Wakatta Forever

The lessons Matthew Draper learned in Japan influence his arbitration practice

Published in 2023 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine

By C.A. Hudak on September 25, 2023


It was the summer before his senior year in high school and Matthew Draper was faced with a dilemma: Get a job or go to Japan as an exchange student. It wasn’t much of a dilemma. “I wanted to avoid doing hard labor in the Santa Fe sun all summer,” he says. “And Japan blew my mind.”

Dropped into what he calls a “never-ending sea of three-story buildings” in suburban Tokyo, Draper found himself in a place where he could not see the horizon and did not understand the language.

Draper at the Onbashira Festival in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, in 1998.

An early moment stands out for him. In one of his classes at the local high school, a teacher and student were disagreeing on a subtlety of English, and Draper was asked to settle the debate. After explaining that the student was correct, Draper looked at the teacher and asked, “Wakatta?” Do you understand? It was a word he’d learned from his host family. Except he was using it informally. “Speaking to anyone outside the home, you would conjugate it differently. You would say, ‘Wakarimashta,’” he says. “Wakatta is the way you’d speak to your brother or sister, not a teacher.” When the students laughed, “I realized very quickly what I’d done.”

That summer may have been brief but its influence was long-lasting. At Princeton, he wound up studying Japanese and writing his senior thesis on postwar Japan. After graduation, unable to find work in Japan, he taught English in Bangkok, then moved to Hong Kong where he edited the inflight magazine for Thai Airways.

The expat life was good, but after a few years he was thinking of returning to the U.S. “to get serious and maybe go to grad school.” Then a former professor introduced him to someone who introduced him to Akiko Yamanaka, a member of the Japanese Parliament looking for a legislative aide to assist with her work with the foreign affairs committee. That’s how Draper became one of a handful of foreigners working as aides in the Japanese Parliament.

Most of his work involved research, speechwriting in English, and drafting other English language documents for Yamanaka. On the team was an office manager whom Draper considers key to his success. A former flight attendant for Japan Airlines, she was a consummate professional who showed Draper how to, for example, receive visitors appropriately. “Getting the wrong verb conjugation—like wakatta—when a visitor comes to the office to visit your member of Parliament, is not OK,” he says.

He adds: “Often, in Japan, I was in situations where I didn’t fully understand everything being said. And even if you think you can figure everything out based on the information in front of you, it’s often better to bide your time until you more fully understand what’s going on.”

On one level, Draper’s current arbitration practice has little to do with what he learned in Japan. The international commercial disputes he mediates tend to involve parties or disputes related to South America and Europe. On another level, it has everything to do with what he learned in Japan. In each step of the arbitration process, as more information becomes available, some arbitrators might be tempted to decide the issues early. “I try to wait to decide until I have everything in front of me,” he says.

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