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.