A JET's Response
I just knew that I would get some mail about my recent JET column, because there are so many people who have done this program. But I wasn't prepared for the quality of the stories about what a powerful experience it is to be a JET. Here is a single (condensed) story that says it all...[Terrie Lloyd]On a cold winter's evening during my final year of university in December 1998, I knocked on the door of my friend, Dave, and asked what were his plans for the evening. "I'm planning to become famous" was his straightforward reply. I suggested to him that attaining fame was a difficult task, that it may take more than one day's preparation, that if it were easy, many people would have done it already. "True", he acknowledged, unperturbed. "But it won't be too hard for me. I am off to Japan". "Here", he said, "I took two application forms for this job, in case I mucked the first one up. Fill it in by tonight and post it tomorrow, and you can be famous too". This was an offer I could not refuse. I filled in the form, wrote my essay, and sent the application by registered post. Two months later I found myself at the Japanese Embassy in London, interviewing for a place on the JET Programme.
I read somewhere that those who recruit for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme look for individuals with "a proven history of interest in Japan and things Japanese", but this is quite far from the truth. Just days before my interview in February, my friends strove to point out to me that Japan was comprised of four main islands, that its Prime Minister was named Keizo Obuchi, and that it had been in a state of economic depression for more or less ten years. Fortunately for me, not one of these factual matters arose at my interview, nor did they at my friend's. (He still managed to fail his interview, but that's another story.) I was asked why I wanted to teach, for how long, my career ambitions, and not much more. I also completed written tests of my vocabulary, grammar and syntax, none of which taxed me much. On July 25th 1999 I landed at Narita Airport in Tokyo. I had flown out to do a job 7, 000 miles from home, in a fit of absence of mind.
If the events that led me to Japan were random, the group of people who made up the JET Programme were even more random. Some were clever, academically successful people, looking to experience the world and add another language to their CV. Others were unserious, outgoing individuals, who had rejected a corporate career in favour of something unique. A select few were completely dysfunctional human beings who were or would be unemployable in their native lands. One of the myths about the JET Programme (in England at least) is that it is highly competitive to gain a place. But a quick glance around the room at my Orientation in Tokyo soon put paid to this.
The start of JET may thus have been disappointing, but the experience that followed provided me with memories that will last forever. The JET Programme is not just a formal way to teach English in Japan, it is an introduction to the Japanese way of life. For the next two years I lived in a small town in Ibaraki-ken, teaching English at four junior high schools for the local Board of Education.
Most JETs are based in rural towns and villages, and experience the Japan that no Westerner sees when he switches on his NBC or BBC. There were few neon lights and no spiralling skyscrapers in my little town, that's for sure. What existed, however, was a community that allowed the foreigner (in this case, me) a limited but nevertheless insightful integration into the local community. It started with me having my own newspaper column. I remember one article I wrote, in which I stated that I had commenced cooking for myself for the first time ever, as I now lived alone. The unexpected offshoot of this was that, whenever I went into shops or public buildings, I was inundated with offers of food and drink, dinner invitations and the like, as people had read my lines and considered my life 'taihen'! My ability to attract people to me - the fame that I had sought - had begun!
It did not stop there. An almost guaranteed value-added feature of being a male JET is that one metamorphoses into Superman overnight. In mini-markets, coffee shops and bars, I suddenly found myself eminently more sexually attractive to women than ever before. I had spent twenty-one generally sexless years in England praying for an occurrence like this! On one occasion a female student approached me in a caf� invited me back to her house, and told me how it was her dream to make love to a man that looked like Kevin Costner! (I would have preferred to be likened to Tom Cruise.) Perhaps the most bizarre and memorable incident of boy meets girl happened in an izakaya one night. Having failed in my quest to convince a young Japanese lady that I was the man of her dreams (she obviously didn't go for the Kevin Costner type), I did what all decent Englishmen would do: retired to my seat and preceded to get drunk. She came up to me with a huge smile and asked "Did you really graduate from Cambridge University?" (My friend, Hakuyoshi, had clearly seen this as one of my selling points, whereas I had not.) I replied, "Yes", and in her eyes instantly became a God amongst men. Up to this point I had seen that a foreigner's skin colour, clothing, novel image and singing voice could all provide him with adoring female fans, but surely the name of his university was taking it a bit far!
The reader would be forgiven for thinking that life of JET is an easy one, with offers of food and women pouring in. Not so fast. With the good stuff come the obligations. The JET is part of his or her community, and must be involved in communal activities - the best of which was the annual matsuri. For this my friend, Pete, and I, were informed that we would be dressed as females, with make-up for good measure. We would then participate in a dance along the main street in our town. Okay, no problem. We acquiesced. It was all going swimmingly. Although wearing pink costumes, lipstick and bangles, we took comfort from the fact that in two years' time, not a single person in Britain could claim to have seen us in this state. Indeed, there wasn't another foreigner in sight. Then disaster struck. All that free beer that these incredibly unselfish people had been giving us was starting to take its toll. The usually perfectly organised Japanese locals had not told us the protocol for sneaking out of the dance and to the Gents. I whispered my unease to one of my colleagues, and in a heartbeat Pete and I found ourselves in the home of someone we had never met. "Toilet, upstairs", he said invitingly. We were much obliged. The problem when we arrived upstairs was there was only one room, and no matter how glazed were our eyes, it was clearly a kitchen. Toilet? Kitchen? Had we been misunderstood? Was my Japanese, after two years of hard slog, really that bad? Alas, no. "Toilet's broke," bellowed the man downstairs. "Use the sink. I'll clear it up later". And so these two foreigners put the kitchen sink to rather unconventional use!
I could write on forever about JET, the experiences, the lessons, and the fact that Japan will now forever be a part of me. And it would take me a week to list the friends, colleagues and students with whom I still keep in touch. For these reasons alone I would recommend anyone remotely interested in teaching abroad to give JET a try. Most alternatives - language schools, private teaching - will work you harder, pay you less, and give you a fraction of the chances to experience local customs that the JET Programme will do. I once met an Australian lady who said that she ended up on NOVA because she "wasn't good enough to apply for JET'. I'd say to anyone who thinks this exactly what I said to her: don't be put off by those who say that you have to speak fluent Japanese and know the Meiji restoration inside out to get a place. I didn't know where Japan was on the world map before I bumped into my friend that late evening. I couldn't speak a word of Japanese and did not who Mr. Meiji was. Yet in the space of two years I went from someone who just wanted to teach to someone who has a lifelong interest in Japan. The JET experience was and is an intensely personal one, which I have tried to illustrate with my tales above.
To all those out there looking to get on the programme I have good news: I have returned to England, and my fame is gone. Like all those who are not famous, I am readily contactable! I welcome your views, thoughts and queries, at email@example.com