Chris Kozak, former Shizoka Prefecture ALT, 1997 – 2000
Noam Chomsky recently gave the keynote speech at the Progressive International’s inaugural summit. He offered a scenario of two internationals: one, progressive, and one reactionary. The threats of war, climate change, weakened democracy, and income inequality may seem either too daunting or too abstract to Japanese students, let alone their JET teachers. But if you make the decision to start infusing your lessons with global concepts, you will find your students more engaged and more connected with nature and the world as a whole.
I came to Japan in 1997 to Fuji, Shizuoka. It was clear that even before finishing my first year I would most likely stay longer than the maximum three year allowance – which is why I and a few friends started planning, financing, and building the restaurant and English school in a neighbouring town. We formed a band, played gigs in Tokyo, and were on the verge of becoming rich and famous.
But I digress. Returning to the present day, I am now teaching at a private junior and senior high school in Tokyo. Since I was born in Canada and do not have a Japanese teaching license, I am unable to get a full-time contract with the school. This has obvious disadvantages, specifically, the high cost of health care since the school is not required to contribute financially (a point that the Tozen Union often fights for.) On the other hand, one of the advantages is having time. This has allowed me to connect with the myriad of groups in Tokyo, Japan, and the world that fight for the things that Chomsky was talking about. My wheelhouse happens to be the climate crisis.
During my 2016 summer vacation back to Canada, I was able to squeeze in a side trip to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Houston. For three days I listened to speeches, panel discussions, break-out sessions, and networked with people passionate about the climate crisis. I had been one of only a handful of these graduates after coming back to Japan, but in 2019 when Al Gore came to Tokyo to do another training, I found myself on stage, giving a presentation in Japanese to an audience of 800 volunteers. Before I knew it I went from giving Climate Reality presentations to my students to rooms full of Corporate Social Responsibility managers at Fortune 500 companies. If I’m not giving a presentation, I’m corresponding with possible new audiences. Even though we are currently suffering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom has made presentations and even break-out rooms possible.
My days are a frantic mix of social media, Slack, email and text communication about organizing. This week will see another global strike for climate on September 25 with the help of Fridays For Future, whose Tokyo group (there are twenty-six active groups in Japan) gathered 5000 people in front of the United Nations University a year ago for a march. There were plans to have an Extinction Rebellion Tokyo Disobedience event on October 24th. There was a Facebook watch party for a new documentary called “Kiss the Ground” narrated by Woody Harrelson about reclaiming CO2 with healthy soil. Amnesty International will be having another event soon. There’s a group called 350.org (350 parts per million is the acceptable limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to maintain a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius) that is very active all over Japan. So my advice is to get connected, stay aware, and learn about what’s happening (and has been happening) in your neck of the woods. Even if it’s only a handful of people, it’s important that people talk about the crisis and stay active in raising awareness, because people are busy and people are lazy. They can’t make time to prioritize action because they have too many other things to do. It is up to you to convince them otherwise. Getting connected not only accomplishes communication, but assists you with your self-care – a vital recharging skill for teachers (and activists).
Busy teachers need off-the-shelf lesson plans that work with middle school, high school, one-on-one lessons, or school assemblies. Finally, after years of compiling news articles and categorizing them under the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I have published a website and blog that includes a growing library of resources. With the amazing experience and expertise of Marian Hara, we published samples of these plans in the September, 2019, edition of The Language Teacher, published by the Japan Association of Language Teaching (JALT) titled “Bringing Climate Change Education to EFL Learners.”
There’s a never-ending supply of climate crisis materials. Using tools such as Kahoot, Quizlet, vocabulary.com, and adapting videos, articles, or news to the appropriate age level will get you into a pattern of research, planning, production, and assessment.
One of the last initiatives that Sir Ken Robinson had before his death was a plea to collaborate. Especially now during this COVID-19 pandemic, we must reimagine, not return to our “normal” silos of ignorance or privilege. We owe it to our students and we owe it to ourselves as professionals. So keep digging, keep connecting, and be persistent, even if it seems that no one else is. Read Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Katharine Hayhoe, Michael E. Mann, and the multitude of authors, scientists, and voices crying out for a Green New Deal.
The climate crisis is real, it’s caused by humans, it’s bad, but there’s something we can all do about it.
Our choice is clear: either we face internationalism or we face extinction.
Haley Alt, Former Toyama Prefecture ALT, 2013 – 2016
Working on the JET Program provided a myriad of opportunities for me I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Living and working in Japan, of course, is a big draw. Making a wide group of international friends I never would have met by staying in Wisconsin is another. A third perk is experiencing Japanese culture in its every form—and that includes stripping down and slipping into a nice hot spring.
Japan is well-known for hot springs: in fact, it’s cited for having over 3,000 hot springs across the country. Would that I could visit all of them.
My first experience at a hot spring happened during my study abroad. I met up with an old friend who had studied at my high school on a two-week exchange program, and one evening, she and her mom took me to a bath house.
I remember looking around at the lockers and baskets, glancing—hopefully not too rudely—around the girls and women in various stages of undress, then watching as my friend and her mother followed suit. I thought to myself, “Well, if everyone is doing it…then I guess I better blend in.” Of course, as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American, “blending in” was never something I successfully managed. However, I always abided by spoken and unspoken rules while living in Japan. And in this case, that meant getting buck naked in front of a whole bunch of strangers… who were also naked.
Can’t do that in Wisconsin.
You’re given a hand-towel when you visit a hot spring or public bath, and sometimes a small bath towel as well, and while the bath towel stays in the changing room, you can take the hand-towel with you to cover your private bits while walking between baths. This was always enough to bring some feeling of anshin—peace of mind—but mostly, once you’ve stripped down to the body the good universe has given you and you’re strutting around in public, you kind of just have to go with the flow. (Incidentally, “go with the flow” was the most frequently given advice to teachers on the JET Program, but it works in all areas of life!)
I adopted the mindset of, “Nakedness isn’t a big deal,” and never looked back.
Americans are raised with somewhat conservative ideals, far from our European neighbors with their nude beaches and general “devil may care” opinions about how to react to nudity. I much prefer the European and Japanese way, but I understand that being raised in America can come with a dose of modesty and prudishness. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this mindset; surely there’s something to be said about the importance of covering our bodies, evolving past our primal and animalistic ancestors, yadda yadda yadda.
But let me say this: Nothing compares to standing naked on a mountainside, underneath only the rays of the sun or the soft light of the moon, and soaking in steaming hot, natural water. Emptying your mind. Reaching zen-like calm. Truly letting go of everything bogging you down.
That is what onsen gifted to me.
On the JET Program, thanks to the reasonable working hours and other benefits, it was easy to plan trips to nearby onsen. Sometimes I would visit ryokan (Japanese-style inns) within the prefecture: Unazuki Onsen in Toyama Prefecture has an entire village of ryokan, hotels, and hot springs with public baths. Take your car up a winding mountain road, forget your worries, and check in for a night at a spa where you can cast all of your anxieties aside. There’s nothing like getting pampered by waters with healing properties, traditional Japanese aesthetic, and the caressing sounds of the tranquil shamisen. I explored hot springs in my prefecture, then the one over…before I knew it, I would spend whole weekends escaping into the mountains. My record was driving five hours to Gunma, to a teeny-tiny town called Ueno-mura, over Golden Week for two nights at a reasonably-priced inn. Onsen were scattered around this little-known village, nestled within massive cliffsides and along crystal-clear rivers, encased by forestry and blue skies. While I often traveled alone to onsen, there were many occasions I went with friends, family, and coworkers of all ages—such is the Japanese way.
These are memories that, now back in the States, I treasure deeply. Dipping into an onsen is as vulnerable, pure, and open-hearted as it gets. For anyone who hesitates before they go in, just remind yourself: We are all human beings with human bodies, and nobody will be truly surprised, or feel much of anything at all, when they see you nude.
And for those in Japan now, or planning to be in the near future, do yourself a favor and try something new. Go down to a shoreline, where onsen overlook glistening ocean waters, or up into the mountains for breathtaking scenic beauty. Just remember to wash yourself off beforehand, be quiet and respectful, and don’t be that person who drips water all over the locker room. Nobody likes wet socks.
Laura Katz, Former Ehime Prefecture ALT, 2018-2020
Before I left for Japan in 2018, a friend suggested I blog about my experiences. While my mouth said, “thanks for the suggestion,” my stomach said, “not a chance.” I’d already considered and abandoned the idea of writing about my experiences on Facebook; daily frustrations and triumphs were sure to come out in ways I’d later regret. A blog was more public and therefore even scarier to me. Instead, I invited friends and family to join me in the 90’s technology-wise and settled on an email newsletter.
My first newsletters described the night sounds in my village, trips to the grocery store, and my mistakes in learning Japanese. When school started, I talked about the dynamics of the teachers’ room and how kids chose dodgeball teams at lunch. During my second year, as I became closer with coworkers and friends, I chronicled how deep cultural undercurrents affected our interactions. And when the coronavirus turned into a pandemic, I described how small delights (like discovering this frog) offered momentary refuge in an unabating storm. All along, I included as many photos as I could, trying to bring people into my world.
At first, I wrote about what I observed. As time went on, however, my newsletters became motivation to observe more carefully. On the way home from school one day, I passed an old man filleting fish in his yard. As a city kid who’d never seen this before, I was mesmerized and asked permission to watch. But if not for my newsletters, I’d never have torn my eyes from his hands. I’d never have noticed his maroon rain-slicker, his croc sandals, and “a baseball cap so grimy that the logo almost blended into the black background.”
Writing also allowed me to weave seemingly insignificant moments into the tapestry of my JET experience. A momentary glitch on my phone became an emblem of my whole outlook and the opening to one of my favorite newsletters.
↑ When my phone briefly turned this photo sideways, I was struck by how much more vivid the boat’s reflection appeared. It made me wonder: grocery shopping had greater intrigue in Ehime than at home–was a similar shift in perspective at work?
A relative once called my emails “armchair visits” to Japan, which thrilled me. However, this wasn’t a vacation, and I didn’t want to sugarcoat. A JET friend who’d returned to the US said that people at home couldn’t understand the difficulties she’d had at the post office or in buying a vacuum cleaner. For my newsletters to have real impact, I had to share the lows with the highs.
I loved the intimacy of the newsletter format and never thought of diverging until last March. When COVID put Ehime’s schools on hiatus, I read River Town, Peter Hessler’s memoir about teaching English literature in China. His descriptions of cultural frustration, of observing and being observed, of constant discovery, were all familiar, and I was engrossed in the details that made his experience different from mine. Reading River Town made me think seriously, for the first time, about making my writing more public. I was suddenly fantasizing about writing a memoir.
I still hated the idea of Facebook. Foreign-language interactions with 500 people a week is grounds for occasional grouchiness, and in short-form, a bad day can look like deep cynicism. But the fantasy of public long-form began simmering in the back corners of my mind. Finally, after coming home in September, I decided to do precisely what I’d sworn against: I started a blog. It’s made from bits and pieces of the newsletters, and it’s meant to display my delight, my exasperation, and my appreciation for rural Japan’s beauty.
I have three hopes for readers of the blog (and maybe someday, the memoir). First, I hope that JET alumni will experience what one of my friends called a “rollercoaster of Japan PTSD and nostalgia.” Second, I hope that people who have never been to small-town Japan will feel transported to its rice fields and 1st grade classrooms. Lastly, I hope that Japanese readers, who may know the place a little too well, will see it afresh: through a newcomer’s eyes.