Life on JET

Matt Haes
ALT, Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, 2016-2018
Most people yearning to travel to Japan probably have a preconceived idea of what its people, culture, and life will be like. A film student, I myself had a romanticised image of what I expected Japan to be like; urban metropolises, quaint villages, cheerful locals, and so on. Knowing that the ideal was probably never going to exist, I thought it best to go to Japan completely open minded with no expectations, which was for the best considering the letter I received…
"Contracting Organisation; Naoshima-cho."
And then came the waves of realisation. ‘Amazing, I’m going to Japan!’ ‘Oh, it’s a small village.’ ‘Wait, it’s an island…’ Needless to say, my JET experience was bound to be quite unique.
Not knowing what to make of my upcoming life, I arrived in Kagawa prefecture and boarded my first of countless ferries to my tiny island home. The azure waters of the Seto Inland Sea were polluted with jellyfish, the contrasting islands jutted upwards, peaked with mountains, and in the distance, a small, yellow, polka-dotted pumpkin sat as a Siren. There were so many new things to experience, but there was no time for any of that, the teacher’s summer BBQ was about to begin! Only having two schools and a kindergarten to teach at meant I didn’t have so many teachers, but meeting them all at once was my first culture shock. Knowing I needed to immerse myself in my new surroundings, I engaged as openly and easily as I could, and in turn everybody greeted me with a warmth and hospitality unmatched anywhere else. This set a precedent for the rest of my time in Japan.
Prior to arrival, I allowed myself one preconception; ‘island life should be quite relaxing’, which it was, kind of. English education on Naoshima doesn’t follow the same curriculum as the rest of Japan with its elementary school using a programme tailor made for its students. Teaching there was a joy as the students responded so well to and actively enjoyed using English. My co-teachers as well also tried their best to engage with me, using whatever English they knew to make a positive impact on everybody. However, having a specialised English plan came at a cost; national, prefectural, and local officials endlessly came swarmed to the island for demonstration lessons. My co-teachers and I performed a never-ending array of classes, prefixed by weeks of meetings, preparation and overtime, but punctuated with a party to celebrate our efforts. It wasn’t easy, especially as a new teacher, but the relationships that grew with my teachers were fantastic and the skills I quickly developed were immeasurable.
Just as I was settling in to my new life, Naoshima decided to throw additional curveballs at me. There was Naoshima EGG, a volunteer guide group where children and teachers gave up their time on weekends to introduce the island, in English, to tourists. There was an eikaiwa where a lovely group of local townspeople came to simply chat about their lives, have some tea, and learn a bit more English on the way. Then there was ‘Meet the World’, a yearly event held on a Saturday where I had to gather ALTs from all over Japan to come to Naoshima and engage with English and cultural games and activities with all of the children. Just as you began to feel like you understood what you were doing, Naoshima always had something unique to demand from you, but that’s what made it a fantastic placement; there was always something new, something that involved you with the wider community, and something that actually pushed you as a teacher. Living in a foreign country, you have to throw yourself in to everything that is presented to you, and by doing that, I was able to gain so much from what the island had to offer and by engaging so readily with the wider community, I could see how much I was contributing back. This idea of exchange is the heart of the JET Programme.
Although I was grateful for this unique experience, there was also a desire to experience true Japanese culture, and I was not disappointed. After my first day of teaching, I returned home and sat down on the futon mat, wondering what to do with my time when my doorbell announced that the school’s gardener had arrived; “I heard you were interested in kendo. Let’s go!” This willingness to share traditional culture is so unique to Japan, but I may not have experienced hitting a six year old on the head with a bamboo sword without it! From carrying mikoshi in local festivals to learning to play the shamisen, from unwillingly performing in the town’s production of The Sound of Music to learning how to catch fish and make sashimi, by just putting myself out there, showing a willingness to try new things, and engaging as much as possible, the town was willing to share so much. The friends and memories I gained from my time on the island are immeasurable. If you’re willing to open yourself up and engage with exchange, then the JET Programme can provide so much in return.
Finally, it was easy to expect that my life on an island was going to be isolating. The ferries to Takamatsu, the capital city of Kagawa prefecture, weren’t the best timed, but it was so easy to leave for a weekend, see friends, travel, and make the most of my life in Japan. It was actually easier for me to travel to major cities than it was for the rest of the prefecture as I could easily take a ferry up and catch a shinkansen to Hiroshima or Osaka in no time! From completing personal goals such as climbing Mt. Fuji, visiting Hiroshima, and travelling to other countries to surprises I never expected such as working for Kagawa AJET, biking 80km on the shimanami kaido, and eating octopus at a local shrine for Christmas, there was always something uniquely fantastic that I would never have done if not for Japan and the ideas instilled in you because of the JET Programme.
The JET Programme is unique in its ambitions; you aren’t there to simply teach, you are there to exchange your culture, ideas, and traditions with Japanese people. If you’re willing to do that, to be open, and to engage then in turn you will receive an immeasurable amount of skills, memories, and friendships that will endure long past your return. My final memory is of waving atop a ferry, holding ribbons that streamed down to the entire town holding on as the ship slowly pulled away, and its memories like that make me glad that nothing about my time could have been expected.

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