gradually the numbers grew, and his channel now has 68,000 subscribers, the majority of whom want to improve their Japanese and understand the laws of the country before moving there.
However, some people believe that his compliments about Vietnam are intended to garner more views.
“But I don’t mind because Vietnam teaches me how to express myself rather than hide my feelings,” he says with a smile.
Manabu has been in Vietnam for a long time and feels and acts like a local: He rides a motorbike everywhere, sits on the sidewalk to have a bowl of vermicelli soup, and is sometimes late for appointments.
He has visited more than 20 provinces and cities, and says all foods everywhere are delicious, with one exception: mam tom (fermented shrimp paste).
He admits he has never tried eating it even once.
“You could say he understands Vietnam like a native,” his colleague, Vuong Xuan Cuong, says.
Manabu and a friend at the top of Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina, in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Manabu
He adds that Manabu is patient, meticulous and careful and always has a strong sense of responsibility at work.
He returns to Japan twice a year to see his parents. Seeing him happy, Manabu’s family no longer objects to his living in a foreign country. Some of his relatives even urge him to marry a Vietnamese woman.
“Many people ask me if I am bored of Vietnam and plan to return to Japan. But I tell them ‘no’ since I will definitely continue living in the country I love”.
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