Judging in Japan (and Other Foreign GPs): A Non-English Grand Prix Guide for Judges

Written By QJ Wong
L2, Malaysia

Written By QJ Wong
L2, Malaysia

Hi, my name is QJ Wong from Malaysia (in the southeast corner of Asia near the equator). While my primary language is English, I’ve judged a number of Japanese GPs and a handful of Chinese GPs as they are much more feasible for me to travel to compared to European or American GPs.

Are you scheduled to be judging a Grand Prix where the primary language is not your own? Maybe you are considering applying for one. Or maybe you’re just generally interested in maximizing your experience while judging in such a Grand Prix?

Many judges hesitate to apply for a foreign (non-English) GP because they are worried about communication barriers. Some apply because they want to challenge themselves and experience an environment that is distinct from what they are used to.

The goal of this article is to help you make the best of your time in a foreign GP and assumes that you do not know Japanese (or the local language). If you have some level of proficiency in that language, I have some tips for you too. The examples used and personal knowledge and experience shared are mainly derived from Japanese events, but I believe they will be generally useful for GP locations that are foreign to you.


Preparation: Remember to Do Your Homework

The most important thing is to be well-prepared.

The list below consists of great advice that applies to any event. However, it’s twice as important for a foreign GP. You don’t want to have to worry about figuring out how things work, what’s going on, what’s happening (or going to happen) on top of struggling with communication issues.

  • Pay attention to the GP forums, read all the communications (emails, forum posts) that are available. Know your schedule and your assigned roles.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you are confused or unsure.
  • If you’re unsure who to ask, ask the local RC to point you in the right direction.
  • Have a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast. You’re going to need all the energy you can get!
  • Plan your transportation to the tournament venue so that you can show up early. Is there a long commute to the venue?

Showing up early not only makes sure that you give a good impression (you’re a guest after all), it will also give you a chance to familiarize yourself with the venue and get to know and talk to the local judges. Being well-prepared will leave a better impression with your local hosts too!



Prepare for a culture shock! Players and staff in Japan will rarely communicate in a language other than Japanese. However, this does not mean that they are unable to speak in English at all.

A Japanese citizen goes through 6 years of compulsory English education. Many even take 9 years including high school and some even more in colleges and beyond. Many are proficient in the language.

The problem that hinders communication tends to be:

  1. Pronunciation – The Japanese sometimes are taught to pronounce the English words they learned by non-native speakers, therefore they have the tendency to pronounce and listen in a different manner than you might be used to. Talking slowly, clearly and using simpler words and gestures will help people understand you.
  2. Confidence – Due to a lack of practice, some Japanese don’t feel confident enough to attempt to communicate with you in English. Simple exchanges, nods, acknowledgement and showing them that you understand them are important and will help build confidence for them to engage in more deeper, longer conversations.

So, what can we do about to encourage more communication? Here are some key points to remember when communicating in English:

  • Talk slowly.
  • Pronounce your words clearly.
  • Use simple words.
  • Use short, simple sentences.
  • Use gestures.

These little things will go a long way. Many Japanese judges I’ve worked with before are eager to practice their English with you. Some let me know that they appreciate how non-Japanese judges make an effort to communicate and engage with Japanese judges.


Practical Tips and Advice for Taking Judge Calls

  1. Start the beginning of the call by asking if the players would be comfortable with English. A simple, “English, OK?” is usually more than sufficient.
  2. Thankfully Magic is very universal. Sometimes questions can be understood and answered by just looking at the cards and some simple gestures – nods, shake your head, crossing your hands or fingers is a very clear way of indicating the negative in Japan.
  3. When taking the call in English with Japanese players or when talking to Japanese judges, stick to simple vocabulary and always remember to talk slowly and clearly. Jin Arai (L2, Japan) has a great example – if you want to know whose turn is it, you can try “Now. Your turn? (Turn to the other player) His turn?”
  4. Read the cards! In Japan, more likely than not, they will be using Japanese cards. Always look up the oracle card text unless you’re really sure. Even then, perhaps you should look it up anyways. Eternal formats have a higher chance of seeing English cards.
  5. Try not to start answering a judge call with a local phrase unless you are ready to take the call in Japanese or the local language – you could be mistaken to be proficient in the language!
  6. It’s always good to double-check. Especially when you think you might be dealing with a communication issue. Get a translator!
  7. Translate, don’t take over. – Of course, if you call for help from a local judge, you have two options: you let that judge take over the call entirely or you ask him to translate as you take the call. There are pros and cons to both approaches, so take the one you will be most comfortable with.
  8. If you are unsure or an instruction feels weird, always ask! Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. It’s better to ask again then to act on wrong information.


Be Aware of Cultural Differences (In Japan)

  1. Many words in the Magic vocabulary sound similar in Japanese as they are loan words! Library, card, turn, game, token, counter (of the +1/+1 type). The Japan Hobbyist maintains a Japanese Magic Vocabulary list at http://thejapanhobbyist.com/current-magic-the-gathering-vocabulary-in-japanese/
  2. “OK” and nodding are often signs of acknowledgement in Japan. Be careful when taking calls related to communication between Japanese and non-Japanese players as it might be taken as passing priority or resolving spells.
  3. An important advice from Satoshi Nikaido (L2, Japan) – Even if the person (both players or judges) you are talking to keeps nodding his head, make sure that he truly understands you because sometimes they can be reluctant to seek clarification. A common mistake is when a non-Japanese judge encounters a Japanese judge, who seems to be able to understand English. They increase their talking speed and use longer, more complex sentences, thus making it hard for the Japanese judge to follow.
  4. Hiroshi Itani (L2, Japan) advises non-Japanese judges to not be frustrated if the Japanese judge who you asked to help translate in a call appears to be taking over the call instead as they go on to have a long conversation between the Japanese judge and player in Japanese.

    “When asking a Japanese judge to translate, players can feel assured that they will be understood clearly, and therefore gives a lot of details,” Itani says. “To you, it might appear that Japanese judges are doing more than just interpreting, but it is not. Once the player has finished his story, please listen from the Japanese judge, and give us your ruling for us to translate to the player. Experienced Japanese judges know that they shouldn’t simply take over a call. However, new judges might make this mistake, as much as we try to educate them.”


Wrapping It Up and Acknowledgements

That’s all I have for now. There are more tips and tricks I have picked up over the GPs, but require some level of proficiency with the language. If you are interested in that or for more, do let me know and hopefully I have enough material to write a part two of this guide! I hope the above advice has been helpful to you! If you find any of it particularly useful, or if you have any other form of feedback, please do let me know at qj.wong@gmail.com  

This article would not have been possible without the help from many judges from Japan for offering their advice and suggestions through personal interactions, emails and Twitter. Arigatou gozaimasu!