Janette B. Fuller, Former Fukuoka Prefecture ALT, 2002 – 2004
Janet Crick, Former Miyazaki Prefecture ALT, 2002 – 2004
A smorgasbord of poignant reminiscences, congratulatory messages, heartfelt tributes and inspiring music captured the essence and spirit of a robust 20-year relationship between the JET Programme and Jamaica. Such was the engaging event which captured the hearts of the 69 attendees at a virtual celebration of the JET Programme in Jamaica organized and hosted by the JETAA Jamaica on November 20, 2020. “Celebrating 20 in 2020” was the fitting theme chosen by the Alumni Association to commemorate a two decade long relationship characterized by rich intercultural exchanges, long-lasting friendships, and strong collaborative ties between Jamaica and Japan.
2020 was an unusual year by any standards. The pandemic triggered by the rapid global spread of the COVID-19 virus effectively rendered a large gathering to celebrate this momentous occasion impossible. It seemed a celebration of the JET Programme’s twenty year tenure in Jamaica would go the way of the many other activities planned by JETAA Jamaica for 2020. But as the summer drew to a close, the Association’s waning, doubtful spirits were buoyed by the enthusiastic insistence of the Ambassador of Jamaica to Japan, Her Excellency Shorna-Kay Richards, that this important milestone should not go unmarked. Her enthusiasm proved contagious, and so, rallying their spirits, a committee comprising members of JETAA Jamaica and spearheaded by President Marsha Dennie, embarked on the challenging task of planning the event with strong support from the Embassy of Japan in Jamaica.
Celebrating 20 in 2020 went not only virtual, but global as well, and a full entertaining and engaging programme enjoyed the participation of Ambassador Richards, H. E. Masaya Fujiwara, Ambassador of Japan to Jamaica; Mr. Hiroaki Isobe, Executive Adviser of the Council of Local Government for International Relations (CLAIR); and Ms. Grace McLean, Acting Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MoEYI), who all brought congratulatory greetings hailing the success of the Programme over the years. This success was recognized as being due in no small measure to the excellent cadre of Jamaicans who have represented their country on the Programme since its inception. Former Jamaican JETs residing in and outside of Jamaica, current Jamaican JETs across Japan and the many friends, affiliates and supporters of the Alumni Association also joined in the celebrations, bonding virtually and enthusiastically over the reflections of current and former JETs spanning the two decades. A pictorial journey down memory lane along with powerful and moving vocal contributions from Alumni still residing in their adopted homeland of Japan added an extra sentimental touch to the evening’s programme. The recurring theme throughout the event was the profound and far-reaching impact which the JET Programme has had on the individual lives of the JET participants, as well as on the broader communities with which they have interfaced over the years. This was underscored by Mr. Shawn Aarons, Keynote Speaker, who was among the dubbed “Pioneer Group of Eight” who first ventured out on the programme in 2000.
It was under Shawn’s leadership that a fledgling Alumni Association was launched in the early 2000s upon his return to Jamaica. Bolstered by support from the Embassy of Japan, the Alumni Association has grown and blossomed over the years, undertaking a wide-ranging slate of activities annually which include promotion of the JET Programme in tertiary institutions, essay competitions and poster competitions for students at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, beach clean-ups on International Coastal Cleanup Day, and recycling initiatives in schools. Through these activities, JETAA Jamaica has lived up to its motto of fostering awareness and cultural exchange between Jamaica and Japan. A Jamaican population with a healthy curiosity for Japanese culture, facilitated in part by an affinity for Anime and Japanese dramas has welcomed these initiatives with warmth and enthusiasm.
Additionally, the Alumni Association has collaborated with the Embassy of Japan over the last fifteen years, assisting them with school visits to promote Japanese culture among students, as well as volunteering at various cultural events such as film festivals and Japan Day celebrations. JETAA Jamaica further lends important support to the JET Programme process, from the stage of document screening of applicants, through to the interviewing process and the pre-departure orientations for the selected candidates.
The “Picnic by the Poui” is an important cultural feature on the Association’s calendar each year. An homage to Japan’s Hanami, this celebration puts a Jamaican spin on the cherry blossom viewing tradition with a picnic beneath a poui tree planted by the JETAA Jamaica in Hope Gardens – the capital’s picturesque botanical gardens. The poui, a brilliant yellow blossom which can be seen in prolific bloom across the Jamaican landscape between March and May each year, provides a perfect backdrop for a relaxing afternoon appreciating nature and enjoying sumptuous Jamaican and Japanese fare. Joined by representatives of the Japanese Embassy and Japanese clubs, affiliates and friends of the Association, the event is usually punctuated with fun-filled games and activities as well as opportunities for bonding, fellowship and of course sharing about Japanese culture.
JETAA Jamaica is elated at the longevity of the JET Programme thus far in Jamaica and looks forward to ongoing collaboration with CLAIR and with the Embassy of Japan in Jamaica to ensure the Programme’s continued success. It has one Chapter in Kingston, the island’s capital, but dreams of the day when it will have chapters across several regions of the country which will enable it to significantly ramp up its promotional activities to showcase Japanese culture and promote the JET Programme island-wide.
Haley Alt, Former Toyama Prefecture ALT, 2013 – 2016
The blooming of the cherry blossoms herald new beginnings. Each year they symbolize those lucky moments when paths cross for no reason other than chance, or even fate. Or perhaps it is simple coincidence driven by the urge to read in a park on a sunny day beneath the pink and white foliage of spring.
One Sunday during the first two weeks of April, that is precisely what I did. Traditionally, the cherry blossoms are reserved for picnics and drinking parties with friends, family, and coworkers. However, I would seek out the tiny pink flowers every day they were in bloom, wanting to treasure those precious two weeks of breathless radiance. I would take walks or go for drives, call up friends or sit alone with a book. In the back of my mind, the temporality of sakura was a reminder that, like those blossoms, my time in Japan would someday come to an end.
I have always been both an anxious person and a perfectionist, and that combination makes for a stressful life. But the cherry blossoms grabbed my attention when they bloomed; their branches rippled in sunlight and their sweet scent carried on each passing breeze. That was enough to keep me present and in the moment. The sakura seemed to cure the endless to-do lists and future anxieties. They were medicine. When I sat underneath them, watching as the clusters of tiny flowers swayed, I could fully exist in that moment, calm and content. And thinking of those days now, I am able to return to that state of mind any time I need.
On a day like any other spring day, I took my book and a blanket to sit on, drove 25 minutes to a nice park filled with the trees, found a place to sit, and began to read. After a few minutes of reading, I admired the cherry blossoms: the way their dark slender branches poked up at the sky, and the shape of the flower tufts. That was when I heard an unfamiliar voice call to me.
“Hello,” it said. I turned to see an older couple sitting not twenty feet away, an entire picnic of fondue, sausages, pasta salads, sandwiches, crackers and chips, beer and cocktails, and probably more I’ve forgotten, spread between them.
“Hello,” I responded, smiling.
“We saw you sitting there alone, and…well, would you like to join us?”
I paused, conflicted between the quiet moment I wanted and, perhaps, the experience I needed. Ultimately, I chose to embrace the spirit of the cherry blossoms, recognizing the temporality of each day, and of life itself. I packed up my book, bunched up my blanket and bag, and made the short walk over to them. They were delighted. Together, we proceeded to have one of the most delightful afternoons I have experienced in my nearly eight years of living in Japan.
While I cannot tell you what we talked about over those three hours together, I can tell you how they made me feel. Pleasant surprise at their offer; gratefulness for their generosity; delight at their friendliness; appreciation for their camaraderie. We spoke in English and in Japanese, we laughed, we ate. Snippets of memory inform me we chatted about where I was from, their work, their children, favorite sightseeing spots in Japan. As the sun began its downward arc in the sky, it was time for me to go home.
We had a passerby take our picture together. We exchanged email addresses, and for a time, we would exchange emails. For just a brief moment, our timelines had intersected and we went from not knowing about each other’s existence to treasuring fond memories together.
Saying “yes” to offers of amity and opportunity in Japan was a lesson I have carried with me since leaving. It is too easy to decline offers; too easy to give into exhaustion or stress. While I cannot stress enough the importance of taking time to care for yourself, it is equally important not to tumble down the rabbit hole of “I want to be alone,” or close your mind off to the chance of meeting new people or creating wonderful memories you’ll fondly recall years later.
Cherry blossoms symbolize new beginnings as well as endings. Everything in life—hardship and friendship, good days and bad, this season and this lifetime—it all comes to an end someday. Like those briefly-blooming sakura trees, each day is fleeting. It is your choice to enjoy yourself in the moment. It is your choice to see the opportunity in how every ending becomes a new beginning.
Remember how quickly the moments pass by when life extends a hand to you. Say yes, and take it.
Cassandra Mainiero, Former Ehime Prefecture ALT, 2018 – 2020
When I left my 8-year career in America to be an assistant language teacher in the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Programme, my colleagues’ reactions were primarily unenthusiastic. An older colleague compared the idea to Aron Lee Ralston, an American who hiked in Canyonlands National Park in 2003. Famously, during his adventure, Ralston got stuck in a boulder for five days. He drank his own urine, lost 40 pounds, and eventually sawed his arm off to escape. “His whole arm!” the colleague said. “He did this BIG trip. Look where it got him!”
The consensus was clear: stay with the familiar. To leave your steady job with benefits for this less predictable and more challenging position was not just wild. It was downright stupid.
Still, I was determined. As a 26-year-old employee with degrees in English, I was useful in my long-time career at an engineering firm. I knew the lay of the land and lingo. I knew the day-to-day humdrum. However, I didn’t want a cubicle life. Instead, I wanted to work with kids and combine my skills with my interests. Teaching at international schools was top of my list; I loved education and culture.
I also needed to explore and think, something I didn’t do when I graduated from college and accepted my full-time position two weeks later. Personally, I’ve always loved Japan with its artistic approaches and landscapes. When I had visited Shikoku years prior, I assumed that my interest would wane. Yet, I found myself continuously looping back to Japan as if we were two entities tied together by our pinkies.
I had to go. I needed to know if I could teach and why Japan kept resurfacing. This is what I repeated to my boss, myself, and family. I left two months later.
During JET, I gleaned both positive and negative insights. For instance, prior to JET, I thought of becoming an English teacher at an international middle school. Yet, JET revealed that my teaching pedagogy and energy was better suited to third and fourth graders. Plus, I deeply cared about how my students felt while learning over whether that learning had been achieved. This suggested a career better suited for school counseling than teaching.
However, my greatest insight happened during my solo-trip to Noboribetsu.
Noboribetsu is a town in Hokkaido, a northern prefecture in Japan. Its nickname is “Demon Town.” The name refers to its 3,000 hot springs, which derive thermal waters from Jigokudani, a volcanic valley. Except, there’s nothing hellish about this town. Rather, with less than 50,000 people, Noboribetsu is a hidden jewel. It’s lined with stone-cobbled streets, small souvenir stores, cozy ramen restaurants, and shops selling fresh made Hokkaido ice cream drizzled with honey—all of it swirling with the scent of sulfur from the onsens.
During the year, I lived in Imabari, a countryside area in southern Japan, where there was no snow in December and people regularly ate mandarin oranges. I went to Hokkaido because I missed snow. I also wanted to ski and see red-crowned cranes.
Except, none of this happened.
Instead, on my second day, I found myself flat out on a stone onsen floor, naked, with blood dripping off my forehead. I had experienced a yu atari, when someone takes a hot bath for longer than their body can handle, causing them to faint. The main problem was that when I fainted, I hit my head on the stone floor, splitting it open, as my blood pressure dropped to 53/75. I woke up surrounded by medics, who pressed a wet washcloth to my head and put me into an ambulance.
To add insult to injury, by the time I left the hospital, it was dark. My forehead was bandaged and my cellphone had less than 10% battery. The buses stopped for the day. Also, because I was driven by ambulance, I had no idea where I was. So, I hiked 2 miles to a taxi, asking for a lift to the train station. However, because I was concussed, I overpaid the driver and bought the wrong train ticket. After I bought the right ticket, I missed my second train. Then, I waited in snow for an hour. My shoes were ruined. My head was ringing. I didn’t arrive back to my hostel until 11 PM. The rest of the trip I stayed indoors, eating sweet bread under a kotatsu. The whole time, I thought about my colleagues and how they warned of the unknown. I felt like Ralston in a travelling nightmare: In a foreign country. Alone. Hospitalized.
I wanted to quit and go home.
Except, I didn’t.
Instead, I made a choice: this vacation was exactly what I was warned about, and yet, I survived. This became my foundation. It became my barometer for how I handled the unpredictable, navigated the unknown, and told me what I needed to feel safer during such risks. When I returned to Imabari, my ability to open to challenges or discomfort expanded. This made me a more flexible teacher and, after returning to America, a stronger employee. Suddenly, I could take calculated risks that often yielded positive results. Without JET, I wouldn’t have gained such confidence.
If you’re like me, people around you may look at JET and push it away. They will use the unknown as a means to keep you in jobs, places, and relationships that don’t satisfy you. You will use it against yourself, too. If you let it, though, JET offers (safe!) opportunities to grow and see how you handle discomfort and risk. This can lead to new skills and friendships. This can also help you understand and re-create yourself. You can become someone who looks at the unknown not as a barrier but as a launching pad. As a result, you can become a more flexible, stronger you who is not deterred by changes or challenges. It will open you to more of the world, and the world will open to you.
Todd Wassel, Former Shiga Prefecture ALT, 1999 – 2001
For many people who end up doing JET, it is seen as a once in a lifetime grand adventure. But for me, my two years living in northern Shiga Prefecture led to a love affair with Japan. I stayed on after the JET program and continued to teach for over five years. It was without a doubt the best time of my life. But eventually the real world came knocking and I was left wondering what I wanted to do with my life.
Certainly, teaching children in Japan, learning Japanese, and getting a better understanding of the culture were huge accomplishments. However, like so many JETs who left Japan before me, I found myself lost in a sea of possibilities but with no clear idea how to put my time in Japan onto a resume, or into a job interview.
Taking a clue from the Japan, that epitomizes moving forward in a modern age but keeps its traditions close, I decided to return to Shikoku. In 1998 I first walked the 750-mile, 88 temple Shikoku pilgrimage. At the time it was a grand adventure that helped confirm I wanted to move to Japan full time. I was now getting ready to leave Japan behind, and I thought the pilgrimage could help me understand where I wanted to go in life. Maybe it could help me finally answer the question that most young people eventually ask: What do I want to be when I grow up?
It never occurred to me I was asking the wrong question.
Sleeping outside, armed with only a Japanese map, I was helped along way by a crazy cast of characters: a wandering ascetic hiding from the Freemasons; naked Yakuza trying to shake me down; a scam artist pilgrim; and a Buddhist monk who hates America but loves beef jerky. But these extremes were tempered by the kind nature of the people of Shikoku, and their long running support for walking pilgrims.
To help me process what this time in my life meant to me, I wrote a book on the pilgrimage, and on Japan. For those who wish to follow in my footsteps and publish their experiences in Japan, self-publishing has never been easier. The hard part is trying to figure out how to distill such a dynamic country, and its people down and still keep it meaningful. Doing it while also describing a life changing event and keeping it interesting is even more daunting.
For me I choose the long route of writing as I worked on the book for over 15 years trying to figure out what I wanted to say about myself, and Japan. Along the way I kept journals of my thoughts and wrote chapter after chapter. Many would never see the light of day. As I approached the end of the first draft, I realized the book had changed, as I had with age. It was no longer a book about me “growing up” but was an exploration of who I was and who Japan is through the eyes of pilgrims I met along the way. This meant rewriting the first half of the book to match the new themes.
If you are dreaming of writing a book of your own, you just need to start. It will change and grow as you do, but you will never accomplish the last line unless you pen the first.
I hope this book not only illuminates the amazing word of walking pilgrims in Japan but will help other returnees better understand where their next path is leading them. If you decided to read the book, look out for the “Yakitori incident.” After all my years traveling, I can say things like this can only happen in Japan.
Dr. Stephanie MacLeod, Former Fukui Prefecture ALT, 1995 – 1998
The other day, when I was scavenging in a local thrift store, a pair of porcelain ducks caught my eye. They were plain, tiny, mallard duck figurines, quaint in their own way, but not something that I would normally be interested in. When I picked them up and turned them over, I quickly understood the attraction. Stamped on the bottom, in bold, black letters were the words ‘Made in Occupied Japan.’
I had naturally assumed that the duck pair were made in North America. Even though I have collected pottery for several years, I have never seen a reference to ‘Occupied Japan’ on ceramics before. I didn’t even know that such a stamp mark existed. Who would have guessed that porcelain duck imitations were produced in Japan just after World War II.
Turns out that a wide range of foreign imitation goods were manufactured in Japan between 1945 and 1952 as a means to rebuild the economy. Factories were required to stamp ‘Occupied Japan’ or ‘Made in Occupied Japan’ on all their products so that import authorities wouldn’t mistake them for American or European brands. Imitation Hummel, Meissen, Royal Doulton, and Victorian ceramic figures were produced in Seto and Nagoya and exported mainly to North America to be sold in five-and-dime shops (variety stores).
In any event, the real point of this article isn’t to discuss ceramics or Japanese manufacturing under U.S. General MacArthur. The real point of this article is to acknowledge how, as a former JET Programme participant, my sight has changed – meaning that my way of looking at the world has transformed as a direct result of my ‘JET experience.’
It has been twenty-five years since I first left Canada to teach English in Japan. Yet, even after so many years, Japanese culture is still a mystery to me. Deep down, I am still intrigued by the country. I am still curious to learn all things Japanese.
Though I now work for the Government of Canada, the JET Programme has had a profound influence on my career. After returning to Canada, I studied international marketing and focused on expanding Japan-Canada relations: I completed my post-graduate field work at Nissan Canada Corporation; I assisted a Canadian insurance company establish branch operations in Tokyo; I worked in public relations at the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto, promoting greater knowledge of Japanese culture, and I worked at the Embassy of Japan in Ottawa, supporting bi-lateral trade and investment.
My one piece of career advice to recent JET participants is to not lose sight of what initially interested you in the JET Program. Stay curious.
Paul Hadden, Former Osaka City ALT, 2011 – 2014; and former Oita City ALT, 2018 – 2019
When homesickness overcomes me and I want to dream of home, all I need to do is close my eyes and then I can hear the sounds of the island so clearly in my imagination. The rain drumming on the hot galvanized roofs, the barking stray dogs, the muffled base of soca music pulsating from a faraway rum shop, the tinny speakers on top of a van calling for scrap iron and used batteries…it all comes rushing back.
But now, I live in Japan, and now my reality is shaped by an entirely different chorus of sounds. I moved here just over three months ago and the newness, the unfamiliarity, and yes, the fear of the unknown, means that for the last few months my senses have been heightened. Now, I must learn to move in a whole new realm of sensory experience.
So what is this new world of sound?
It is the howling winds of a typhoon which rattle the paper of the shoji sliding doors which separate the rooms in my apartment. It is the tinkling of wind chimes which line the entrance to the neighbourhood Shinto shrine. It is the thunderous roar of thousands of metal balls pouring through the countless machines of the nearby pachinko parlors – the Japanese equivalents to slot machines. It is the high pitched cries of ‘irrashaimasé!’ (welcome!) belted out by every shop and restaurant worker as you wander in to their establishment.
It is the trickle of cool water down bamboo pipes into koi filled ponds in the middle of an old Buddhist temple, buried deep in the forest. It is the sizzle of soy sauce soaked yakiniku meat skewers as they are thrown on a hot grill, and the soft gurgling of a hot pot of nabe stew, filled to the brim with mushrooms, radish, tofu, and meat. And finally, it is the daily chime of the rice cooker as it signals that my rice is hot and ready to be eaten.
Yes, I still miss home, and yes, I know that I will always miss the sounds of that beautiful place that I come from. But it is still good to know, that as more time continues to pass, that another part of this vast and mysterious world is beginning to open up to me.
My name is Paul Hadden, I am originally from the beautiful twin island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, and the above excerpt is from my new book, ‘A Life Well Seasoned Volume 1 – Trinidad & Japan’ which was greatly inspired by my time on the JET Programme. I have always been a great lover of languages and first heard about JET while taking an introductory Japanese course at university. I knew from the moment that I heard the teacher describe the programme that it was something that I wanted to do. Coming from a small place like Trinidad, the thought of being able to move to the other side of the world and live and work in such a fascinating country as Japan almost seemed to good to be true!
One thing led to another and I was lucky enough to end up participating in the programme not only once, but twice! The first time around I was a JET in the heart of Osaka City from 2011-2014 which is a time that I consider, so far, to be the best three years of my life. I then returned home to my native country of Trinidad for a few years and then decided that I still had so much to learn and experience and wanted to spend some more time in Japan, so I reapplied to the programme. This time around I was placed in beautiful Oita, right at the top of Kyushu island and stayed there from 2018-2019.
Little did I know that my time on JET would also eventually lead to the creation of a book! What happened is that while I was working as an ALT, I also contributed weekly columns to The Trinidad Newsday on food, culture, and travel. These articles would also contain a recipe that was somehow connected to whatever topic I was writing about. For example, if I wrote an article describing my visit to a shrine to participate in hatsumode, I would include a recipe for amazake.
This newspaper column eventually evolved into a sort of chronicle of my life in Japan and helped me to both capture some of my own experiences in Japan, as well as share different aspects of Japanese culture that I was constantly learning about with those back home. I started to receive very positive feedback from the articles, and came to learn that the things that I was beginning to take for granted in Japan were actually of great interest to those back home. Simple things such as conversations with a fellow teacher about the meaning of a tea ceremony, or a quick trip to the forest to enjoy the changing colour of the momiji leaves, or a description of an early morning adventure to the mountains to observe the breathtaking beauty of the ‘unkai’ or ‘sea of clouds’ began to provide inspiration for my articles. It was a constant reminder, even when I was having a stressful time, of how interesting Japan really was. It also gave me the space to reflect on the culture that I was raised in, and many of the articles also became reflections on various aspects of my own home culture as well as the experience of moving abroad in general. I think that no matter where we come from that there are certain aspects of leaving your home country and moving abroad to somewhere as different as Japan that many people can relate to and enjoy reading about.
I know that I am not alone in this desire to share my experiences on JET through the medium of a book and I am certain that there are many other JET alumni out there who may be considering doing the same thing. I think that although the JET Programme attracts a wide range of personalities, there is one thing that we all seem to have in common – we all value experiences as one of the most important things in our lives. I know that for many JET alumni, our memories of our time in Japan and all the people that we meet during our experience become one of our greatest treasures. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the newspaper column had actually transformed into a sort of personal journal, and allowed me to capture so many small details of my experiences in Japan that I would have probably forgotten had I not been writing it.
The first piece of advice I would give to any current and former JETs who are thinking of publishing their own books is – do it! Your experiences in Japan, with all of their ups and downs, are really something to be treasured, and the uniqueness of you own personal experience (every situation is different) means that you have something to say that is special and interesting in its own right. Anthony Bourdain, who had probably seen much more of the world than any of us ever will, once said, ‘Japan is endlessly, endlessly interesting to me…I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface and I don’t think I ever will.’ How lucky we are to have had this experience, and I guarantee that there are others who would love to learn about what life in Japan was like for you.
Another piece of advice I would give is to make time to put down your memories in written form. Also remember that a memory doesn’t have to be complicated to be interesting! If you read my book you’ll see that sometimes all it took was a simple meal of food cooked in the steam of an onsen, or a trip to a small temple filled with statues of kappa to inspire an article. I’m sure you all have many experiences such as these to write about.
Finally I would say that one of the benefits of modern technology is that it has become extremely easy to self-publish online. There is a ton of information and advice out there for anyone who wants to publish their work. I encourage you to take the leap of faith and put your work out there. Never forget that in the grand scheme of things, even with all of its challenges, that your experience as a JET is very rare and precious and that you have a lot to share with the world because of it. Good luck!
Link to ‘A Life Well Seasoned’ by Paul Hadden –