■ Job Type: ALT ■ Prefecture: Tottori ■ Years on JET: 2005-2007
Like many of us on the JET Programme, I wanted to experience something completely new and aspired to live and work abroad. The JET Programme represented a unique opportunity for me to do this and Japan had always held a certain allure. At the time, I underestimated just how inimitable an opportunity it would be. Prior to JET, I had never visited Japan. I had almost no Japanese linguistic ability. My understanding of Japanese culture was a highly (mis)informed repertoire of things; kimono, sumo, karaoke, sushi, manga etc. I had a romanticized mental picture of what it would be like, one that would not look so out of place in a Gwen Stefani music video.Clueless, but enthusiastic I like to think.
As a city dweller from England, it is fair to say that I was pretty anxious when I found out about my JET placement in rural Tottori prefecture in western Honshu.With a limited knowledge of what to expect, all I could envisage now were rice fields and fishing boats. When I arrived, all these things existed. But so did an overwhelming natural beauty that I was not prepared for. Coming from the south of England, which is almost entirely flat, I found myself mesmerized by the mountainous panorama seen from my window. Living three minutes from the ocean was also a welcome adjustment to make. Now, after almost two years on JET, the word rural does not scare me one little bit.
Living and working in a local community has given me more insight into Japanese culture than I ever expected. I represent fifty percent of the international community in my town, so A-list local celebrity status comes with the territory. It was not long before I was appearing on local cable TV, delivering Christmas presents to kids dressed as ‘Santa-san’ and cutting the ribbon to celebrate the opening of my town’s ‘Manga Factory’. If you had told me eighteen months ago that I would be doing any of this, I would have given you a dubious stare. Part of my life here does represent being a foreigner, yes. I enjoy sharing my cultural background with the people I live around. But, simultaneously I can be a regular member of the community, which is important to me. I treasure the cultural codes I get to take in as soon as I step out of my front door each day.
As the resident Brit in my Junior High, the students take pride in sharing their knowledge of British rock music with me. I will never forget my double-take when a second year boy approached me on my way home one day and asked: ‘Mr. Alex, what is your favourite ‘Kaiser Chiefs’ song?’ Sharing a common interest in music has undeniably strengthened the connection I have with my students. I have lost count of the number of times I have been handed a piece of paper with the lyrics to a song jotted down for my approval (of course, I endeavour to correct any English errors!). The rapport I have with the teachers has also developed over time. Everyone was friendly from day one, but it took a while to feel like more than just the token ALT here. Through continued enthusiasm and commitment, I am treated like a regular member of the staff. I have my own responsibilities, a valued opinion and I get to be creative everyday. This is more than I can say about some of the graduate jobs I had experienced before JET. If you were to ask me about job satisfaction, my answer would be: ‘Yes thanks. Got it’. I have heard people talk about this word ‘internationlisation’ and the JET programme with a wry look on their face. Yet, for me it absolutely describes what I do on a daily basis.
As I write this, the school year is about to close, tomorrow in fact. Last week was the third-years’ graduation ceremony. Now, I am not a particularly emotional person by nature, but the whole affair took hold of me and I found myself holding back some unexpected tears. I had already been warned that Japanese style ceremonies tend to pull on the heart strings. Take it from me… it is true! As I watched the students I’ve taught for almost two years come of age, I felt really proud. As an ALT, I have seen them grow up and become more adult in their actions and behaviour. Individual personalities have begun to shine through and have had a lasting impression on me. With all that we encounter on the JET Programme, these are my defining moments. I feel privileged to have had an influence on bright young people with even brighter futures. When I recently told a fellow teacher that I would be leaving in the summer, she cried. I wouldn’t say it was the reaction I was hoping for, but it served as a bitter-sweet testimony of my time here at Daiei Junior High. I cannot quantify what I have gained from the JET programme. Without doubt, every situation is different here. Herein lies the charm of the JET programme; the opportunity to experience something incredibly unique.