Language Barrier

Joseph Dickey Jr. ignored cynics and turned his interest in Japan into a legal niche

Published in 2021 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

By Kinsey Gidick on April 30, 2021


Joseph Dickey Jr.’s road to opening a Japanese business practice at his own firm had its fair share of naysayers, but he had a vision. 

“Growing up, there were two options of what I wanted to do: I either wanted to be a professional tennis player or a lawyer,” he says. The other thing he knew: “I’d always had an interest in Japan. I loved the depth of the culture and all the history behind it.”

He arrived at Clemson from the tiny town of Wellford. His sophomore year, he was thrilled to see Japanese in the course catalog and signed up. Even though the language and alphabet are a far cry from English, he dove in headfirst, trying to learn as fast as possible.

“But I tell ya, my dad wasn’t for it at first,” remembers Dickey. “He was like, ‘What in the world are you doing?’” 

Dickey couldn’t say how the language might benefit his future, but he knew he loved it and wanted to continue, and his dad eventually acquiesced. The same was not true for his Clemson adviser. When Dickey said he wanted a B.S. in management with an international management concentration, and a B.A. in Japanese and international trade, the adviser said, “Joseph, there’s no way you’ll be able to do that. You’ll be here eight years,” Dickey recalls.

“I walked out,” he says. 

And walked right back into Japanese classes.

Set on proving his adviser wrong, Dickey juggled a packed schedule that included classes in summer. “I ended up graduating in five years with both degrees—but,” he laughs, “I never did get to see my adviser again.”

What he did see were the fruits of his labor. By year four, Dickey could speak, read and write in Japanese. In 2004, he completed a language immersion program at Clemson, where he signed an agreement to not speak English for the duration. The next summer, as part of his degree, he traveled to Kyoto, where he went to school then worked at ABC Research and Design in Fukuoka. Dickey was tasked with researching foreign companies and writing up reports in Japanese, which meant learning to use a Japanese keyboard. After classes in Kyoto, he joined a basketball team, he says, “which really helped my Japanese.”

Dickey also got to learn their culture and business etiquette, although some lessons came the hard way. “In Japan, your business card is an extension of you and your company,” he says, adding that the exchange of cards (meishi) helps others get to know you. “It goes towards establishing a relationship with those you newly meet, and not engaging properly is rude. Unfortunately, I showed up to my first work meeting without a business card. It was a hard lesson, but I have never been without a business card since.”

At law school at the University of South Carolina, Dickey knew he wanted a future that blended his Japanese expertise with the law. But, again, he faced roadblocks.

“A phrase I remember distinctly being said to me is, ‘Well, you know, I wish you spoke German,’” Dickey recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘But what’s wrong with Japanese when we clearly have a Japanese corporate investment presence in South Carolina?’”

Once again, he decided to figure things out on his own. The summer after his 1L year, he clerked at an education and employment firm. Heading into his 2L year, he was hired by SCANA (now Dominion Energy), where he joined its legal department as a clerk. When guests would visit from Japan, Dickey would be called upon for expertise.

Now the owner of his own practice, Dickey Law Group, he is working to build his Japanese practice. Whether it’s a Japanese executive who needs help dealing with a labor or employment issue, or a client who needs help with a legal document, the cultural sensitivity he brings continues to be in greater demand. Roughly 200 Japanese companies have a presence in South Carolina, and Japan ranks second for direct foreign investment (behind Germany), according to the state Department of Commerce. As the Asian nation continues to look for opportunities in the South, Dickey hopes to be a source of help, encouraging international partnerships and serving the greater cultural conversation in the process. It’s something no one seemed to understand when he enrolled in Japanese all those years ago, but it’s certainly starting to translate.

“I think the Japanese character that means perseverance sums up my appreciation of Japanese culture as well as my attitude,” says Dickey. “Nothing of worth comes easy, and you must have faith and perseverance to succeed.”

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