There is no better place to look than the JET community to find people who are passionate about Japan and the area they live in. This is why the 100 strong ALTs based in Kobe were my first port of call when looking for participants in the Kobe PR Ambassador scheme launched in 2016.
In my role as PR Specialist in the Kobe City Government, I am tasked with promoting Kobe as a destination to visit, live, and do business to the wider world, from a foreigner’s perspective.
Setting up official social media accounts, it soon occurred to me that there are many other people with a passion for Kobe and a large social media following, and that creating a new community of such like-minded people could not only provide a signal boost to Kobe’s promotion, but could also bridge the gap between the government and foreign residents, as well as the gaps between the many separate foreign communities in the city.
Out of this idea was born the Kobe PR Ambassador scheme. In the first year, the Kobe City Government appointed 19 non-Japanese Kobe residents from 10 countries and regions around the world as Kobe PR Ambassadors. In their voluntary role, they use their social media and net presence to talk about the beauty and charms of Kobe they find in their daily lives. Their posts are shared on the Kobe PR Ambassador official Facebook and Twitter accounts, enabling other Kobe fans to see their posts in one place.
Kobe PR Ambassadors also go on several organised tours throughout the year, where they are taken to highlights around Kobe, and given the opportunity to learn more about and promote the city. In the first year of the scheme, the PRAs went on an exclusive cruise of Kobe Port, visited Suma Aquarium and went behind the scenes, got a special taste of the Higashinada Sweets Meguri (a yearly Kobe event with a bus visiting over 40 local cake and sweet shops), and were entertained by geisha, toys, and more in Arima.
Young English-speaking people who live, work, or study in Kobe and who love the city are eligible to become Kobe PR Ambassadors, and this is why I approached the JET community in Kobe – they fit the bill perfectly. In the first year five JETs took part, and this number grew to eight in the second year of the scheme; the JETs (and ex-JETs) in the group display their trademark enthusiasm, a ‘genki’ attitude, and willingness to get involved that is so often found in JET participants.
After the success of the first year, the scheme was expanded in 2017 with 25 PR Ambassadors from 16 countries and regions around the world. Our multilingual PR Ambassadors are encouraged to write their posts in other languages, as well as English, we have increased the number of tours from four to five, and have set up a new website at www.kobe-pra.com, featuring a blog by the Kobe PR Ambassadors, tour reports, a map of key recommended spots in the city and more.
The project is a win-win, offering low-cost and authentic promotion from a foreign perspective for the government, and gives unique experiences and new connections for the PR Ambassadors, including JETs. In addition, the Kobe PR Ambassadors act as a go-to group of foreigners for departments all around the government. They have been approached to be extras in movies and dramas filmed in Kobe, given their opinions on foreigner-targeted promotional material such as videos, and are even the faces of the ‘Harvest Kobe’ initiative to promote urban agritourism in Kobe. harvestkobe.jp/en.php
I very much hope that municipalities around Japan continue to involve local non-Japanese residents in their promotion, and particularly, that they leverage the passion and drive of JET communities throughout the country.
About the author
Born in Northampton, UK, Louise first visited Japan as an exchange student in 2010. After falling in love with Kobe when on a summer course, she returned there in 2011 as an ALT before switching roles to become CIR at the Kobe City Government in 2013. She took up the role of PR Specialist in April 2015, promoting the city to non-Japanese people through social media, video, print and online, and establishing the Kobe PR Ambassador scheme. She is currently Chapter Representative of JETAA Western Japan since taking up the position in April 2017.
Two extraordinary JET Programme experiences
Aurélie Noel, Former Ibaraki Prefecture CIR, 2010-2013; President of JETAA France
The backgrounds and experiences of JET Programme participants from France have many points of commonality, but can be quite different at the same time. Despite an academic journey including a lot of learning of Japanese language and culture, the JET Programme has unexpected professional and personal experiences lying in wait for its participants and the involved local communities. This was the case for Anthony Lieven, former CIR for the Municipality of Misasa (Tottori) from 2011 to 2016. Anthony studied Japanese at the University of Paris-Diderot and it is his passion for Japanese cinema that led him to choose to learn about Japanese culture. Misasa is a spa town of a little less than 7,000 inhabitants, whose sister city, since 1990, is Lamalou-les-Bains (Hérault), a French town also known for its beneficent waters. Misasa has hosted a French CIR since 1993. Anthony had never heard of Misasa until his arrival in 2011. He thought there would be at least one JR station in town but he soon realized that there wasn’t any and that it was necessary to go to the neighboring town to take the train… He was also really surprised by the size of Misasa, being two times bigger than Paris but mainly composed of mountains. Misasa began building ties with France in the early 1950s, creating the Marie Curie Festival to honor the scientist who discovered radium, a radioactive element like the radon which gives the hot springs of Misasa its unique and healing properties.
Anthony’s work over the past five years has been made up of major projects, including chaperoning of a group of school children every year in Lamalou-les-Bains. It was a lot of work and responsibility, but it is these intense moments that reflect the strong ties between these two cities. Anthony was also able to realize one of his childhood dreams by having the chance to make two films (54 and 26 minutes), with the participation of the inhabitants of Misasa. It took three years to direct these two short films that required a lot of professional and personal investment. Anthony also created about fifty promotional videos for the city. With Anthony’s passion and knowledge of Japan, the JET Programme not only helped the city of Misasa to increase its tourism promotion capacities but also offered Anthony an unforgettable experience. Anthony would have liked to stay in Misasa but he eventually moved to Tottori Prefecture due to a different job offer. He currently works in a company that creates websites and software and is involved in the research and development of medical equipment.
Just like Anthony, Alice Bonamy, another French CIR, stayed five years (2011-2016) in the city of Kyoto and made unforgettable experiences. Originally from Bordeaux, Alice first studied Japanese at the University of Bordeaux III through a B.A. in English and Japanese, specializing in international negotiation, followed by a year in Fukuoka as an exchange student through the ‘Japan In Today’s World (JTW) Programme’. She completed her studies with a master’s degree in Bordeaux. The CIR position at Kyoto Prefecture had already existed for a long time but Kyoto Prefecture was hiring a French participant for the first time. During these five years Alice was responsible for interpreting, translations, cultural exchanges, and seminars and contributed greatly to building a partnership with the French region. Particularly worth mentioning here is Alice’s passion and the energy she invested in the partnership between Kyoto and the Occitania region. The many similarities between Kyoto and the Occitania region (a culturally and locally anchored agriculture, a coastal zone, a balance between traditions and modernity, and a flourishing cultural life) were another factor that greatly contributed to this partnership building.
Anthony gazing at the camera with a serious expression on his face as he captures an image.
Nevertheless, it took four years, until the partnership agreement was officially signed in June 2015. One of Alice’s work duties even included supporting the official Japanese delegation during their visits to France. This was a very challenging but diverse role: Alice had to jump from the translation of an official bilateral agreement to the technical interpretation for a visit of an oyster farm, while fulfilling her role as a guide and coordinator in France. Again, it is the high linguistic communication skills of French JET Programme participants that can become a key asset for contracting organisations in order to take concrete steps to create partnerships.
Alice interpreting during a courtesy visit by French oyster farmers to Kurimihama.
Alice also had the opportunity to interpret for the leaders of the biggest hotels and ryokan in Kyoto and the representatives of a Swiss hotel school for well-known French chefs. After her JET experience and wishing to stay in Kyoto in order to be able to give back to the city that gave her so much, Alice worked in the sake industry for a year. Now, she is facing a new exciting challenge: she is currently working as an interpreter for the Japanese national cycling team and will accompany the team to every international championship until the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo!
French participants on the JET Programme can bring a lot of value to Japanese communities.
Trilingual, flexible and creative, they give impulse and a new dimension to the various local projects carried out, whether cultural or economic. Their knowledge of Japanese culture, both traditional and modern, is also an asset as they are able to work in various fields and reach large audiences, creating a link between Japan and France/ Europe but also between Japan’s local governments and their citizens.
*This article was originally published in CLAIR Forum, 333rd edition, as part of the JET Letter section.
About the author
From Picardy in the north of France, Aurélie studied Italian at Sorbonne Nouvelle University and Japanese at Paris Diderot University before leaving for Japan to teach French at a language school in Tokyo for three years. She participated in the JET Programme between 2010 and 2013 as a CIR in Ibaraki prefecture. She was also a Support Group Leader for all French participants on the JET Programme during her appointment. She became president of JETAA France in 2016 and after completing a master’s degree in risk and crisis management, she started to work as a consultant for the World Bank. Aurélie is passionate about Japanese language and traditional festivals.
From JET to JET Alumni; Like Climbing Mount Fuji A Second Time
Ashlie O’Neill, Former Hyogo Prefecture ALT, 2010-2013; Event Coordinator with JETAA New South Wales
Ashlie wearing a kimono. Photo by Mrs K. Hasegawa.
During my last month in Japan I went from Aomori to Okayama and I climbed Mt Fuji, a feat I once thought impossible as an unfit non-climber with no training. At the top of Mt Fuji, I looked down over Japan and reflected on how the last 3 years had been life changing and how much I had learned and experienced. Looking back on it now, climbing Mount Fuji was a bit like leaving JET and my experience with reverse culture shock. I had prepared myself for the climb up, the cold, the dark and the thin air but the way down was so much harder than I could have ever anticipated.
A grand view of Mt. Fuji. Photo by Ashlie O’Neill.
Upon returning to Australia the reverse culture shock came. I could understand everyone’s conversations, drivers were more aggressive, take-out food took longer, there was a lack of order in general, and people used phones on trains, – which still makes me nervous now. But I was not prepared for the other ways my culture shock manifested itself.
I didn’t fit in anymore. It was not that my friends and family didn’t care about me, but their situations had changed. The world did not stop because I went to Japan. I changed a lot in Japan; I become more independent and learned to love the freedom that came with living alone. I was confident and a lot more outgoing. I was an adventurer, willing to try new things and meet new people. Those around me often treated me like the insecure, needy, homebody that had left in 2013 and it made me feel like I was sliding back into my old self.
I found myself afraid of being out at night or catching transport alone. When I was in Japan it was easy to distance myself from bad things I heard from friends and family emergency services but when I got home I never felt safe; I lost my independence, and no longer felt safe in my own home. I lost a huge part of my new identity.
Finding a job that I was passionate about was at times, soul crushing. I loved my job as an ALT. I was passionate about it but I knew it wasn’t a career for me. My degree led me to government jobs, diplomacy or politics, but did I want that? Two days after returning I began a contract as an administrator in foster care. It was emotionally draining work. My five week contract turned into five months, however, when a permanent role came up I knew it just simply wasn’t what I wanted. I also had a contract in human resources within the Department of Education, but after a while I realised the position was a lot more data entry than I had expected and was very dehumanising.
In September, I attended the JETAANSW 30th Anniversary event. It was nice to see familiar faces and talk to others who were also struggling with settling back into life. Many had jobs they disliked but others had been unable to secure one at all. Talking to other people about the struggles we were all facing helped me to relax. Reverse culture shock had hit us all badly but together we were able to laugh and support each other. Many alumni mentioned that they had also felt lost before finding their current careers. They encouraged me to just keep trying and not get disheartened. I was very thankful for the chance not only to talk to other returnees but also to talk to JET alumni who told me their personal stories.
One ex-JET in particular spoke to me about her job in International Student Services. I had no idea that a job so perfect for me even existed and, after talking with her, everything about my future felt a whole lot brighter and exciting. I knew that was what I wanted. Again, I began applying to jobs left, right, and centre but not even one employer replied. Still no luck. I felt more useless than ever.
Eventually I contacted an ex-JET I had met in September; I told her how little luck I was having with my job search. We organised to meet up and it was incredibly helpful to get advice from someone with experience in the field. We sat and talked and she pointed out which of my skills would be most important to highlight for the positions I was applying to. With her help my CV got a much-needed renovation. We discussed the hiring process, job responsibilities, and possible other avenues for getting into international departments at universities.
That week I had a phone interview, then an in-person interview and another rejection.
It had been more than 6 months since I returned from JET and every application was harder than the last. It felt awful having people judge me as not worthy and not getting replies when I had spent days or weeks putting together my applications. I was miserable.
Next, I broadened my search because I just wanted to start a career so badly. Early this year I attended the JETAANSW Annual General Meeting and became one of two Event Coordinators. I love spending time with other ex-JETs and people in the Japan community. With events to focus on in my free time and working with another returnee, I had things to look forward to.
One day I received an e-mail from somewhere I had submitted my CV a few days earlier. We had a phone interview and the job sounded perfect. Next, I was asked to an interview. I wanted to be excited but I had learnt to not get my hopes up anymore.
The interview went well. I met many members of the small team and toured the campus with a Senior Residential Assistant. I told myself they would probably find someone else anyway. I sent an e-mail the next day thanking the staff for the chance to interview with them. I received a friendly e-mail back saying they loved meeting me and would be in contact and then the all-too-familiar silence followed.
The silence was broken by a friendly e-mail telling me that they were still discussing applicants and thanked me for my patience. Then, a text from the programme director directed me to my job offer e-mail.
Photo by Alex Fricke. (Hyogo Prefecture JET 2016 to present.)
Finally, I got a job in the area I wanted to build a career. Finally, someone saw the value in me and my experience! Finally, the feeling of uselessness went away. I was finally beginning to build the rest of my life.
So then, this is my advice for returnees about what lies ahead. Join your closest JETAA. They will connect you to other JET alumni, organise events, and keep you linked to Japan. No-one knows what a JET has been through like another JET.
Like climbing Mt Fuji the road will be difficult, sometimes in ways you couldn’t have planned for. Give yourself and those around you time to adjust. It is ok to not be ok; this is a huge change and if you need to, reach out to someone and just talk to other returnees or alumni near to you. Be patient; it may take longer than you planned but eventually you will reach your destination. Don’t give up on your goals. In the end, it will be worth the hard work and the waiting.
Sitting Next to Basho—From the JET Programme to a writing career
By Sonia Saikaley, Former Miyagi Prefecture, Shiogama ALT, 2007-2008
Basho and Sonia.
I met Bashō in 2007. Well, sort of.
I stepped off the train and made my way through a crowd of tourists in Matsushima. Weeks earlier, I had arrived in Miyagi from Canada to take a position as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Shiogama, a city not so far from Matsushima. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave my life in Ottawa, but I had been thinking about teaching abroad on and off since my father’s death in 2003. Grief had fractured my spirit but after a while, I began to heal. After taking care of my ailing father, I realized life was short. I had been in the same job for almost ten years and had a stable life but something was missing. I needed an adventure and this led me to fill out an application for the JET Programme.
My day job was a side thing to my real passion: writing. Since I was a child, I dabbled in poetry, then short stories and, after university, I became more disciplined and found the courage to submit my work to publishers. Despite the rejections, I kept writing, kept dreaming, kept hoping. Then a few acceptances appeared like cherry blossoms in the spring and these published pieces encouraged me to keep at it. As a writer, you have to take rejection in stride. Just like stumbling when first learning a language or experiencing a new culture. The initial shock can be discouraging but you have to keep going.
What a fascinating culture Japan was for me! I knew I would find much inspiration in the world of cherry blossoms, kabuki, hot springs and tea houses. And, of course, there was the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō.
Sonia eating beef tongue.
After having an interesting lunch of gyutan (never thought I’d eat tongue but it was a delicacy in Miyagi and being daring, or trying to be, I ate the beef tongue and absolutely loved it!), I wandered around Matsushima taking in the kokeshi doll shops, the beautiful gardens and temple. Then I found a papier-mâché of Bashō himself. I inched beside him on a bench and had a photograph snapped. Cameras flashed all around Bashō. I suddenly felt pity for the poet and lowered my head for getting caught up in the frenzy.
Later, I found silence on the long red bridge where I imagined Bashō praying centuries ago. What would he think about the excitement around him? Would he embrace it or seek solace in the woods? Did he pen his famous haiku about Matsushima on this bridge? I pulled out my journal, which I carried with me on all my travels across Japan, and wrote out there with seagulls soaring in the sky and waves rocking against the bridge’s beams.
In Japan, I wrote and wrote. On bridges. On rocks along the hot springs. On benches in shrines. On trains. On ferries. In sushi restaurants. Late at night in my quaint apartment. I tried to capture snapshots in the form of poetry. I met wonderful people who were generous with their time and who wanted to share their culture with me. I attended shamisen and taiko concerts, participated in tea ceremonies and local events and after every experience, I created a world with intriguing characters.
The Pink House that inspired the title poem of A Samurai’s Pink House.
Across from my apartment building stood this old pink house. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and glance out the windows, mesmerized by the mystery of that place, which appeared to be abandoned. I could, however, see shadows and I imagined that this residence had once belonged to a Samurai, perhaps a female Samurai. Many of my experiences in Japan contributed to my new poetry collection A Samurai’s Pink House. My time on the JET Programme provided the inspiration for the poems. During my stay, I met a few aspiring writers who, like myself, kept journals. My creativity and perseverance grew in Japan. It made me a better writer.
To be a writer takes courage and discipline. While teaching English in Japan, I witnessed this bravery and self-control on a daily basis from my students, who struggled with a new language but never gave up, to the teachers, who spent countless hours marking papers, counselling and schooling students and supervising afterschool activities. Teaching is a vocation like writing. Both inspire. Both require compassion and patience. Getting published takes hard work just like anything else. The JET Programme was an amazing way to immerse myself in Japanese culture and I am sure Japan was and is a muse for many former and current JETs. Writing is a curious calling and if you have journals filled with words or memories that are just waiting to pour onto your computer screen, I encourage you to get to work. Set aside the time. A visit to your local library will introduce you to resources about writing. One book I found particularly inspiring was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. This memoir compares writing novels to running marathons. Writing is very much a marathon rather than a sprint. It can take years to complete a novel. Although it isn’t always necessary, a creative writing class can be helpful when starting out as a writer. Many colleges and universities offer these courses. Other writers want to plunge right into the world of publishing and a good place to start would be with the resource: www.placesforwriters.com. Places for Writers is a wonderful forum with calls for submissions. Like any other career, building a writing CV helps when you are ready to submit a full manuscript to publishers or agents. I would suggest submitting writing set in Japan to magazines such as Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (www.asiancha.com) and Ricepaper Magazine (www.ricepapermagazine.ca/submission).
Japan was a gift to me and I wanted to thank those who helped me along the way with a book of poetry. Maybe this is your gift too? If so, ganbatte kudasai!
About the author
Sonia Saikaley’s new poetry collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, is published by Inanna Publications. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest and her first collection of poetry, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, was published in 2012. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street, which was awarded an Ontario Arts Council grant. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa, Canada. From 2007 to 2008, she worked as an ALT in Shiogama, Miyagi. Visit her website at www.soniasaikaley.com/