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Thirty years of JET: countless treasured memories and priceless gaffes

As the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme moves into its fourth decade, The Japan Times asked past and present participants in the project about their most memorable experiences, from the inspiring to the excruciating. Here is a small selection of the responses.

Tim Franklin, Okinawa (2012-15)

There I sat, locked in a stare-off with a very large man of 120 kg plus. His gaze never wavered, and inside I was freaking out: How did I get here? What were they all saying? Will these be my last words?

An older gentleman motioned to me, so I made my way over and hung on every word he said. As he spoke, he continued to slap my back loud enough to wake the neighbors. Was he my “hype man” — someone there to prepare me for what lay ahead? Through broken English and gestures, I could derive two points, or so I thought: Don’t fall down, and don’t go outside the circle.

Before I knew it I was thrust into the ring with the mighty-large man who had been staring me down. I bit my tongue to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, only to realize several seconds later that everyone was chanting “Go! Go! Go!” The man came barreling towards me with such force, it all appeared in slow motion, so I sidestepped and pushed him out. “Ring out!”

And that was my first experience with sumo.

With a gem of a placement for JET, I had found myself in tropical Okinawa on a small island called Minami-Daito. Being nearly 400 km from mainland Okinawa, it’s an understatement to call it isolated. As a result, the dynamic of the island is more or less like a small village where gossip reigns supreme, and I got my dosage of it when I decided to invite some of my teaching colleagues to visit.

Being from the U.S., it’s perfectly acceptable to have female friends you hang out with or even invite over to your house. However, this is not the case in Japan. Guys and girls merely walking and talking together can be thought to be a couple by onlookers. So it’s only fair that when my female colleagues visited and stayed at my place, imaginations as to what was going on ran rampant throughout the island.

I heard it all, from talks of secret orgies to me being a terrible cheating boyfriend. (I was single at the time but they had met my ex-girlfriend.) Several weeks of explanations to the residents later, I restored my image as the good ALT (assistant language teacher) — at least with the adults on the island.

Hilary Brown was among the first batch of JETs back in 1987.
Hilary Brown was among the first batch of JETs back in 1987.

Hilary Brown, Osaka Prefecture (1987-89)

I was on the first year of the JET Programme. It was challenging and amazing. I had 13 schools in one year, some for a couple of months, others for just a couple of days. I know it is very different now, but we were sort of the pioneers.

It was not common to see foreigners in Osaka, and as a tall Caucasian woman, I was a bit of a spectacle wherever I went. Since I spoke Japanese, I was able to make fast friends. It was really fun getting to know my students, and connect with them outside of class to form deeper relationships. (No Japanese was spoken during class.)

I ended up doing some manzai (duo) comedy performances with well-known comedians on TV, and my students really got a kick out of it! I also made many friends among fellow JET teachers. I keep in touch with several fellow JETs, and we still visit each other in our various countries. I’m grateful for the experience and for the lifelong friends I made in Japan.

Alia Greenbaum
Alia Greenbaum

Alia Greenbaum, Miyagi (2007-12)

One of my favorite experiences happened on a snowy day, about a month after working on weather expressions with first-graders. That morning, as we all walked into school, two of the first-graders called out “Good morning!” Then they added, “Today … is cold! And … it’s … snowing!

“No,” I said, “it’s not snowing.” I explained in Japanese that there was snow on the ground but it wasn’t falling, so we couldn’t say it was snowing. They seemed to understand, and we parted ways.

Later on, during recess after lunch, I was playing outside with several other students when it started to snow. Those same two girls came running headlong at me, yelling “Alia-sensei! Alia-sensei!” Pointing triumphantly to the sky, they crowed, “It’s snowing!” It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be a teacher forever.

Luke Valentine, Tochigi (1996-98)

I had the most amazing start to my life in Japan, arriving in the steaming heat of July in the countryside, living close to rice fields and the buzz of cicadas.

On my first weekend I was invited to a festival to carry the mikoshi (portable shrine) with a teacher from my school and a group of his friends. I borrowed an outfit for the festival and slits needed to be cut in the white shorts, Hulk-style, to accommodate my comparatively massive thighs. The festival was a blur of intensity: lots of singing and chanting in a language I hadn’t yet learned, accompanied by moderate pain from the weight of the shrine and rapid consumption of beer.

This was in 1996, before sushi became mainstream in the U.K., and I had never actually eaten raw fish — a fact that was not lost on the family who welcomed me that evening. After the festival, I managed to sit on the floor of their home, further splitting my shorts, and the entire family watched as I ate sashimi for the first time in my life. I then went to the toilet, pushed a button and sprayed myself and the bathroom with water!

Stephen Cummings, Fukushima (1994-1997)

While we were able to resist it for a few months, eventually my wife and I, both JET participants, went to the McDonald’s at the Fukushima City train station. We were attempting to keep our experience free of overt Western influence, but we finally broke this plan to order takeout for ourselves and my brother, who was visiting from the States and had already hit his tolerance of local food after his first day.

Bringing it home, we discovered the order was completely wrong — no French fries (I’d ordered three sets), only one drink; under all the packaging I hadn’t been able to tell that the error was made. No big deal; we lived over a 7-Eleven and I obtained reinforcements.

Several months later, we returned to that McDonald’s for the first time after the botched order. They must have been watching for us, because we witnessed the manager direct the staff at the counter to provide us with the missing three fry orders, along with an additional three to make up for it. There we sat, with a mountain of fries that we weren’t about to consume. I suspect the local patrons looked at us and thought “yappari” (“just as you’d expect”).

Christina Ellis, Kobe (2008-10)

On my first tour of a school when I was very, very new with limited Japanese ability, the vice-principal was introducing me as the “gaikokujin.” I didn’t know that was the polite way to say “foreigner,” and I thought he was introducing me as the “foreign black person” because of my race. [Koku can mean “black” as well as “country.”] I didn’t say anything, but luckily a few hours later a friend told me what it properly meant. I still laugh about it now.

Josh Del Pino, Shimane (2001-04, 2010-15)

Josh Del Pino
Josh Del Pino

My first time in Japan, I was a 22-year-old college graduate with no Japanese language ability and only a textbook understanding of Japanese culture. I was the only foreigner in a small mountain town with one stoplight and, sometimes, the first foreigner my neighbors had ever interacted with.

One autumn day during a school lunch break, a group of elementary school students surrounded me and bombarded my ignorant ears with a flurry of Japanese questions. One young boy, maybe 6 or 7, caught my attention by gently rubbing my arm continuously and asking me a question, again and again, that I could not grasp.

An older child jumped in, helped and bridged the gap between us by pointing to the sky and saying the words “sun” and “burn.” After a few more amusing moments of playing charades, a synapse went off. I started to laugh and the laughter was contagious. I finally realized that this young, curious child was innocently asking me “Did you get sunburn?” or “Did you stay in the sun too long?” I was probably the first black person he had ever seen or touched.

Dalin Hamilton, Miyazaki (2014-16)

To learn Japanese, I had a rule I kept to religiously: When I learned a new word, I had to use it that day. On the day I learned the word for “housewife” (shufu), I had a dinner appointment with a lovely family. The food was fantastic, the home delightful and the company even better.

To conjure a situation to use my new word, I asked if the mother was a housewife. Upon the words leaving my mouth, the father’s eyes grew to what seemed to me the size of melons and the mother stopped in her tracks. A cold sweat came over me.

The father, after clearing his throat and gathering enough courage to repeat what I had said, informed me that I had just asked if his wife was a prostitute! Instead of saying “shufu” I had said shōfu. Oh, to have the language ability not to cause offence!

Rebecca Mesch
Rebecca Mesch

Rebecca Mesch, Gunma (2012-14)

My favorite memory is helping our school speech contest winner, eighth-grader Fumika, with her English speech. For weeks we worked for hours every day after school, going over every word, sentence, paragraph. We practiced endless repetitive drills of Rs vs. Ls, English wide vowel pronunciation and connecting sentences smoothly in her speech. We practiced gestures, eye contact and showing emotion.

Fumika has a speech impediment, so delivering a speech at all was a challenge for her, let alone in English. Fumika’s speech was about her autoimmune disease, her two-week hospital stay and her subsequent desire to become a nurse. I loved hearing Fumika practice these words over and over again, and felt the reality of her dream. Our afternoons were exhausting, but it was worth it to see Fumika’s newfound confidence and poise — in addition to her ever-rising performance in English class.

Because of our hard work, Fumika won the citywide English speech contest and competed at the prefectural level. Although she didn’t ascend to the nationwide level, I couldn’t have been more proud of her, and she of herself as well. Her improvement was evidence enough that hard work pays off and that bonds can be formed in the most unlikely of places.

Mark Flanigan
Mark Flanigan

Mark Flanigan, Nagasaki (2000-04)

My biggest gaffe in Japan was due to feeling very nervous before a big speech I was going to give at the central elementary school in the city of Hirado. As they were developing a new pilot program in elementary English, they wanted to introduce me as the new ALT. I thought they meant the students and teachers, but once I arrived, I saw that the gym was filled to capacity with parents, family members, local government officials and shopkeepers.

Although I’d prepared a short jiko-shōkai (self-introduction), I felt nervous and went to the washroom to splash some water on my face and relax a bit. As I took to the stage after being introduced, I heard some laughter emanating from the first-year students. It gradually spread to the rest of the gym, which confused me. What had I done? I hadn’t even said a single word yet!

Off-stage, one of the local teachers pointed to my feet and said: “Mark-sensei! Your slippers!” Looking down, I began to laugh as well, as I realized I was still wearing the brightly colored plastic boys’ bathroom slippers on stage. Ironically, my nervousness melted away and I gave my speech all in (imperfect) Japanese!

Amanda Imasaka, Kobe (2009-12)

Amanda Imasaka
Amanda Imasaka

The first time I was ever invited to eat with my junior high school students, it did not occur to me that even teachers bring bentos that are beautifully crafted and well-balanced as well. I walked in, took the seat proffered to me at the front of the class and met the stares of all 35 students looking at me as I rustled about in my convenience store plastic bag to produce my lunch: udon. I swear I have never eaten noodles so quietly in my life.

After the gochisō-samas were said, a few kids sauntered up to me uttering, “Ii nā. I wish I could have eaten udon.” Where I’m from, a common response would be “When you’re older like me, you can eat what you want.” But thanks to my udon blunder I learned that, for better or worse, teachers lead by example in Japan.

Melanie Cook, Aomori (1993-96)

When I first arrived, my boss told me in halting English that he was “crazy for golf.” I said, “You can say ‘crazy about golf.'” He never spoke English to me again.

One day someone said, “Oh, your boss, he loves English.” I realised that my correcting him had stopped him from ever speaking the language to me again.

Austin Gilkeson
Austin Gilkeson

Austin Gilkeson, Nagasaki Prefecture (2004-06)

By the time I was set to leave my placement, I’d gained a reputation for two things: singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver at karaoke parties and not crying during graduation ceremonies. So the teachers and students at Kashishi Junior High on the island of Tsushima conspired to make sure I finally shed some tears during my farewell ceremony.

The students, teachers and parents at Kashishi had always been warm and welcoming to me — I truly felt like part of the community there — but I had no idea what was coming. They gathered in a semicircle around me in the gym and sang a version of “Country Roads” they’d rewritten to be about the island. I lasted about two lines before I began sobbing.

To this day I can’t hear that song without getting teary-eyed and thinking about my wonderful students and friends at Kashishi.

Caitlin C
Caitlin C

Caitlin C, Hyogo (2013-15)

I tried my hand at dating in Japan, but it came with some language barriers. I once spoke about how much I hated wearing pants (trousers), especially at work. My date misunderstood “pants” as “panties,” and thought I went to school without underwear.

Adam Hacker
Adam Hacker

Adam Hacker, Shimane (2009-10)

I’ll mention first what I miss most about post-JET life: being surrounded by people willing to jump at a moment’s notice and go do something fun/new.

Visit an island off the coast for an overnight? Sure.

A walkabout konbini (convenience store) tour of the capital city? Where do we start?

Nomihōdai (all you can drink) Indian place? How much time do we have?

That being said, living in a safe and courteous country allowed us to step away from the confines of whatever expectations our passport countries had for us, and to grow into what we aimed to become. For me, it was the freest I’ve ever lived. And that allowed me to focus on helping students, co-workers, neighbors and other foreigners.

One particular experience was hitchhiking with my mate Jason through every prefecture of Kyushu. We took 13 rides with 11 people over seven days. One couple we met over dinner was on their first date. We ran all over town together, and they gave us a ride the next morning. They’re married now with two kids. (Not that we’re taking credit for that.)

Xander Peterson, Miyazaki (2009-12)

Labor of love: A gingerbread house painstakingly created by one of Xander Peterson
Labor of love: A gingerbread house painstakingly created by one of Xander Peterson’s sixth-grade students.

One Christmas I went to Costco and bought a gingerbread house kit. I made it and brought it to my elementary school classes to show off as a representation of American Christmas culture.

Unbeknownst to me, when one of my sixth-grade boys saw it he was inspired to make his own. Costco was no longer selling the kits, so he went to numerous libraries until he found a cookbook with a recipe for a gingerbread house. He spent his lunch breaks in the home economics room using the oven to bake the parts. He had to go through multiple iterations to get the shape and size of the walls and roof just right.

When the boy showed me what he had made, I was extremely touched. The teacher pulled me aside and told me the great lengths the boy went through to make it. But when the teacher told me that this amazing little boy had made the gingerbread house as a present to his little sister who was in the hospital with terminal leukemia, I was brought to tears.

It’s these kind of inspiring and meaningful cross-cultural moments the JET Programme enables.

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