Monthly Archives: January 2013

An open letter

To my friends on JET,

Recontracting is all anyone can talk about these days. For a while, I had been considering writing a post explaining why I’m not recontracting, why I’m doing one year on the JET Program. But I feel that, through so many different conversations — both with many of you here and with friends and family back home — I’ve actually expressed it pretty clearly already.

What I want to write about instead is the reception of my news that I’m leaving in August, and how much it disappoints me, saddens me, stresses me out. Explaining my decision to my supervisor a few days ago was certainly a somber occasion, but after just one question she accepted my decision and that was that.

The reactions of some of my fellow JETs, on the other hand, have all too often been accusative, pitying, and altogether lacking in understanding and support. People have nagged me about all the great stuff happening after August that I’ll miss; they have insinuated that they know better than I how I should spend my youth (many other JETs are older than me) and that it is a waste to leave the program after one year.

A wise fellow JET told me a while ago that the root of people’s negative and unsupportive reactions is their insecurity at knowing I and others will be leaving while the recontracting JETs stay behind in Japan: they become afraid to grow too close with me because soon I won’t be around. I understand this feeling of uncertainty and fear. I also understand that JETs who have been here longer than I, but have decided to return home this year, experience similar misunderstanding and guilt-tripping from their friends here. But I think the pressure on me and the other one-year JETs is harsher and is patently unfair.

Let me first say that I had absolutely no inkling when I applied to the Program that not only was staying for more than one year the norm, but there would be such intense pressure to stay — not from my workplace, but from other JETs! In fact, part of why I chose to apply to and then to accept a position through JET was that it began with a one-year contract; other well-known programs like Teach for America and the Peace Corps have a minimum commitment of two years.

My plan from early in university, maybe even from high school, was to spend a year abroad after graduating, and that plan did not change throughout the JET application and acceptance process. So I feel like I’m being punished, by people who just met me a few months ago, for having my own expectations and ideas for the near future. Had I arrived in Japan and chattered constantly about my glowing plans to stay for three years, and then backed out, I could better understand people’s disappointment and judgment. But I have known myself and my goals since the beginning.

  • [Note: There are many other facets to my decision to leave: it’s not as simple as “I made a plan and I’m sticking to it.” For a while after I had begun to settle into life here, I was seriously considering staying another year. If you’re interested in the other factors in my decision not to recontract, I’d love to talk about it online or in person!]

Here’s the simple truth: I am not you. Every single person here on JET comes from different circumstances and accordingly has different plans and values. To presume that you can discern or even prescribe my goals and priorities insults me.

Maybe this post has begun to sound like I resent everyone who signed the “Yes” box on our recontracting papers. Far from it! I’m calling you out on your treatment of my decision not because I dislike or disrespect you — it’s the opposite. Many of you have become my closest friends already. I love that I have the privilege of getting to know such different people from so many parts of the world. I am so honored to be a part of this program; I know my time here will be a fond memory for the rest of my life. And having had such an amazing time so far, I completely understand why many of you want to continue your experience for another year or more.

However, I feel that my friends’ obsession and unease over my “imminent” departure (six months! The blink of an eye!..) harms our relationships. I can’t connect with you if you see me as a calendar date rather than a person. I want to settle this point of misunderstanding so that we can enjoy more comfortable friendships for the remainder of my time here.

Please remember also that this focus on my leaving tarnishes my experience. As a one-year JET, I am working extra hard to pack in as much fun, travel, work experience and friendship as I possibly can, and it is difficult to live in the present when I’m constantly being reminded of my departure.

For everyone except the few JETs who will end up living in Japan long-term, this is a temporary situation. Mine is more temporary than many of yours, but we will all have to deal with departures and goodbyes at some point. So I’m asking you to do me the great service of accepting that I will leave you in August, for reasons that are legitimate and my own, and moving on to enjoy the significant amount of time we still have together.

I want to hear from everyone out there, too: What is on your mind as the recontracting deadline approaches? What are some communication difficulties between leaving and recontracting JETs, and how do you approach them? Should JET change its minimum contract to two years?

One last thing: this post certainly does not sum up the behavior of all the JETs I know, and I want to thank many of you for being incredibly supportive, respectful and understanding. I already feel that I’ll look back on JET as a time of significant personal growth, and it’s in large part to do with the really quality people with whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends. Stay classy, Toyama. 🙂

防犯教室: Crime prevention assembly

I wonder if my every-other-week visiting school is a cool place all the time, or if I just happen to visit on days when interesting things are going on. In October or November, there was a special daily schedule waiting on my desk but I couldn’t read the kanji. Later that day, the principal invited me to come with her to whatever the event was (I didn’t understand it out loud either), so we headed with the rest of the school to the chilly gym for what turned out to be a visiting theater troupe. They put on an adorable play with lots of acrobatics, silly costumes, singing, musical instruments, and all kinds of kid-friendly themes from the importance of self-confidence to the precious bonds of friendship. Because the play was geared towards kids as young as 6, I could basically understand it. 😀

This last week there was another special schedule on my desk, and this time I knew all but one of the kanji so I had a general idea of disaster/crime/prevention/preparedness. And when the principal tried to explain it to me, I caught that the kids would learn about what to do “if a strange person comes to the school.”

Naturally, as with anything in Japan, it was all done with a lot of formality. I was sitting at my desk waiting for the principal to summon me, when people started making all kinds of announcements over the loudspeaker and coming to deliver to the principal reports of the simulated threat. There was a lot of “Anzen deshou ka?” [Is it safe?] delivered in this dramatic tone; I could not help but think of bad black-and-white samurai movies.

So then I was whisked away to the gym, which, in mid-January, was FREEZING. (The disaster drill couldn’t be held in May, or September, or pretty much any other month?) The kids all filed in by class and lined up in perfect columns while their teachers approached the principal and all gave the exact same speech confirming the safety of their classes.

It was time for the crime prevention assembly. A school crossing guard, the local mall security guard, and two people with the police (in full uniform with bullet-proof vests, juxtaposed with the dainty visitors’ slippers they had put on upon entering the school) spoke to the kids about how to deal with strangers. They pretended to be creepy strangers and preyed upon volunteer students. One of the policemen produced a decibel meter and had some students yell “Tasukete!” [Help!] as loud as they could into it.

Finally, the policeman asked the entire school to measure their yelling volume. This moment was the entire reason I’ve written this post. I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of 173 high child-voices screaming “TASUKETEEEEE!!!” in that freezing gym. The whole thing was steeped in that classically Japanese mix of the serious and the completely absurd.