I spent the best three years of my so-far short life in a little town in Japan called Taishi-cho. The town is nestled in the foothills of a string of mountains that separate the prefecture of Osaka from Nara. Through it run the remnants of an ancient road that to this day winds up the hills and over that valley where over 1,500 years ago stood the ancient capitols of the Nara Valley. It is the oldest road in Japan; and in its day goods from the Silk Road passed on their way to the capitols. I lived in Taishi alone most of the time, in a two-story house in a normal neighborhood. If I close my eyes, I can see the sunny grapevines behind my house like they’re right there, can still picture my kitchen, or feel the wind as I ride my bike through the rice fields. I also still remember the journey to my little junior high school every day, where I’d pass the lake and the old cemetery, while in the background stood the mountains and Mt. Niijo (Two Sisters Mountain) as dark and silent as ever. I learned a lot of things in that town, about Japan and about myself, and though that period in my life is past, I carry those memories in my heart.
It wasn’t my first time to Japan. I’d been lucky to have traveled there once, and I had returned again for a study aboard. After I arrived on the JET program, I took the first opportunity to travel I could. First, I traveled around the country, for those who know: to Kanazawa, Nara, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, Kamakura, Wakayama, Koyasan, Okinawa, Amami-Oshima. I’ve traveled to more places in Japan than many Japanese themselves. The JET program also allowed me the time off and money to travel outside Japan. I went to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia (Bali), South Korea, and France on spring, summer, and winter breaks. Travel, much like the JET program, is what you make it. It can be a wonderful growing experience if you allow it to be.
I find a lot of people approach the JET program the wrong way, and so they never allow themselves to grow and change through the experience. Many enter the JET program because they finished college and they still want to party, still want to travel, and want few if any responsibilities. For these people, the JET program is a natural choice. After all, teaching English? You could fall out of bed drunk and still teach a class. For these people, the JET program is like “adulthood-lite”. It’s good money, a cushy life protected by your local school board, great travel, with, best of all, a finite end to the program. You can choose to renew your contract at the end of every year for 3 years maximum.
Most people come to Japan with the expectation that it will be like an extended spring break. Unfortunately, they often come knowing nothing about Japan or the Japanese language. For many it is their first experience of a foreign culture outside Canada or Western Europe (both of which aren’t that vastly different from the US).
One of the most difficult things for these newcomers is not being able to communicate. If you read that sentence, then you probably think you know what it meant, but chances are you don’t. Chances are you probably can’t remember what’s it’s like to be a child again, to communicate only through gestures and have no reading or writing ability. This is exactly what you’re reduced to when you enter Japan. The change can be difficult and lonely. I cried like a small child the first night of my homestay in Hakodate.
Other things are just the simple fact that you’re instantly recognizable as a foreigner (unless you’re Asian, in which case you suffer from a different kind of expectation on the part of Japanese). Did I get pointed at or stared at? Yes. And of course I got mad sometimes, but I took heart in the fact that many minorities in this country get far worse treatment and in less obvious ways. And besides, for many of the people who saw me, I was their first experience of meeting a foreigner in-person. I tried to make such experiences positive ones.
Yes, I was different, but I was also special in Japan. For a brief three year time, living in my small town of Taishi was like being a rock star. This meant I had no privacy. Everyone knew me and knew where I was going, what I was doing, even if I didn’t know them. I was 6’2’’ and one of the only foreigners in the entire town of 15,000, and my arrival had been announced in the local newspapers. The upside was, I was treated like a minor celebrity and everyone was friendlier to me than they would’ve been to the average Japanese Joe down the street.
I went to Taishi-cho as a teacher, but looking back on it now, really I was a student. I learned a lot from the people around me and from the whole experience in general. One of the main things I learned in Japan was to be a professional. I learned this from watching my fellow teachers and even my students. When I got to school at 7am and saw the teachers and students all already there, and how they stayed until 9 or 10 or later at night, I learned what dedication meant.
I did learn about teaching though. I learned that it is an art, not a science, and being a good teacher meant having patience, a sense of humor, but also a willingness to perform. I still think good actors could probably be good teachers, because both have to captivate an audience for an extended period of time, and do it again day after day.
I learned about professionalism, and working to be the best at whatever I do. This was quite a change from student life. I don’t think there’s any way to understate the difference. In the end, I learned about my students as individuals. I always thought I would’ve jumped in front of a car, done anything to protect them and I still have that same sense of protective pride, despite the distance and time. To this day, I’ll receive an occasional email from them, and I’m proud to hear now that they’re in college.
That my experience turned out to be positive was a result of the wonderful people around me, whose faces I can still see as I write this now. I hope that, even in some small way, I impacted the lives of the people, students, and parents I met. I know they changed me.
The JET program is a lot of things to a lot of people. I understand this. Japan is as varied as America is. It could be simply the guy who’s your boss who decides if your experience is heaven or hell. There are many variables, including the person going, but Japan can be a positive experience if you’re prepared to work and struggle.
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