Nathalie Ng, JETAA-I Board of Advisors, Former Shizuoka Prefecture ALT, 2010 – 2011
The JET Alumni Association International (JETAA-I) serves the global community of approximately 70,000 former participants from the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. Our aim is to support chapters and individual alumni by providing information and services, some of which you can see in our list of projects below. We are also the central point of contact for anyone wishing to connect with alumni, and are working to help our alumni leverage their collective resources more effectively around the world.
Like all JETAA chapters around the world, we are run entirely by volunteers. JETAA International consists of an Executive Committee, which comprises the 19 JETAA Country Representatives from our 17 member countries worldwide, served by a core team that includes the Chairperson, Ashlie O’Neill (Sydney); and Vice-chair, Rose Tanasugarn (Japan); together with the Board of Advisors which includes Megan Buhagiar (National AJET in Japan), Matthew Gillam (New York), Ryan Hata (New York), Nathalie Ng (Singapore), Xander Peterson (San Francisco), and Webmaster Eden Law (Sydney). (As of March 2019)
- Collection of prefecture-centric resources for JETs
- Aims to help promote tourism and economic opportunities between the prefectures that we have had the privilege of living in, and our home countries
- Aims to help JET alumni with after-JET opportunities
- Postgraduate scholarships for JET alumni (currently active in the USA, but we are working to expand it to other countries)
- JETwit job-listings
- Aims to help channel the JET talent pool we’ve built up over the years to organisations looking to hire JET alumni, which in turn helps to promote the Programme to new-hires
- After JET podcast on the careers and stories of JETs after finishing the Programme
(on iTunes or on SoundCloud: m.soundcloud.com/lifeafterjet)
- Website revision to provide better information and support for chapters globally
- With the revision of JETAA-I at the 2016 International Meeting, the structure of JETAA-I has changed
- We are taking a more active role to serve the International community
- Revisions to our website aim to provide a repository for chapters to find information to help them with their activities and goals
- Nurturing and developing smaller or new chapters to maintain the sense of solidarity between chapters and members
- Aim to help smaller or new chapters to get started on their events and calendars
- Increase outreach to members and retain JET talent
- Global chapter activity calendar for nomadic JETs and alumni
- Aims to provide an overview of activities in chapters all over the world
- JETs and alumni can reach out to a chapter in the location they are moving to or visiting and see if they can join in the chapter’s activities
We’re also currently working on JETAA-I’s professional branding, as well as helping chapters to share what works best for them to help them to reach out to returning JETs and achieve their goals. We’re also concerned about mental health issues for JETs, and are working together with Megan, Director of Alumni Relations from National AJET, to help provide resources to JETs.
For more information about JETAA International visit our website (www.jetaainternational.org/). Additionally reach out to our Chair (firstname.lastname@example.org ) with your feedback or questions. This will help us implement more projects that would help to serve the international community better.
Julius Pang, Former Kitakyushu City ALT, 2004 – 2007
My name is Julius Pang and I participated in the inaugural Furusato Vision Project in 2017. I completed my project in Kitakyushu where I previously worked as an ALT from 2004-2007. I currently work as a commercial photographer, and also run my own tour company specialising in photography tours to Japan.
My Furusato Vision Project was to create an image library and video footage for Kitakyushu City that would help with their tourism promotion. The longer term goal was to create a tour product that included Kitakyushu.
Over five days, I created images of various sights in Kitakyushu, with most days starting before dawn and finishing after sunset. Several of these sights are already famous in Japan, including Sarakurayama’s night view, factory night views (kojo yakei), the TOTO Museum, and Mojiko Retro district. What I found wonderful in shooting tourism images for Kitakyushu City was being able to see the city’s great attractions in a new light – both figuratively and literally speaking. Here are some of the images I created during the Furusato Vision Project.
After completing my Furusato Vision Project, I continued to keep in touch with Kitakyushu City. My images from FVP have been used in Kitakyushu tourism promotional material, including large billboards at a busy Taipei subway station and at Kansai International Airport, and also at a tourism trade show in Taiwan.
The next step of my Furusato Vision Project was to develop a tour product that included Kitakyushu. My company specialises in small group photography tours to Japan and I believed that Kitakyushu could be included as part of an attractive tour of Kyushu.
In 2018, with assistance and support from Kitakyushu City, JR West and TOTO, we were able to create a unique and off-the-beaten track tour, the Kyushu Japan Tour, showcasing the amazing sights of Kyushu, with Kitakyushu being used as a base for accommodation and sightseeing for several days. We are running this tour again in 2019, and you can see the itinerary we have created here:incrediblephototours.com/tours/kyushu-japan-tour/
From 28th Oct. to 11th Nov. 2018, we ran the Kyushu Japan Tour and had three wonderful clients join us from Australia and England. Over the course of two weeks, we spent four days in Kitakyushu, and for our other Kyushu highlights these included Yakushima, Takachiho Gorge, the Karatsu Kunchi Festival, Gunkanjima, Mount Aso, and even a special visit to the JR West Shinkansen Railyard.
I’m looking forward to running another Kyushu tour in autumn 2019 and it will be great to showcase Kitakyushu once again to new tour clients.
I’d like to thank CLAIR and Kitakyushu City for selecting me for the Furusato Vision Project. I am incredibly happy and thankful that my project has helped with tourism to Kitakyushu City. Special thanks to Minh Nguyen (CLAIR), and Ms Shiraishi and Ms Katsuhara (Kitakyushu City) who did so much work behind the scenes to allow me to realise my Furusato Vision Project. Also, thank you to TOTO, West Japan Railway Company (JR West), and Yaskawa for providing us with special access to their facilities.
I believe that the Furusato Vision Project will continue to play an important role in creating awareness for lesser known locations and attractions in Japan. I wish all future participants of the Furusato Vision Project all the best as they help to promote their furusato.
Adam Komisarof, Former Saitama Prefecture ALT, 1990 – 1992
We are delighted and honoured to feature an interview with Dr. Adam Komisarof, a professor of intercultural communication at one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, Keio University. A former JET participant in Saitama from 1990-1992, he has given numerous talks to not only JET participants at Tokyo Orientation, but also provided corporate training for businesses across the world on effective cross-cultural and intercultural communication. In this first segment of the interview, he reflects on his time in Japan and gives advice to JETs who want to come back or continue to live in Japan. In the second segment, which will be continued in the summer issue, he goes more in depth about pursuing a career in higher education in Japan.
First of all, why did you choose the JET Programme?
Adam Komisarof: I was interested in Japan, teaching, and living in a culture very different from that in the United States. Choosing the JET Programme was very different from what most of my college and high school friends were doing. Throughout my life, I’ve made many unique, yet sometimes difficult choices without regrets, including this one.
The JET Programme has been around for over thirty years. How do you think the environment has changed? Do you think there is still a need for ALTs?
Great question. The familiarity that Japanese people have with the JET Programme is good in that teaching English in a communicative way and the goals of the program are no longer so foreign to them. JETs now have clearer definitions of what their job expectations are and what the boundaries are.
When I was on the program, we didn’t know as clearly what our role was. I’ll never forget when I first arrived at my post, there had only been one ALT before me at the school. She had left prematurely, and it seemed the teachers at the school were then very eager to make a great experience for me so I would stay. I don’t know for sure, but looking back, I think the principal probably told all of the teachers to invite me to their houses (laugh). I had so many invitations to peoples’ homes and I thought it was normal. Literally every two weeks, I was having dinner at somebody’s house, which was really fun. They invited me out a lot, too, and if I said something about myself, everyone knew about it the next day.
There’s actually a funny story―maybe a month after I first arrived in Japan, I needed lunch for the next day and went to the supermarket. I noticed this bag of fresh udon noodles in water and thought, “Oh great, I can have these noodles for lunch tomorrow.” The next day, I was at my desk eating these noodles. I was like, “Oh my God, these are just terrible!” and stopped eating them. I realized that these were actually meant to be cooked before you eat them―they were raw. Then, around six or eight months later, I was sitting at my desk talking to one of the English teachers and he starts giggling. When I asked what he was giggling about, he said, “Last summer…you were eating raw udon noodles at your desk!” I thought, “First off, why do you know that, and second, why didn’t you tell me at the time so I wouldn’t have eaten them!”
Anyway, at that time on JET, you were really under the microscope, and if you made any mistakes in this new culture, you were always scrutinized, or at least it felt that way. Today, your existence as a foreigner has been normalized, at least to a certain extent, and people have probably seen it all with an ALT or CIR before you. So Japanese people are not as off put by the diversity or the mistakes that JETs make when they enter this new culture. But at that the same time, JETs probably feel that they aren’t as special and might wonder, “Oh, do I really need to be here?”
I was reading a news article about changes in the immigration law that the Abe administration is proposing, and it explained in one paragraph that the JET Programme is really successful. It explained how JET has been successful in introducing a foreign workforce into a very important Japanese social institution—the schools—and this has gone really well. Of course, there are always problems with some people and friction here and there, but generally speaking, it has been a really successful program.
English language education is starting much earlier now. Do you think it would be better to have English teachers instead of ALTs who might not have the relevant degrees in English or education?
Educationally for the students, it would make sense if a special position were created for those JETs with a background in education, because some do come to Japan as certified teachers. For example, ALTs with teacher training could be paid more or given more years to work in Japan in their contracts. There are various challenges though; namely, Japanese teachers must pass an extensive certification process, so they might feel it unfair if foreign English teachers don’t go through the same process. At the same time, I think that ALTs who do not have training in education can also make important contributions to their schools and communities.
I majored in education, so I was a trained teacher when I arrived in Japan. Most of the Japanese English teachers left me alone to plan my lessons. Once I got their trust, very few of them felt the need even to team teach with me. A few them were really interested in English and wanted to, but they left the lesson planning to me. So I essentially planned the lessons and for the most part was teaching them. In this way, I was a “regular” teacher, even though I couldn’t attend faculty meetings and so on.
Sometimes people don’t want to stick out or be different in Japan. Like how some students don’t want to call attention to themselves despite their high language ability.
Sure, you see that many students are hesitant for their individual ability to shine if other people aren’t at that level. I personally have responded to this social pressure not to “stick out” by following it in selective situations and in others just relaxing and being myself. For example, I make a lot of oyaji gyagu and other stupidly horrific jokes. Maybe it’s because my students feel like they have to laugh at what their teacher says, but they do laugh at my jokes and seem to find it entertaining. I guess over the years, part of it is being foreign and having a certain amount of license to be different based on that, but I’ve worked on being able to express who I am in a Japanese cultural medium, which has taken a really long time. I used to feel like I had to be my rigid image of what a Japanese worker is like, and I think that was helpful in building the trust of my Japanese colleagues, but my enjoyment of living in Japan improved as I became more relaxed about trying always to be “perfectly Japanese.”
When did you start at Keio?
This will be my fourth year full-time. I’ve been teaching at Keio since 1999 as a part-time teacher. I’m tenured here now but before that was tenured at two different universities.
That sounds quite successful. Did you know growing up that you wanted to live in Japan permanently? Were you studying Japanese before you came to Japan?
Absolutely not. Growing up, I had friends from many kinds of cultural backgrounds. Also, after college, I really wanted to live somewhere outside of the US. Besides going to Niagara Falls in Canada for half a day, I had never been out of the country until I went to Japan on JET. When I was studying at Brown University as an undergraduate, I had to interview a student from Japan in a sociology course we were both taking. His father is Australian and his mother is Japanese, and he told me all about his family history and about living in Japan, so I thought Japan sounded like a really interesting place to teach and applied to the JET Programme. I went to Japan, and the first few months I did not want to learn Japanese. I hated learning French in high school because my teachers would make red marks on any small grammar mistake that I made, which was very discouraging—which is how many Japanese students studying English today feel when their teachers focus only on correcting their mistakes instead of what they have effectively communicated. So based on my experience studying French, I thought I didn’t want to study Japanese in Japan but wanted to communicate with Japanese people. I soon realized that was impossible unless I learned the language.
So I started getting into studying Japanese, and it did two things for me. One, it gave me a window into how Japanese people’s ways of thinking are structured by language and I started to see my future somehow connected with Japanese. The more I put into it, the more I was getting out of it in terms of getting to know people deeply and gaining a skill that a lot of people didn’t have. After two years in Japan on the JET Programme, I felt that was enough, as I had never intended to stay more than two years. I thought I would probably come back to visit at some point, but I needed to go back to the States and figure out who I was. I think it’s healthy for JETs to experience Japan and then go back to their home countries and know that their success in Japan wasn’t just because they were a foreigner in Japan, but because they have real skills and they can make it anywhere—just like Frank Sinatra sang (laugh). After JET, I taught Japanese and Asian Studies in America in a private school near Seattle for three years, and then I taught a college course on the east coast for about a year and a half. I felt like I was also professionally successful in America, so I was then ready to go back to Japan with confidence—instead of feeling I could only survive in Japan (which I may have felt if I had never returned to the US). I got a scholarship from the Rotary Program to study Japanese full-time here for a year and then started teaching in universities part-time. I met my wife, who is Japanese, beforehand in the States, and we returned to Japan together.
Would you say you always wanted to come back to Japan and not stay in the US?
After I returned to Japan, I would say that I was open to either. When my wife and I returned to Japan, we were under the agreement that we’d see how things go—our employment and how we liked it here. If we decided to go back to the States, we would. But then towards the end of the year that I was here, I was offered a job in a university which was a full-time, permanent position, so we decided to live in Japan. I realized after working here that just as important as your skills is your ningensei (人間性), or who you are as a human being.
That’s really interesting that you mention ningensei. If you can adapt to the culture and appreciate what it can offer you, people tend to embrace you more.
I think that’s really true when they feel that you’re flexible and open to their culture. Being an easy person to get along with and work with is really important. My advice for JETs is to let potential employers know that you’re adaptable. In everyday work, you can disagree with things, of course, but working together constructively to come to a solution is very important.
Many people have a hard time adjusting in Japan. What advice would you give them for getting used to a new environment?
One concept I like to talk about is high and low context communication. High context communication is much more nonverbal, indirect, and based on maintaining good human relations while avoiding conflicts. Also, high context communicators tend to try to read what people are saying or implying by observing and listening. There’s an expression in Japanese, “Hear one, understand ten” (一を言えば、十を分かる). On the other hand, in cultures where one more commonly finds low-context communication styles, which are more verbal and explicit, it’s OK to acknowledge differences in opinion. Of course, some Japanese are low context, but Japanese people tend to be high context. One style doesn’t fit everyone from a certain culture, but you can see patterns. If JETs can first of all learn to adapt their communication style and understand high context communication more, it’s very helpful in terms of adjustment. I can also make a shameless plug for my book At Home Abroad: The Contemporary Western Experience in Japan, which has interviews with foreigners who have lived in Japan anywhere from 15 to 55 years. The point of the book is to find out what made them so successful in their professions, communicating with Japanese, and building relationships with Japanese people.
What about being able to adjust to a different culture?
If you’re a foreigner who has adjusted to Japan, Japanese will be at ease that they can work with you. If you go back to your home country, being able to say that you’ve worked with very diverse people and can work with people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds is a huge asset.
Do you have advice for JETs who might feel that if they come back to Japan, they won’t be included in the community?
My advice to JETs would be to enjoy your relationships now as much as you can. If you get a long-term job after the JET Programme, and if you put in the time and effort, you’ll likely feel a pretty deep sense of belonging.
What about for people who struggle to find their own community?
That happened to me when I moved back to the States—in Tacoma, a small city near Seattle. Even though it is my home country, it took me about a year to meet people I really liked. The first year I was just trying to get out and meet new people, going to lectures and so on—which how I discovered intercultural communication. In Tokyo, you can find special interest groups through social media or the internet that jibe with your interests. I’d say just put yourself out there as much as possible—think about which types of situations you want to get to know people in. For example, if you love hiking, then join a hiking group, or if you love to act, there are classes in Tokyo. Identify your hobby and find a group doing those things. Just get out of your home and do as much as you can.
(To be continued in the summer issue)
Lillian Rowlatt, Former Kashiwazaki City, Niigata Prefecture ALT, 2003 – 2005
“I wonder if this experience will be relevant in the real world…”
We all have our unique reasons for embarking on the JET Program. For some it’s the adventure of living in a foreign country, for others it’s a way of gaining meaningful teaching experience. For many more, it’s a way of postponing the inevitable: picking a career path.
I spent two incredible years as an ALT in Kashiwazaki-shi, Niigata-ken. Being half-Japanese, I had always felt a strong connection to Japan and wanted to learn more about my heritage before entering “the real world”. Yet I never could have anticipated how much deeper that connection would become after my experience on the JET Program. I met so many incredible people while living in Japan: students who were eager to share their culture and love of English, teachers who went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome, and numerous people in the community who opened up their hearts and homes to me. There was always a friendly face inviting me to share a meal or join in a fun activity. These relationships were what made it so hard to leave, but when the time came for me to head home, I wondered to myself: “How will I be able use this experience when I return?”. Sure I had adapted to living in a foreign country, experienced a culture on a deeply personal level and was even able to communicate in Japanese, but would these skills be relevant in the future?
Armed with a degree in mathematics (yes I took Kumon as a child!), I ended up landing a job in finance/capital markets. With no obvious connection to my time in Japan, I chalked up my experience as an interesting talking point on my resume and focused on building my career. During that time however, I stumbled across an internal posting for a position in New York covering the Japanese equity market and thought, now there’s an interesting coincidence. I quickly realized that my experience on the JET Program had provided me with unique insights into Japan and a few months later I found myself living in Manhattan, taking frequent business trips to Tokyo and discussing market events in Japan on a daily basis.
I couldn’t have been more excited to combine my career with my love of Japan. Yet as time went on, I realized that I wanted to do more to promote the culture and traditions of the country that had become so dear to me. It was the personal connections I had made while living in Japan that were so special and what I wanted to share this experience with others. But how?
And that’s when I met Aki Sugiyama.
A mutual friend introduced Aki and I while I was visiting Japan (my home away from home). He suggested we meet as we both have similar backgrounds in finance and a passion for health and fitness. He thought we would hit it off. We certainly did.
Meeting over a meal in Tokyo, our conversation inevitably turned to food. Aki and I talked about our mutual belief that food is a key component of one’s overall well-being, as well as the many benefits that come from eating a Japanese based diet. But equally as important, we discussed how food can bring people together and can help us learn so much more about a culture and its traditions. We decided we wanted to find a way to share these experiences with others, and that’s what sparked the idea behind Kokoro Care Packages.
Kokoro Care Packages is a subscription box business that delivers premium-quality Japanese food straight from Japan to people worldwide. We focus on local, natural products that are proudly made by regional producers across the country. Not only do we connect people to the foods and flavors of Japan (many of which can’t be found outside of Japan), but we also share the stories behind the people who make them, the passion they have for their products and the special areas from where they’re produced. There’s no better way to connect to a culture and its people than through the food they eat, and Kokoro Care Packages is our way of sharing the spirit of Japan with people around the globe.
If you had asked me while I was an ALT where I would be now, I never would have dreamed that I would be co-founder of a company that represents so much of what I love about Japan. Not only do I get to stay connected to the country I call my second home, but I also get to showcase the incredible people and culture I’m proud to have gotten to know over the years. It may not be obvious how the skills and experiences you develop while on the JET Program will impact your career path, but if you keep yourself open to the opportunities and possibilities, it just might become your life’s passion.
Sarah Leck, Former Kobe City ALT, 2013 – 2018
When I came to Japan on the JET Programme fresh out of university, nobody needed to tell me that I’d be far away from everything I knew, everyone who could support me, that there’d be miles of land and sea between us. What nobody told me were the other kinds of distances that I’d have to learn to navigate in my time here beyond just the physical.
Growing into yourself as a young adult in a country different from the one you were born and raised in, surrounded by people speaking a different language, raised with different values – it can be a very jarring experience. For me, I found in this a window of opportunity to explore various parts of myself, craft a new identity for myself free of past expectations and history, collect all sorts of experiences that this newfound independence and freedom allowed me. In many ways, I am no longer the awkward, shy 23-year-old who came here and turned down invitations to parties because I wanted to do my laundry on the weekends instead (I don’t think I need to justify my need for clean clothes in the heat of Japanese summers). But in many ways, I still am.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated countless experiences and skills, expanded my network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, and built for myself some kind of reputation in the circles that I ran in. This has created a distance between my present self and various iterations of my past selves, with very few people around to bear witness to these changes. It can feel alienating, especially when new people make assumptions about you and have expectations of you based on what they see of you now, without understanding where you have come from. In a community where people are coming and going all the time, who really takes the time to do that?
With this regular turnover of people, you will learn to befriend people quickly, and with much greater reluctance and sadness, let them go when they do leave. A friend whom you could previously visit in half an hour, you now have to fly over 16 hours to see. You may now have to calculate time differences in order to set up video calls, even though it seemed like just yesterday when you were exchanging rapid fire texts from your desk about where to meet for dinner or what to do over the weekend. There is a certain poignancy in understanding that this kind of relationship condensed into a year or more, is really a reflection of the comings and goings of people through your life. People outside the JET Programme just operate on a time schedule that you’re not aware of, and cannot prepare for.
People used to ask me if I got homesick, and I told them I never did. Colleagues seemed surprised when I’d tell them I was going to travel anywhere but home over the holidays, as if I had a duty to return to my motherland every and any chance I could. It never really bothered me that I was far away from so many of the people I love. My friends are spread all over the globe – in America, Canada, Singapore, Australia, South Africa, everywhere. My family still lives in the same apartment we grew up in. I see my friends (who are presently here) once every few weeks when I’m not drowning in work, and I consider myself lucky to have them complain if we go more than three weeks without seeing each other. My partner lives 11,000 km (~7000 miles) away and 14 hours behind my time.
Physical distance never used to bother me until the indicators of the passing of time increased in frequency around me. Friends were getting married, and I couldn’t attend their weddings; they were having children I may not meet in the near future. My siblings were telling me about our parents’ health problems, and asking me to go back. My best friend here is getting married in a few days, to a lady I’d encouraged him to pursue when he’d first told me about his interest in her less than 2 years ago. A close friend’s grandfather just passed away, and as much as I want to be there immediately for her, she lives a few hours’ flight away.
Where am I in all this? What is my part in all this?
These are some questions I’ve had to ask myself, even as I try to pursue a life of my own. What kind of opportunities will I have to give up to be there for the people I love when my choices put all this distance between us? How do I choose who to be there for? Is distance necessary for me to be able to live the way I want, without judgment of my lifestyle choices from conservative, traditional parents?
Even as I keep tabs on flight prices home, and shop for dresses for the upcoming wedding, I know there is no right answer — just choices I have to keep making.