Father and sons make JET a family affair


Last summer, Chris Buckland, 50, bicycled 2,100 km on a journey from Tokyo to Himeji, in Hyogo Prefecture. For Buckland, a collector of ukiyo-e prints, it was the fulfillment of a dream to travel the old Tokaido route from Tokyo to Kyoto, immortalized in the classic ukiyo-e illustrations of the Edo Period artist Hiroshige.

“My friends had been telling me to make the journey before I got too old,” says Buckland, “With my son working as an Assistant Language Teacher near Himeji, it was a good time to come.”

It was Chris Buckland’s 11th visit to Japan in 15 years. His first was in 1987, the inaugural year of the Japan Exchange and Teaching program. Buckland was one of 19 JETs from New Zealand among the 850 participants that first year. His son, Mark, 26, is considered to be the first second-generation JET.

Buckland Sr.’s interest in Japan began in the ’80s, inspired by the popular television series “Shogun.” Wanting to know more about Edo Period life, he began searching for books on Japan at his local library and took up an interest in the language. He learned about the JET program at Massey University, on North Island, where he was taking part-time extramural courses and later earned a postgraduate degree in Japanese. Seeing the JET program as a good opportunity to come to Japan and advance his studies, he decided to apply, even though he wasn’t too hopeful of being accepted because of his age. He was 35 at the time.

“When I received my acceptance,” Buckland says, “I was told I’d be going to Tokyo and teaching in a place called Hachijojima.” He looked for Hachijojima on a map of Tokyo but was unable to find it. To his bemusement, he finally located it on a larger map of Japan. It was a small island out in the Pacific Ocean, 300 km south of Tokyo, but administratively part of the capital.

“Hearing that I was going to Tokyo, I was at first afraid of the high cost of living,” Buckland comments. “Later, realizing where I was really going, my fear was that I’d never see Japan at all.”

Taking a leave of absence from his high-school teaching position at Ashburton College on New Zealand’s South Island, Buckland left for Japan alone in August 1987. His wife and two sons were to arrive four months later, in December. His first port of call following a short stay in Tokyo was Miyakejima in the Izu island chain, a 6 1/2-hour boat journey from Tokyo. There, he taught at the high school before moving to Hachijojima in February 1988. For many people on the islands, it was the first time they’d met a foreigner.

But the experience was equally alien for Buckland’s family. When his sons, Mark and Paul, and his wife, Mary, arrived in Miyakejima in time for Christmas, they were cast into another world.

“On my first day at the local elementary school, I was terrified,” Mark recalls. “All 15 students in the sixth-grade class were pointing at me, except for one girl sitting next to me. She was petrified to be sitting next to a foreigner.”

With the help of the teachers, who were enthusiastic to have Mark and Paul in their classes, the atmosphere eased up. And once the young Bucklands had impressed the local boys with their soccer skills, friendships began to be forged.

“It was on the playing field that I learned Japanese,” Mark comments. “It all started when I said in English, ‘I’ve got to go home’ and the kids replied, ‘Oh! Kaeru?’ “

In August 1988, at the conclusion of the Buckland family stay on Hachijojima, many of the island people gathered at the port to bid them farewell. At dawn, amid great fanfare, the Bucklands waved goodbye, and their boat began its 12-hour journey to Tokyo.

“In the end, the only part of Japan my family saw at that time, besides the islands, was from Disneyland to Kamakura,” says Buckland.

The Bucklands’ experience in Japan left a profound impact on their lives. They have been involved in things Japanese ever since. Buckland returned to Ashburton College, where he began teaching courses in Japanese and mathematics. Through the ’90s, he became one of the pioneers of student- and cultural-exchange programs between Japan and New Zealand.

As for Mark, who thought that kanji characters were “really cool,” he formally began studying Japanese from the age of 14. After graduating from Otago University with an M.A. in Heian Era literature, he came to Japan with his wife, Suzie, as an ALT, to improve his Japanese speaking skills. This year, he completes his third year on the JET program. While he is interested in becoming a translator, his immediate plans are to return to New Zealand and get his primary school teacher’s certificate.

“From the JET program experience, I found that I really enjoy working with children,” he says.

His younger brother Paul, 23, who has a B.A. in mathematics and Japanese and has just completed his master’s degree in mathematics, has also been accepted as a participant on the JET program. He will move to Japan this summer after marrying his fiancee, Donna, who already works as a coordinator for international relations on the JET program in Nara Prefecture.

As for Buckland Sr., he enjoys enduring friendships that he forged with the people he met on the Izu islands 15 years ago. He stayed with friends in Hachijojima, had dinner in Tokyo with a group of Japanese teachers from Miyakejima and spent a few nights in the home of his high school principal on his bike-trip in Japan last summer.