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.

Life After JET: It’s Hip to be Square

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!

Kenneth Pinyopusarerk, who hails from Canberra, Australia, was a 2003-2006 CIR who worked in Saigawa (now Miyako), Fukuoka-ken. A man with a lifelong passion for two things: Japanese culture and computer games, he managed to combine the both and land a dream job at Square Enix in Tokyo where he currently works today. The only downside to his job is having to turn down countless requests from friends for “A Realm Reborn”, the latest in the Final Fantasy franchise.

Twenty years ago, on a crisp Sunday morning in Canberra, I had a life-changing encounter. I was strolling through the local Trash & Treasure when I stumbled upon a pre-loved cartridge of Final Fantasy II*, lying upon a splintery foldout table. Drawn by some unknown force, I paid the $40 asking price—a small fortune for a 14-year-old in 1994—without so much as an attempt to haggle. Thus began my enduring love affair with the video game developer Squaresoft, now known as Square Enix. Had my pimply teenage self been told that he would one day work for this company, he would have scoffed and promptly resumed playing whatever game it was he was obsessed with at the time.

Since childhood, I’ve had an affinity with Japanese culture. I attribute this to the years I spent growing up in my parents’ native Thailand, a nation that has historically been receptive to all things Japanese. My adolescence coincided with the golden age of console gaming, and nothing captivated me quite like fantasy RPGs. However, in spite of my infatuation with text-heavy Japanese games, and the dearth of translated titles in Australia, I didn’t have the chance to formally learn the language until halfway through university. When that chance finally came, I seized it with both hands and undertook my studies with a fervor I never knew I had. My dream of working as a creative director in an advertising agency lost its lustre next to my desire to master Japanese, and under the auspices of talented and passionate lecturers, I journeyed to Fukuoka on exchange in 2001.

The year I spent in Fukuoka counts among the best in my life; no sooner did I arrive back in Australia than I was laying plans to return to Japan. I had heard positive things about the JET Programme, and decided to apply for a CIR position after graduation. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, and, much to my delight, found myself in Fukuoka again, in the verdant rural township of Saigawa (now Miyako).

As a small-town CIR, my duties spanned a diverse range of activities, from visiting schools and holding conversation classes to running international events. I was also encouraged to propose new projects, and, with the mayor’s invaluable support, succeeded in securing funding for the town’s inaugural homestay programme, which took a dozen middle-schoolers to Brisbane. Overall, I had a tremendously fulfilling JET experience, and this influenced my decision to stay the full three years (at the time).

At first, I spared nary a thought to what I would do after JET, but towards the end of my term it hit me that I needed to make provisions. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to stay in Japan. To improve my chances, I studied like a man possessed and managed to pass JLPT 1. Through JET alumni and former classmates, I learned of openings for bilingual staff at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, located in Beppu City in neighbouring Oita Prefecture. My application was successful, and I served as an admissions officer in the hot spring capital of Japan for a year and a half.

It was rewarding to liaise with applicants the world over, and I could have happily carved out a career in tertiary education administration, but eventually I grew restless and took to browsing employment websites. That was when I learned about an opening for a JP-to-EN translator in Square Enix’s Localisation Division.

While I had remained an avid gamer throughout my time in Japan, I never entertained the possibility of actually working for the company that I so adored during my formative years. I love Final Fantasy, and by then I had come to know that I also enjoy translating, so the job seemed the stuff of dreams. The pessimist in me, however, feared that it was fated to remain just that. Square Enix is a world-renowned company, and there would doubtless be hundreds of applicants; what are the odds that I would rise above this vast sea of competition? But misgivings or no, I knew that I had to give it an earnest shot, or else I would regret it for the rest of my life.

Words cannot describe the elation I felt when I received the phone call from the company’s HR division informing me that I had been accepted for a six-month trial. Almost six years have gone by, and I’m still working at Square Enix, so I’d like to think I’m doing something right. I started out on Final Fantasy XI, the company’s aging MMO, staying on the project for three years, after which I was taken on board Final Fantasy XIV, yet another MMO, shortly after its failed release. As the development of its remake, A Realm Reborn, went into full swing, I was promoted to lead translator.

Times were trying heading towards release; the workload was mountainous, and the deadline absolute. But whenever I felt discouraged, I recalled the excitement that coursed through me the day I first lay my eyes upon that Final Fantasy II cartridge. Twenty years on from that day, in August 2013, A Realm Reborn was released to positive reviews. While the hardest part is behind us, updates are constantly in the works, and my sights are set on the challenges to come.

Like a lot of people, at first I didn’t have a clear notion of how my time on JET would benefit my career prospects. But looking back now, I can say with confidence that the programme has provided me with myriad opportunities, some of which have taken my life in unimaginable and exciting directions. I’ve chosen to make language central to my career, but it’s up to you what you do with your JET experience. I know many alumni who have gone on to employ their skills in a supplementary capacity with great success, including one who now works for a leading Japanese advertising agency. In an alternate reality, that could have well been me. Perhaps it still can be.

I would like to express my undying gratitude to my Japanese language lecturers at the University of Canberra, Dr Nicollette Bramley and Ms Yumi Eto. Thank you for inspiring me to follow my heart.

* Known as Final Fantasy IV in Japan.

Life After JET: Food for Thought

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!

Our next article comes from James A. Foley. A former Iwaki-shi, Fukushima-ken JET (2007-2010), James met his wife on the JET Programme (who was also a JET) and has successfully carved out a career as a reviewer and critic of New York’s Japanese food scene for the famous Village Voice publication. James is also quite handy with the camera, and his blog contains his writing, articles and photography. A little known fact is that he’s totally metal on the shamisen.


This August marks the third year since I finished my time on JET; I have officially been gone from Japan for as long as I was there. Looking back now over my time on JET, the connections between the Japan experience and my work as a professional journalist are abundantly clear.

Prior to packing up life and moving from the middle of America to Iwaki City on the coast of Fukushima, I worked as a news reporter for a daily newspaper in suburban Kansas City, Mo. While I was in Japan I continued to write and hone my journalism skills, but mainly just for a blog I kept for my own records.

Towards the end of my JET tenure I had no life plan or job prospects. I thought about continuing teaching, but my heart wasn’t in it. I thought about going to graduate school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study. All I knew was that I wanted to travel for as long as possible and that I could probably generate some income if I wrote about the journey. I starting pitching freelance story ideas to various magazines and websites. There was a lot of rejection (or, more accurately, no responses whatsoever). But I did have success getting stories published in Metropolis magazine in Tokyo, Japan Today, CNN Travel, CNN Go and Independent Traveler and some others as a result of 10 months of being a homeless, unemployed nomad.

By the time I was back in America I was with my fiance Lauren (who is also a Fukushima JET and will be my wife as of Oct. 11) in Monterey, Califonia for her to get a Master’s degree. I found work at a historic hotel, where I fell in with a well-traveled set of people. In September of 2011, six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the JET Program invited me and a handful of other former Tohoku JETs to come back to Japan for a week to do some reporting on the situation in Fukushima. Seeing my old Japanese hometown after the quake was surreal — some things looked exactly the same, while others were forever changed. I came back to the States with some good stories and tried to get them published. The cover story I wrote for my local paper, Monterey County Weekly, was published a year after the quake and is still one I’m very proud of — and it went over so well that I became a regular contributor for the Weekly, which was the most widely circulated publication in the area.

My editor there spent a lot of his time covering the vibrant local dining seen and food economy, so much that he could no longer appear at restaurants without being recognized. He asked me to review a local Japanese restaurant in his stead. The story did well, and the food writing assignments just kept coming. I spent the rest of my time in California working as a food writer, which is something I never considered as a possible career.

After Lauren finished her coursework we moved to New York City for her to do an internship at the United Nations. I eventually found work on the food team at Village Voice, where my three years on JET have really come into play. After myriad meals in Japan, I can speak and write with authority on Japanese food and drink, which has enabled me to carve out a niche for myself in the overstuffed New York food writing scene.

I don’t necessarily plan to keep on writing about food, or for that matter to stay in journalism at all, but for now it’s all I know, and I see my life now as a direct result of the choices I made on JET — everything from the work I do, to the woman I love, to the food I love to eat the most are all connected to my time in Japan.

James A. Foley

Life After JET: The Write Stuff

The JET Programme has lead to many opportunities and careers, sometimes rather unexpectedly. This is the first in a series of articles by former JETs about their lives after participating on 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!  

Our article comes to us courtesy of Ashley Thompson, who was a former JET in Shizuoka-ken (2008-2010). Since leaving JET she has built up a writing career which includes being an editor of Surviving in Japan, a popular blog for expats in Japan; and as a Community Manager for Nihongo Master,  an online Japanese language learning site. You can follow Ashley on Twitter @survivingnjapan. Many thanks to Ashley for her time and support!


I never expected that going to Japan with JET would launch my writing career or bring about the opportunities it has. And fainting at school was the catalyst. It happened on a cool October day, just over a year after I arrived in Japan. A student had come to the door of the staff room to ask me something, and after standing up from seat my vision started fading and my head was cloudy. I lowered myself to the floor before I lost consciousness. I was rushed to the nurse’s room on a stretcher and sent home for a few days.

The first day back at school I developed a fever and was promptly sent home. The light-headedness returned stronger at that point, followed by motion sickness and constant nausea. I was forced to take a longer sick leave, month after month, as I visited various doctors in an attempt to get a diagnosis. They either found nothing or told me it was “all in my head”. I knew they were wrong, but in Japan a doctor’s word is like God’s.

One doctor finally suggested there was a problem with my inner ear after testing my (poor) balance with a machine, both with eyes open and shut. But the medicine he prescribed didn’t work, and he was upset when I returned with no improvement.

It wasn’t until we visited the U.S. for a Christmas trip (we bought our flight tickets before I became ill) that I was diagnosed with labrynthitis – an inflammation of the deep inner ear caused by a virus–by my doctor in the States. She told me it can take weeks or months to heal completely, but at that point I didn’t care; I was thankful to finally have a diagnosis.

After returning to Japan and meeting with my school again, my husband and I decided it would be best for me to resign from JET in March 2010, as I had been sick for so long and we didn’t know when I would heal completely. My school had been wonderfully accommodating, but I had inconvenienced them for too long. I didn’t want to prolong the situation, so I quit in time for them to hire a new ALT to come with the spring JETs. I didn’t completely recover until late April.

While ill and unable to do much, I started writing seriously again–I had put it on hold other than some personal blogging before I left for Japan. During this time, I thought about starting a blog on how to live in Japan. I was always trying to figure out how to do things. I was frustrated at how little people knew, even my Japanese co-workers. Things like finding baking powder, or finding a farmer’s market, and whether or not Japanese toothpaste actually contains fluoride/fluorine (for the record, most of it does).

Everyone had told me the typical myths before: “Japan doesn’t have good deodorant/toothpaste/pads/other products”; “you can’t find vitamins in Japan”; and “you should have all your products shipped here”. It bothered me that people were so insistent about these things even though they never offered evidence to support their beliefs, other than maybe a personal story or two. It didn’t sit well with me, so I wanted to search for the truth, whether they were right or not, despite not being fluent in Japanese. So Surviving in Japan was born February 2010.

I spent the first few months doing research, creating content and joining Japan-related content voting sites that were popular at the time. I researched blogging, copywriting, and social media marketing. I became active on Twitter and followed and interacted with influential people and connected with others living in Japan.

Once I put my research into practice, my blog visits went up. I kept trying to produce the most useful, comprehensive content, asking nothing in return. I wrote about things that I couldn’t find on any other English-language Japan blog, and I started seeing my posts show up in search results, often on the first or second page.

My blog received a spotlight in October 2010 when the tech editor of The Japan Times asked me to do an interview for their Blogroll. Blog traffic increased, I got more interviews, and I continued to do research and provide useful content. In February 2011 I was asked to write the Lifelines column for The Japan Times, which I did for two years until my family moved back to the U.S.

While blogging for Surviving in Japan and writing for The Japan Times, I was approached by the editor of Metropolis Magazine to write on a freelance basis. Several other publications in Japan and elsewhere asked me to write one-time articles, and a major publishing company paid me to revise and update half of their Japan travel guidebook.

While not directly related, using Twitter led to a freelance job working as a virtual assistant for, which I did until I gave birth to my daughter in August 2011. This summer, Nihongo Master, a Japanese learning site, approached me to work with them because of my experience writing about Japan and connections with Expat Women.

It might seem like luck, but I got noticed because I consistently provided value to others. I started Surviving in Japan out of a desire to find answers for myself and to help others along the way. I never imagined just how helpful it would become to other expats living in Japan. And I never would have done any of this had I not gone to Japan with JET. Even though my JET career was cut short, I created something for myself in the midst of adversity and have been able to help other JETs and expats living in Japan as a result. Not only that, but I believe my work has helped dispel myths, reduce ignorance and help others understand Japan.

So if you’re a current or recently returned JET, take advantage of the time you have in Japan. Perhaps use the time and experience to think about what you love doing and how you might want to help make a difference in the lives of others around you. Then create a brand, whether it’s yourself or something you start. Use the plethora of free tools to network and market your brand. Do so by providing value to others in ways that only you can. You might be surprised by what happens next. I was.

– Ashley Thompson