Life After JET: Of Legal Discourse and Family Ties

Our next Life After JET alumni is Shino Hamada (CIR Fukuoka-shi 2006-2011), a legal practitioner for a Sydney-based subsidiary for a major Japanese trading firm, whose life experiences show that you should always grab opportunities as they come by. 

There is a tiny coastal town in the Southern part of Nagasaki Prefecture called Kazusa-machi. Besides a few holiday makers who visit its somewhat white sandy beaches in the summer, Kazusa-machi is usually a town which people merely drive through on their way from Nagasaki City to Shimabara City or vice versa. I was born there and spent the first eight years of my life running around on the beach behind our house with my three older siblings and speaking in the thickest Nagasaki dialect, until my hippie parents decided to uproot the whole family to live in New Zealand.

We continued to speak Japanese at home in West Auckland for four years, until my parents divorced and mum left us and returned to Japan. In order for us to overcome this incident, my dad forbade us to speak Japanese to each other and ordered us to discard everything that was Japanese, including our beloved Doraemon comic books and anything that reminded us of mum. My dad often spoke of his negative feelings towards Japan which rubbed off on me to the extent that I refused to speak Japanese at all for the next six years.

Still, Japan was always in the back of my mind and I was always a tiny bit curious about it. I also had not seen mum since she left us, so when I finished high school, I decided that I might as well go live with her in Nagasaki for a year. I arrived in Japan with a very low expectation and an extremely rusty tongue for the language, but what I found there was something beautiful, what I can only describe as ‘comfortable’ and I quickly fell in love with the culture and the people. I worked at a local supermarket fulltime and also taught English to primary school children in the evenings and weekends and loved every minute of it. At the supermarket, there would be regular customers who would always come and happily chat with me about their grandchildren or their pet dog and give me pumpkins from their garden. At the English school, the kids were always happy to see me and eager to learn.

Once the year was over, I returned to New Zealand to start university and decided to study Linguistics and Language Teaching. In my second year, a friend suggested that a Bachelor Arts would merely make me employable at McDonalds, which I gullibly believed and decided that I would study law to complement my Bachelor of Arts. In my last year, I decided to apply for the JET Programme as a CIR so that I could spend a couple of years living near mum and gain some experience working in a Japanese office. I did not really intend on becoming a lawyer after I graduated, but since I had eight months between the end of university and my departure for Japan on the JET Programme, I thought I might as well complete my professional legal studies course and I became admitted as a lawyer in New Zealand a couple of month before I left for Fukuoka.

In Fukuoka, I worked for the International Affairs Department in the city hall along with two CIR’s from non-English speaking countries. At first, people were curious about my background but they soon accepted that I was just a New Zealander who happens to look Japanese and speaks Japanese with an odd mix of a Nagasaki – New Zealand accent. My duties included translating and proofreading documents, interpreting for visitors from abroad, acting as a liaison between Fukuoka and a few of our sister cities, conducting monthly lectures for volunteer interpreters, judging speech contests, and conducting job interviews in English. I loved my job and I loved Fukuoka even more, to the extent that my initial intention to stay a maximum of two years was quickly disregarded and I ended up staying the JET maximum of five years.

At the returners’ conference in Tokyo in my fifth year, I still had not yet decided what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be after Fukuoka. I had vaguely toyed with the idea of combining my Japanese language skills with law in Japan previously, but when I spoke with a recruiter in my fourth year on JET, he advised that there are no opportunities for an inexperienced lawyer in Tokyo and that I should return to New Zealand and practice law for at least a couple of years before exploring the legal market in Tokyo. Nevertheless, by chance, I met a legal recruiter at the returners’ conference career fair, who heard of my law qualifications and my experience in a Japanese office and arranged an interview for the next day with the Tokyo office of a British law firm who was looking for a bilingual paralegal. I thought it would be a good practice job interview and thought I might as well try it. I went to an internet café that night and abruptly typed up my CV both in English and Japanese and I was lucky enough to be hired as a paralegal with a possibility of being promoted to a lawyer down the line.

I moved to Tokyo a couple of weeks after I bid farewell to my sweet home for five years and to my coworkers at the city hall who had become my beloved extended family. Once in Tokyo, I worked the hardest I had ever worked in my life, logged in long hours and hardly refused any work that came my way. The five year gap between my law degree and this job was somewhat filled by my experience working in a Japanese office and my understanding of the Japanese business culture which I shared with the foreign lawyers in the office. An Australian partner at my firm liked my work, took me under his wing and I had the privilege to be one of the core team members for a major acquisition of a multinational coal joint venture. It was a laborious few months and at times it felt as though I hardly slept, but the sense of satisfaction I felt once it was over was well worth it. I decided then that I quite liked law, continued to work hard and I was made an associate lawyer a year after I joined the firm.

However, after a year as an associate lawyer, I started to become restless in Tokyo. I had been in Japan for seven years at that point and was ready for something new. I also felt that I had been immersed in the Japanese culture for a bit too long and even starting to forget some English words. Luckily, the Australian partner who pushed me to become a lawyer had returned to Sydney and was keen for me to join him in Sydney and had an interesting secondment opportunity at the Australian subsidiary of a major Japanese trading house.

I joined the Sydney office a year ago, and have ever since been seconded to the infrastructure team of the Japanese trading house where I like to think I am maximising my Japanese language skills, understanding of Japanese business culture and my legal knowledge. I assist the company on its investments in infrastructure public-private partnerships in Australia from the pre-bid consortium discussion stage through to the actual bid or financial close, as well as identifying and analysing new opportunities for our counterparts in the Tokyo head office.

I do not think anyone is ever sure if the path they have taken is the right one, but if I had not had an open, ‘might as well’ attitude towards learning more about Japan after high school, studying law, obtaining my legal qualifications, staying five years in Fukuoka immersing myself in the Japanese office culture, taking the opportunity to interview at the Tokyo office of my law firm and taking the secondment opportunity in Sydney, I would never have experienced all the things I was able to experience, been able to come to terms with my bicultural upbringing or found a way to combine all my skills.

If you are a returning JET and you do not yet know what you want to do or where you want to be and an opportunity which slightly piques your interest pops up your way, why not shrug your shoulders and think ‘might as well’? It might take you down a route you had never dreamt of, but which may end up being one of the right paths for you.

Life As a JET: Thoughts From a First Year – Part Two

Jeremy Tan joined JET in 2013, becoming a CIR in Kochi-shi, Kochi-ken. Now 9 months on, he gives his thoughts on what it’s like being a JET, especially the wait, the preparations for departure and how Every Situation Is Different. This is a special two-parter to help those with short attention spans.  In this post, he talks about what the Programme is really for. Part One can be found here.

So? What does it mean? Give up on JET? Well, if you really want to be a hardboiled teacher of English, it’s going to be different from the way you were trained. Japan’s government and current society realizes that. It’s a
stoic country still stuck in their old ways. Japan likes its traditions. Sometimes too much and it can be hard to move on. But that’s Japan’s specialty; without that, you won’t get Kyoto, Kamakura, and all the old Japanese temples, clothes and things that we now respect as part of Japan. It develops and becomes the culture, because it is their culture. So it will take time for them to develop their English.

Then why all these requirements? It is a program, and it is run by the government. They don’t want to just hire and give money to young people. They want to show that they are being responsible. That’s what the degrees are for. Of course, our generation is now slowly changing our perception of what a degree means. But the truth is that, you won’t take on a degree unless you’re serious, have enough logic, won’t get yourself into massive criminal complications or make a mess of yourself. That’s sort of why they want your degree – you committed to something and completed it. Another part of what being on the JET program is about. Complete it and you will find the experience the best thing in your life. Just like all of us.

This is not research, just the thoughts of what I have experienced over the months. Writing this to tell you about Japan, somehow helps. It really shows that in agreeing to Japan, you’re actually saying, “Yes! I want to be
someone that can be myself, learn about the people and I want to make friends.” You see, if the is one thing people mistake when coming here, it is the work aspect. I don’t want to belittle the program. I am on it. But it’s not really work, so to say/speak. It’s like a buffer program, so that, should you wish to stay on in Japan or even return home, you know how to act, survive and persevere in a Japanese workplace, community and lifestyle.

Now, I think when the program was first conceived, they wanted to generate work. They wanted participants to feel like they could come together with the people of Japan. That’s what I feel. I think what they found out is that, by teaching, you get to know families, the kids, the parents, the teachers and ultimately the community. This is the main reason for your teaching role in Japan. As above, they want people to help the children to realize, there is a world out there. People from other countries. You can teach, just remember, stay true to yourself.

It was particularly hard for myself, as I can be quite a perfectionist. Somehow being here has really transformed into a realist. As I write this, I am sitting down in an office with people screaming over the air, phones ringing around me, kids coming in asking for things and some teachers just sleeping. It’s an interesting place. Japan really is. However, I don’t think I can say I was when I came.

Finally, I want to say, consider yourself the luckiest people alive. It’s an honor to be on a program designed by a country that ultimately wants to help its people to become internationalized. There are troubles that our
previous “senpais” or predecessors have caused. They lay scars and marks into this lovely country. Please don’t become one. Really Japan, its people and your contracting organization do not ask much of you. A little
quote to ease the life, “When you can be trusted with little, you can then be trusted with much.” The JET program is actually entrusting you with much straight away. They only ask of you to follow some simple rules.
Don’t get yourself into trouble or engender trouble for your family or friends. All the bad stories can actually be avoided if the people in questions just thought carefully, asked for advice and looked for help before making their decision. Hey, you’re reading this, I think you’re not so stupid.

Internationalization, being global, grassroots. Those are words, if you studied English, some of them don’t actually make sense. A lot of the text is hard to really grasp. It’s Japan’s way of saying what they can only actually express through their feelings and through having you come on the program. Japan might not do it the best way, if you’re a perfectionist like me. But they get the job done. Over the 27 years (Funny, the program is exactly as old as I am) the program has survived, many of those that experienced it (over 57,000 people) have become people that can explain to others around them, what Japan is really all about. So be excited that you’re going to make new friends and have fun with them, the way they do in Japan.

Life As a JET: Thoughts From a First Year – Part One

Jeremy Tan joined JET in 2013, becoming a CIR in Kochi-shi, Kochi-ken. Now 9 months on, he gives his thoughts on what it’s like being a JET, especially the wait, the preparations for departure and how Every Situation Is Different. This is a special two-parter to help those with short attention spans. Part Two can be read here.

It has been almost 9 months since I departed from Sydney, Australia. Many memories and the like have been made since then. Please read these paragraphs, if you have time. I hope they can help you.

I remember the months leading up to the departure as a whirlwind of meeting people, preparing for departure and being really excited that I was about to start a new Journey in Japan. I have been to Japan before on exchange during my university years however this time, it’s for work. And it was very different from what you would have experienced before. Receiving the placement letter, was a long wait. The system does provide for some contracting organizations to send their letters to JET applicants at an earlier time, however the smaller/local contracting organizations tend to take their time in sending their documents. At first I thought it was just a matter of problem in the communication line, the slowness of the mail system etc. Or perhaps the fact that they have at least 10,000 people applying each year for the program. It’s actually Japanese people being polite and making sure everyone knows who you are before you come.

Having to submit my letter of resignation to my current workplace, and listening to many regrets from colleagues and friends alike was heart-wrenching. However they cheered me on, for something that I had a dream for; Japan. The whirlwind definitely can be extremely stressful or adrenaline pumping. I think I experienced the latter. So much adrenaline, but yet all you need is yourself. They picked you, they believe in you.

Meeting new JET applicants. Packing my suitcases, bags and boxes. Having to submit my end of lease papers. Closing my bills. (Even now I have to deal with outstanding bills that don’t want to let go of me). Organizing bank accounts, important documents and overseas credit cards. These all came in quite a wave, especially since I have been living as an independent, without my family overseas since I was 17. I felt like I had to pack almost 10 years of my life into a few boxes and send it over to Japan. Now I live each day as if it was my only life. Your life will be what you make it each day.

I think around this time, April, is when most of us JETs were finally hearing about our placements and trying to find out about our contracting organizations. So, perhaps our year really actually started around this time. Having to write down so many experiences into a single article can seem quite daunting. Believe me it has been an undertaking with many memories. And that is the most important thing – making memories.

Australia, my country, Sydney, my city. Discussions on Facebook, forums and many other social networks, all JETs trying to keep networking and keep in contact. It’s surprising how, when we arrived, the journey together in orientation is a short one. We make friends from our original application embassies. Then we make friends in our local area, city, town and prefecture. The program is amazing in how it develops you, to further strengthen your identity. You meet so many people, especially the Japanese that you work with. They all have special peculiarities, personalities. Their personalities, and most importantly, what makes them Japanese. Another important thing, the people. They’re important.

As young JETs we generally romanticize the features of Japan. Without a doubt, the MOFA sells Japan as a whole. It’s their job. However this program is not exactly that. It’s about the people and kids you live with. The program wants to change lives. They first changed your life. They gave you the opportunity to come on the program. So now, all you have to do is make a difference to the lives of those you will meet. Don’t worry if you’re no super-worker, ace-teacher or not perfect in any way. They just want you to be the perfect friend to Japan. When you make a difference to one child or one colleague or one person’s life in Japan, pat yourself on the back and grab a beer. Especially if you are in Kochi.

I have fears of what I can say in this article, but some things should be said. If I had been asked for just a few words could I tell the JET applicants what they should be prepared for? I’ll try. Don’t come here for the English. Unless you have power that can change the world, you will hurt yourself. The resilience needed to change an estimated 123,000,000 people’s worth of education, is more than Mount Fuji (it’s been made a UNESCO heritage site, as of 2013, more things to look forward to). They ask of you, yourself, and your identity, to assume a persona from another country for the children and people of Japan. Rural Japan, where you will be most likely be sent does not really have much exposure to the outside world. They have, over years, tried to improve their English ability. It’s hard for them, just like how the Japanese language is equally difficult to learn. So don’t expect them to change quickly or easily. They will need pushing and pulling as long as their history, which is vast and long. You’re a part of that big process.

Life After JET: Going Where the Road Takes You

This month’s contribution is by Rob Maxwell, an ALT in Oumu-cho, Hokkaido from 2008 to 2012, and then Sapporo. He reflects on his time as a clueless big boofy gaijin to becoming accomplished enough to take his wedding vows in Japanese. Now he works for the NSW’s Premier Office, showing you never know where JET could take you.

In 2004 I suddenly had this crazy idea. Move to Japan!!!! So I applied for an English teaching job (with NOVA) and off I went… And what a shock to the system it was. With little to no Japanese language experience I landed in a city with more people in it than my whole country combined. I have vivid memories of walking through Shibuya wondering what the heck I was doing here and how the hell and I going to survive. After about 2 weeks culture shock hit me hard and I was ready to go home, but a close friend gave me some great advice that will always stick with me. “Joining a new culture is like taking a really hot bath. You have to ease yourself into it”. This small crazy bit of advice did the trick. A few more weeks later and wanting to leave was a distant memory. I had picked up a few nuances of Japanese non-verbal communication as well as a few survival phrases to make sure I could eat and get around.

Fastforward a few more years and I’m on the JET Programme. The start of my JET story is similar to most JETs. I was a regular ALT living in a small fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Othosk in North Eastern Japan (Hokkaido). This is a town where it gets cold enough for the ocean to freeze and for a guy who grew up on the beach in Sydney, it was yet another shock to the system. I had 8 schools, a car and it was the first time I had lived in a place where is snowed in winter. Actually it snowed A LOT!!! I think living in this small town of about 5,000 people where I was one of the only non-Japanese person for about 100km, was the biggest challenge of my life. Trying to communicate and express myself effectively in a foreign language put a big strain on me daily, but it was pushing myself to make the effort that really paid off both in personal growth and personal development. At times I would meet other foreign friends who came from all over the world, we would inevitably discuss problems we faced and debate the pros and cons of life in Japan. Although we did have problems in common it was interesting to see things that didn’t bother me (such as comments on how well I use chopsticks) really annoyed some other people.

Another few years into the future and I’m living in Sapporo City. I’m married to a wonderful Japanese woman, with 2 kids and I now have a large Japanese extended family. This takes intercultural communication to a whole new level. Having to memorise my vows in Japanese, communicating with my new family on complex topics such as politics and social issues as we negotiate language and cultural barriers. I’m lucky that my new family are all warm and welcoming. Meeting me half way and mixing in a few key English words to help bridge the gap. I am by no means fluent, but I try and in Japan, that is the key. At times I feel frustrated by my apparent lack of progress. But when I stop and think of the wide-eyed Sydney boy who years earlier stepped off that plane… I can see how far I’ve come and know how far I have yet to travel.

I wanted to take a moment to comment more specifically on some aspects of my JET experience. When I arrived in Japan as a JET, the mantra of the time at Tokyo Orientation was “Every situation is different”, but over the years this phrase seemed to be ridiculed by many as a ‘Duh, of course it is’ and as such has been quietly phased out. I think people missed the point of what was really being said. Maybe what they should have said was, “keep an open mind”. Because you will be challenged in some way almost daily. You WILL go through culture shock and you WILL (at some point) feel like just going home. Where am I going with this you ask? Well what I’m saying is, get involved. If you have a skill or passion, find some way to utilise it.

For me personally I got involved with my local JET group (HAJET) and helped out the way I knew best. I redesigned anything and everything I could. I redesigned their welcome guide, magazine and brand. I didn’t go to all the arranged events but I went to enough to make new friends and renew others.

I got involved in my town activities and kept an open mind. You don’t have to accept every small invitation BUT remember that after a few rejections, they may stop asking. I judged a baking competitions, I went to town events and social BBQs. There were small things that were a little hard to adjust to. The cold (in winter it got so cold the ocean froze), the fact that everyone knows what you are doing (hard to blend in when you’re 187cm tall) and onsen. You see, I love onsen (hot springs) and there was only 1 close to my town. This meant when enjoying said onsen I would often run into co-workers, students and parents in awkward situations… ok, lets be honest, naked, stark naked awkward situations. Even after a year it was still strange for me, but they all seemed to have no problem with it so I ganbatted and got over it.

Like so many opportunities in life, there will be those who embrace the differences and others who will use them as a point of stress. I wanted to be someone who embraced it. Time on JET is a time to be who you ‘want’ to be when you are done. To grow and be challenged. True there will be times when you will question the decision to accept, ‘what the heck am I doing here living in the middle of nowhere???’ and there will be times you will smile from the inside out and be like ‘holy &^#%@ I’m living in Japan!!!!

Career wise I decided early on what I could do whilst in Japan that would help me when I returned home. I joined a JET group, not only for the social contacts but because I saw a need I could fill as a designer. I studied Japanese and took the JLPT because it helps to have something to show for your efforts when asked about your level/skills when you return home (for me it was also about communicating with my new family). All the successful JETs I know are the ones that got involved in some way. They stepped out of their comfort zone and had a go. I studied taiko (with primary school students) and although I wasn’t the best, I enjoyed trying. I learnt how to make beer as well. Was it useful for getting a job when I got home? No, but it was me learning something new with a new group of people who are now really close friends.

Many JETs wait until they have decided to go home before thinking about what they want to do after they return home. In my opinion, it’s almost too little too late. From personal experience I would say the average JET stays on the program 3 years. So make a plan based on how long you expect to stay.

I now work for the NSW Government in Sydney and I’ve used my JET experience to advise senior staff on Japanese business etiquette produce bilingual business cards for the NSW Premier and assist in translation of websites and videos. After returning it took me 12 months to secure a full time job BUT I was very selective about the type of job I applied for. I’m a designer so I had the advantage of being able to freelance while I waited for the right job for me.

So to new and future JETs I say good luck, it’s an experience you will never forget.

Life As and After JET: Building Bridges

The JET Programme has lead to many opportunities and careers, sometimes rather unexpectedly. Our Life After JET articles by former JETs gives an insight about their lives after the programme, and how it has shaped their careers and paths. We hope that it will prove useful as an insight for potential applicants into what we as ex-JETs got from our experience, and maybe provide some nostalgic memories for others. Please feel free to contact us if you want to write about your own experience!

Nathan Poore was an Oita CIR from 2004 – 2007, after which he used his JET experience working as an Events Coordinator and Translator for Waseda University in Tokyo until returning to Australia in 2010. He gives us a fascinating insight into what CIR does, as opposed to the life of an ALT.

In July this year, it will be ten years since I first arrived in Japan as a participant on the JET Programme. Looking back at my JET experience, my fondest memories are of the wonderful people that I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know personally during my placement. Apart from being an unforgettable experience on a personal level, JET also became a fantastic professional opportunity. I learnt and developed a wide range of transferrable skills, even though I often did not realise this at the time.

As an undergraduate student, early on I had decided that I wanted to apply to the JET Programme. The grassroots exchange opportunity on offer to live and work in Japan, whilst utilising and improving my Japanese language skills was exactly what I wanted to do after graduation. A number of friends had also successfully participated in the programme, and highly recommended the experience. With the support and encouragement of my Japanese lecturers, I submitted my application. After an interview, I was fortunate to be accepted to the programme in the role of Coordinator for International Relations (CIR). My placement was in a small town called Ume*, located deep in the mountains of southern Oita Prefecture, Kyushu.

I arrived in Japan in July of 2004. My new supervisor and a few other colleagues made the two hour journey north from Ume to greet me at Oita Airport. Nearly ten years later, I still remember how friendly and welcoming my new colleagues were at the airport that day. I soon realised this sense of openness and warm hospitality were characteristics shared throughout the town. I spent the first few nights in Ume with my supervisor and his lovely family. It was summer, and those first days were spent in a haze of introductions to colleagues and neighbours, trying out the delicious local cuisine and attempts at getting used to the southern Oita dialect. I remember feeling at the time that my textbook Japanese was too formal, and I was eager to learn as much of the local language as possible.

My role as a CIR was to facilitate grassroots cross-cultural exchange activities in my area. In reality, this meant organising cultural events for the local community, visiting schools and other facilities, attending local events and basically getting out amongst the community and interacting with as many people as possible. Working together with my Japanese colleagues and other CIRs placed nearby, I planned various cultural events from proposal stage to running the event on the day. This involved gaining the support of my direct supervisor and section chief for each project, starting with a written proposal. With often limited or no budget allocated for these kinds of activities, it was important for me to consider the resources already available to receive the green light. I had many ideas (not all of them practicable) and after each project I sought feedback to try and make the next one more successful. During my time as a CIR, some of my particularly memorable events and activities included teaching Australian-style bush dancing to senior citizens, accompanying a group of locals on an official trip to Queensland as an interpreter, and publishing a commemorative collection of essays from all of the previous CIRs placed in Ume, to name a few. I could not have achieved what I did without the support and guidance of those around me, both inside and outside of the office.

My local CIR network was an incredibly diverse, talented group of people from across the globe, always happy to offer their support and share their skills and expertise. As many JET participants will have experienced, my role as a CIR extended further than the usual nine to five. Whether I was buying groceries at the supermarket or attending a local festival, I was always meeting new people and having conversations about life in Australia and Ume. These kinds of interactions were some of the most enjoyable and memorable for me personally. After living in Ume for three years, I was fortunate to have made many close friends, and feel truly grateful for the kindness extended to me. On a professional level, participating in the JET Programme taught me to be flexible in my thinking, and how to communicate and work successfully with different kinds of people. I learnt how to be resourceful, resilient, and proactive in order to achieve my work goals. I improved both my written and spoken business Japanese, in addition to public speaking in both English and Japanese. I gained experience in event planning, translation and interpreting, and teaching children and adults. These types of skills and experiences that JET participants gain are highly transferable across various roles, and personally speaking I have greatly benefited from my JET experience in my professional life since completing the program.

For new JET participants, I highly recommend getting involved with your local community as much as possible to make the most of your experience. For those who are returning home, I encourage you to stay in touch with your friends and colleagues from Japan, and get involved with your local JET alumni chapter, which is a great way to network and maintain your connection with Japan.

*Ume amalgamated with Saiki City in March of 2005, together with seven other nearby towns and villages.