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.