Updated: Jun 12
Every July, JET Program inductees from all around the world make their way to Japan. It is estimated that over 15,000 people apply for positions as either an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), CIR (Coordinator of International Relations), or SEA (Sports Education Advisors), but only about about less than 10% ever make it into the program, making it one of the most exclusive "clubs" to get into.
As a former JET Alumni myself (Hokkaido, 2013-2014), many wanna-be, present, and JET alumni tend to ask me a lot of questions. In the few public events that I have spoken to about life in Japan, these are the most common questions I got about JET.
Please note that this post is about MY experience. Not everyone's experience on JET is the same. After all, as the JETs say, ESID (Every Situation Is Different).
Note that as people ask me questions about my time in "Hokkaido Hoosegow", I'll be updating this article.
Question: How did you first learn about JET?
I learned about JET through my mother's cousin. She was stationed in Ishinomaki-shi, Miyagi-ken (near Sendai) during the mid-late 2000s and told me about all her adventures in the Tohoku area.
Question: Why did you apply to JET in the first place?
I applied mainly to improve my Japanese and for the sense of adventure. I also wanted to see how life was REALLY like in Japan. While I may have studied abroad in Osaka for 7 months, I wanted to see what Japanese life was like outside Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka/Kyoto, and Hiroshima (the cities that I went to during my various study abroad adventures while at UNT).
Question: What was the application process like?
Very straightforward and the majority of it was online. At that time I was studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai, so I needed my folks's help picking up some documents from UNT (transcripts, letters of recommendations, etc). But all in all, the application was very simple and straightforward.
Question: Why did you apply as an ALT? Could you have been a CIR?
That's a question I really can't answer now. I probably did have the capacity to do it (and I know I got the skills now to do it), but in order for me to be at least have a sort of guarantee for me to get to Japan, it would be prudent for me to apply as an ALT. Besides, the ALT position required no Japanese, but a willingness to learn it. I could use that as a means to get my Japanese better.
Perhaps I should have tried to become a CIR, and I probably would have become one. But that is all the past, so there is no use in playing "shoulda, coulda, woulda" game.
Question: Any tips for the application?
1) When it comes to your placement requests, try to prefectures and areas that no one really wants to go to or really even thinks about.
To increase your chances, these are some of the prefectures I would recommend include the following....
- Most of Kyushu, except for Fukuoka City
- Hyogo (Kobe might be a possibility too, but don't bank on it too much)
With these prefectures, you will increase your chances to at least getting an interview. I would not try and bank on going to any major city in the Kanto area, especially Tokyo. You will not get Tokyo. Don't even try. Osaka too. Kyoto as well. If you get Hiroshima-shi or Nagasaki-shi, and you are American, best of luck to you.
As for my placement, Hokkaido, I would recommend you to go.... if you aren't on the Eastern side. Nemuro and Kushiro are ok placements though (If anyone is going to Kushiro, hit me up for more information). But if you get stuck in a village or town east of Obihiro, you will be isolated. Western Hokkaido and Sapporo is where everything is at. If you get sent to the Otaru, Hakodate, Hidaka, Tomakomai, or Sapporo areas, GO. They are major areas with easy access to Sapporo and New Chitose Airport. And with the new Shinkansen coming to Sapporo in the next few years, traversing to other parts of Japan will become much more easier.
Anywhere in Ainu country (the Hidaka Peninsula) is also really interesting. The Ainu natives are interesting and kind folks, but they are a little hard to find. Don't be afraid to talk with them and take the time to learn about their facisinating, yet moribund culture and language.
I have no opinions on Wakkanai, Asahikawa, Kitami, or anywhere in the northern part of the island. Never been there.
East Hokkaido... RUN. Just run.
2) If you are trying to get into JET to get your Japanese better, I would not put that on your statement letter when applying. You probably will not get in. So you're gonna have to lie. Sorry, there is no getting around this. Embellish about becoming a great English teacher or cultural ambassador.
3) If you are an otaku or weeaboo, I'm sorry, but your chances of getting into JET are better than you marrying your waifu. Nonexistant. Most people that are in JET do or did have an anime/manga interest while younger or maybe even now, but I have yet to have met a JET that wears kitty ears and an Attack on Titan shirt at the same time.
Question: What was my interview like?
My interview was at the Japanese Consulate General in Houston, Texas. I remember that it was pouring rain that February morning. Fortunately for me, my hotel was only 3 blocks and my hotel had a chauffeur that took me to the consulate.
The interview was very straightforward, but I stuck to my game plan. Just embellished me "becoming a great cultural ambassador" and "willing to get my own Japanese better". The interviewer team, one American woman (heavily pregnant at that time), one American man, and a Japanese woman, all seemed to take a liking to me.
The highlight of the interview for me was when the gentleman asked me where I wanted to go if I was accepted. I planned out a very memorable phrase that was even highlighted at the JET Orientation Party in Houston in 2013.
"I want to be the only American in a 50 mile area"
There was a long pause when I said that, and the man smiled back replied,
"Son, you got BALLS. Really big balls."
To which I replied, "All I got in this world is my "balls" and my word, and I won't break 'em for anyone". (Tony Montana - Scarface)
He started laughing, as did the American woman (I think the joke went over the Japanese interviewer's head)
Question: How'd you find out you got in?
It was about 5 weeks after I did the interview. I woke up that morning and because I was working late nights, I was exceptionally tired. But I had a special bell on my iPhone for the consulate/embassy, and sure enough, it went off and my heart dropped into my stomach.
Sure enough, I was offered a spot. I couldn't stop crying because all of my hard work in school, the countless hours I spent studying Japan and it's culture, and my personal ambition of living in Japan for at least a year finally came to fruition.
Question: At your school, was it very competitive to get into JET?
UNT's Japanese program is up and coming (last time I heard, they are in the process of creating a BA in Japanese), and with that, a lot of wannabe JETs were in my graduating class. Out of the 30 that I know applied, only 2 made it, myself and some other girl whose name I don't remember at the moment (1 other girl also made it, but dropped out due to personal issues before the departure in July). I can only imagine that at larger schools, like at Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Oregon, or any major state school with Japanese, I'm sure the competition is fierce.
But in all seriousness, don't even worry about "competition". If you do, it will only wear yourself out thinking about it. The only person you can really defeat.... is yourself. By having a second-rate application package, acting like a fool during the interview, or doing something colossally stupid will not help your case.
On another note though, I still can't remember why, but I was considered to be a long-shot by my UNT classmates for getting in. Probably because I wasn't the typical Japanese learner. At that time, I was heavily involved in sports and a heavy jock. Compared to the other more studious candidates (whom most where weeaboos), I guess I could look like a long-shot. But hey, I got in. And I always tend to perform better when being considered as an underdog anyway.
Question: When did you find out about your location?
About two months later in June. I got an email from CLAIR that I would be shipped out to East Hokkaido to a little fishing village called.... Akkeshi-mura (Village of Akkeshi).
Originally, I was excited to learn that my request to go very rural was honored. Even though East Hokkaido wasn't exactly what I had in mind, even so, being able to learn about Ainu culture and perhaps getting to enjoy some winter sports excited me.
Then, I started to look at their information on Wikipedia... and my heart sort of sank. It was isolated by a long distance from Sapporo. 5 hours by the super-rapid Oozora, 11 hours by local train. But at the same time, I thought that it was going to be an interesting year there. If it turned into something longer, so be it.
Question: Did your predecessor ever reach out to you?
Not really. He talked to me at most twice, but I never really spoke to him or even met the guy in person. I learned as much about my placement through my "grand-predecessor", Doug. From what he told me, I was in for a fun year or two.
My personal advice to all incoming or wannabe JETs, when it comes to your predecessor, if he/she makes you feel uncomfortable or something seems off, it might be wise to seek another sort of mentor too. Most JET prefectures have a Facebook group, where a lot of ex-JETs are a part of. If at all possible, see if you can find your "grand-pred".
One caveat though. You need to understand that situations change constantly in the Japanese education system. Most native Japanese people rotate positions every 3-5 years, so he warned me ahead of time that his former boss might not be my current boss... and that actually turned out to be the case.
Question: Did other JETs in your area reach out to you before your arrival?
Some did. Not exactly the kind of people I'd be friends with back in America, but still, we're all in this together in the East.
Question: Did you ever have any sort of doubts before leaving for Akkeshi?
No different from everybody else did. Of course, I was worried how I was going to be perceived by the locals, especially since I was going to the deep countryside.
Another worry I had was Akkeshi's close proximity to Russia. Back then, the Obama Administration were getting rather cold toward Moscow, and I was wondering what I ought to do if I saw a Russian... and a drunk one too.
I think probably the biggest worry that I had would be me being away from my family and friends. If anything were to happen to my family back in Texas, I would be totally unable to provide help. Nonetheless, I still chose to go.
Question: What was the training in Tokyo like?
To be totally honest, I slept and drank through most of it. And even if I did remember most of it, I am in the camp that agree that most of the stuff you learn during training is absolutely useless anyway. All I really remember about training is that we stayed at a nice hotel in Shinjuku, got drunk on my second night in Kabukicho with an Aussie, a Frenchman, and a Swede, and just bummed around in Tokyo until it was time to go to Hokkaido.
My advice to incoming JETs who are ALTs, don't even worry about the training. It won't really help you. But I wholeheartedly recommend listening and participating in the CIR training. Those were fun to sit in on and the funny thing is, they never even asked me my name or if I belonged there.
Question: What was your first opinion of Akkeshi?
I had a rather.... strange first impression of the village.
It seemed to me that this town was frozen in time. As if... time stopped in the 1950s. The lack of modern technology in Akkeshi really blew my mind. The cars there were outdated (by at least 15-30 years), the houses looked like they were built before the prewar era, and....
Lots and lots of green. It was the perfect mix of nature and old world "Japan".
I quickly fell in love with the wilderness of Hokkaido. Seeing the wildlife up close and personal made it seem like a National Geographic magazine come to life. Sometimes when walking to my "apartment/condo", I would get wild life following me. I've had mostly deer (Hokkaido deer aren't exactly the smartest creatures, since they jump into the street a lot), foxes, and even a bear cub once.
But it was the people of Akkeshi (and to a smaller extent, the Eastern Hokkaido JETs) that made me feel unwelcome.
Question: At what point did you start to realize going to Akkeshi might have been a bad idea?
There was no sort of set point on when I started to feel it. However, in the first few months of the program for me, a series of events made me realize that staying in Akkeshi for the long term probably would not be a smart idea for me.
Question: And these events would be?
The first thing was being unfulfilled at work. Now I heard the rumors that most JETs that "teach" in elementary schools usually go on to be "tape recorders", or rather, become the pet foreigner of their schools. Now if you are a slacker and and want to make easy money, then this job is for you. For me, I hate not being able to use my skills or not being able or allowed to make new skills while getting paid for it.
Tape Recorder = No Skills = No Significant Pay Raise = Dead-end Job.
The next thing was the constant badmouthing of my predecessor and all the guys that came before me. If this guy, regardless if he did the things they said about him, was being being smacktalked by his coworkers, I could only imagine what sort of image they had for me. I actually kind of felt sorry for the guy, because if he actually spent three years of his life in this village, and the thanks he gets is this, what would my "thanks" be.
Third, always being in the public eye really did not do it for me. No matter where I went, whether it be to the library to study, to the local restaurant to get a bowl of gyuudon (Beef over rice bowl), to the general store to pick up some stuff, or just to the park to enjoy some peace and quiet, I could never get away from the public eye. While I didn't mind my students running up to me and asking me to hang out with them (which I usually obliged, esp. if they wanted to play sports), the older folks continually misbehaved in front of me by asking me the usual "gaijin questions", which include the following....
- Penis size (Comically this was a very common question amongst the older men...)
- Why am I so large?
- Why did my country attack Japan? (The ol' who shot first, Han or Greedo, question comes to mind)
- What are my views on Japanese women?
- Would I like to meet their recently divorced daughter with kids? (Ew...)
- Why am I so strange?
- Why can I speak Japanese?
- (Insert other blantantly stupid question here)
Question: How'd you deal with the isolation? Any tips for JETs in isolated areas?
There was a variety of things that I did to combat loneliness in Akkeshi.
First thing I did was watch a lot of Japanese television. Not only was it entertaining, but it also improved my listening skills and even reading skills, as most Japanese TVs come with closed captions. Having both the kanji and hearing it spoken out loud helped me learn kanji readings. If you really want to put it into perspective, according to the Meguro Language Center's self-test, when I first arrived in Akkeshi, my kanji knowledge was about 300 kanji. In less than a year, my kanji skills skyrocketed to about 1,300 kanji. I fully advocate this method to ANYONE leaning Japanese in Japan.
Second thing was find a personal hobby that I could get into. In college, I did martial arts and was actually rather adept at it (my final belt level was a purple belt, right on the cusp of getting my brown belt in American Karate, a mix between Shotokan and Ashihara karate, and Tae Kwon Do, and winning multiple local and regional tournaments), so the first logical choice was to try to local Shorinji Kenpo dojo near the train station. Unfortunately, I was not accepted at the dojo for two reasons. First reason was because the master "didn't teach white folks", second reason was because I kicked his best student's ass in a match when he requested a full-contact match with the "white devil" , and then me putting the master to the floor next match. Like I REALLY wanted a master weaker than me anyway...
There was a kendo dojo in Kushiro, but it was just too far for me to drive out 45 minutes every day to participate.
It turned out that the hobbies that I really got into were more private. Perhaps the biggest hobby that I got into, and still do to this day, is my major research in Japanese history. Since I was close to the local library, I would spends HOURS inside the library and it's archives.
Learning about Akkeshi's local history was fascinating, with a lot of stuff you will find not written in Japanese Wikipedia. Some of the following things I found out through my research.
- The area started off as native Ainu land (Akkeshi is actually an Ainu word for "thick beach", though ironically there is not a beach there), though they were all kicked out by the Matsumae Clan around 1645.
- Used as a penal colony for thieves and other petty criminals throughout the Edo Shogunate (meaning that most of the people in Akkeshi, but not all, are descended from thugs and criminals)
- After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, members of the Uesugi Clan (famous for the Bishamonten incarnation, Uesugi Kenshin) were exiled into Hokkaido, some of them making their way east to Akkeshi. The most famous retainer families in Akkeshi are the Honjo (本庄）and the Suibara (水原, descended from Suibara Chikanori), where I had the pleasure of teaching the kids from both families. While the parents were impressed that I knew who their ancestors were, both sets of grandparents harbored resentments towards the West for "ruining their ancestor's lives".
- Akkeshi has continuously had problems with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union up until 1990. One of the first incidents (and even written in the village's chronicle, which can be read at the library) that happened was during the Sakoku (鎖国・Period of Japanese Isolation from 1634-1868), a Russian Empire boat came to Akkeshi harbor and demanded trade from the locals and the Matsumae government. Of course, following Edo's orders, they declined. The Russian admiral didn't like this and ended up shooting at the village from his ship, destroying a store house of fish and killing the people inside.
I also got into gaming as well. Now I am a religious player of the series of "Nobunaga's Ambition", a game where that places you in medieval Japan and you battle for control of Japan, either as the "Demon King" Oda Nobunaga, "Tiger of Kai" Takeda Shingen, or even as the Matsumae/Kakizaki of Hokkaido (whom are terrible samurai, but excellent businessmen).
Another hobby that I also perfected in Akkeshi is my voice imitations. Some of these include...
- Peter Griffin (probably my best imitation)
- Nappa (DBZA Version)
- Apu (Simpsons)
- Mr. Popo (DBZA Version)
- Herbert the Pervert (Family Guy)
- King Julien (Madagascar)
- Bruno (The Gay Fashion Designer)
- Bugs Bunny
- Elmer Fudd
- Mickey Mouse
- Goofy (incl. the classic Goofy Holler)
- Cookie Monster
Other voices I've tried, but to no avail, include...
- Fat Albert
- Donald Duck
- Pee Wee Herman
Question: So you pretty much were not happy with the situation you were in, weren't you?
More or less, no. I was rather unsatisfied.
I went to Sapporo in December for the JLPT/HAJET (Hokkaido JET) Annual Meeting and was reunited with a lot of my fellow JETs from around the island. All I could hear was how much fun they were having at their locations. Of course, not trying to be a party pooper, I bullshitted a few stories about how much fun I was having in Akkeshi.
The one thing that really stood out for me was our guest speaker, some guy who was a JET for one year in the 1990s in Tochigi Prefecture (north of Tokyo) who ended up teaching college level English at Hokkaido University (or some university in the Sapporo area). He told us that despite his failure in JET, he continued on to have a successful career in Eikaiwa for a few years, went back to Canada to get his Masters in Education, and has been in Japan ever since. While I really don't remember most of his speech, it was what happened later that evening when I happened to meet him by chance at the Rockfish bar in Sapporo.
It started off with me complimenting him about his story (though I don't remember it now), and he asked me how I was liking JET. I told him how I felt. Dissatisfied with my location. The neighboring JETs and my co-ALT are all pretentious. Lack of work being challenging. The Japanese in my town will not give me any sort of privacy. Seeing all my fellow JETs on Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu actually having fun made me jealous. The more I drank with him, the more my dissatisfaction started to pour out. All he asked me in return was...
"Are you happy?"
I wanted to answer him, but in my heart, I knew I couldn't, because I didn't want to admit it.
One night during the meeting, I got in touch with another buddy of mine that didn't get into JET, but was hamming it up in Tokyo as an Eikaiwa teacher. Of course, I scoffed at the idea of becoming an Eikaiwa teacher. After all, being a JET is the cream of the crop of teaching English in Japan. You would have to be really foolish to give up your full benefits, better than the national average teacher's salary, reduced housing rate, and the (occasionally) free car. But he told me that I was being sucked into the "darkness" of Hokkaido. He suggested that I get out of Hokkaido for a few weeks for Christmas vacation.
He was right. I decided to get out of Hokkaido for two weeks and see if I just needed to just get a clean start after Christmas... but even that turned out to be a nightmare, and the beginning of the end.
Question: What was it that pushed you too far?
I remember walking through Kyoto to visit a temple to talk to some monks about my problems in Hokkaido (believe it or not, just like asking for a rabbi or priest at other places of worship, you can ask temples or shrines if you can speak to their priests or monks). As I was making my way towards the temple, I got a call from my Mom, pleading me to pick up over Facebook. If she had to resort to going on Facebook to get me to call, then something serious must have happened.
When I called her (thank god for Facebook Messenger phone), it was Dad that picked up. From there, I learned that grandma passed away earlier the previous day (while I was asleep), finally ending her decade long battle with Alzheimers and it was decided by my folks and grandfather that I would be told first thing in the morning in Japan. It felt like a ton of bricks hit me in the gut and honestly, I didn't take the news too well.
My grandmother introduced me to Japanese culture at a young age, and her and I were nearly inseparable growing up. One of the first things she taught me about the culture was the various stories of old over there, including Chuushingura (忠臣蔵 - Tale of the 47 Ronin), Musashi Miyamoto vs. Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryuujima (宮本武蔵対佐々木小次郎), and of course, the "Taro Stories", Momotaro (桃太郎) and Urashimataro (浦島太郎).... and now, she was gone.
Before I would tell my folks that I was getting on the next plane to Dallas, Grandpa (whom flown down from North Jersey to Dallas immediately after she passed) told me not to come back for the service. Not only would it be a small gathering of my family and close friends, but there would be no point in coming back for a few days, and that Grandma wouldn't want me to stop my adventure for her. Simply saying his words "(If) you come home, your adventure dies with her".
While I followed my family's request, her death continued to weight heavily throughout the remainder of my vacation. I never felt this crappy before in my life. Sure I had some friends of mine die while growing up, but a death in the family is always harder to take. Before long, it was time for me to go back to Akkeshi.
But before we get to that, there was one final incident that set me off against my former BOE. Shortly after returning to Akkeshi, I was confronted by the mayor, my direct manager (the Kyouikuiinchou), and two principals from the school the morning after I came back from Kyoto. They ordered me into the the conference room, and I had a feeling that I knew what this was going to lead into.
Before I went to Kyoto for New Years, I also spent Christmas with my cousin, then a specialist in the United States Marine Corps in Okinawa. Prior to me departing on my trip, I told my Board where I would be in case of an emergency. While they approved of my trip, the head of the Board told me not to associate with any US military personnel or face serious repercussions on my end. I firmly replied to him that while I respect his request, I will be seeing my Marine cousin and that what I do on my personal time is my business and not anyone else's concern.
Naturally I went and saw Steven on Christmas Eve 2013. We talked a LOT about what was going on with me in Hokkaido and him and his 2-3 deployments to Afghanistan. Tears were shed on both of our ends as we opened up for the first time in nearly a decade (the last time I saw him was days before my family moved from Philadelphia to Dallas in 1999). Steven and I had a great time together shooting the bull in Naha, Ginowan, Shuuri, and on the various bases in Okinawa, including Kadena Airbase for Christmas (Hey Steve, "Happy Merry Christmas!") and Camp Foster for Anchorman II watch party with his unit.
Of course, I posted pictures on my social media. For the most part, I got a positive reception from my followers, family, and friends. However, it seems that one citizen of Akkeshi thought it was "threatening" that I was taking pictures and spending the holidays with a bunch of "baby killers" and believed "that their violence would rub off on me". The unnamed citizen, through the Board of Education, demanded that I take the pictures down and write a written apology to the town.
I smirked at the request and told them to tell the citizen to "I am an American citizen first and foremost, not your pet gaijin. If he/she doesn't like the fact that I need to be surrounded by my people every now and then, they can XXXXXXXXXXXXXX". The Board didn't take this too well, and they said that unless I took down the pictures and wrote the apology to the town, I would be a lot of trouble. To which I replied, "Make me" and left the room.
At this point, I was starting to get the picture. This town was trying to be "Big Brother" on me, asking citizens to keep an eye on my coworker and myself and we were trying to be strong armed into becoming their "dogs". That sort of stuff might have worked on my predecessor, my coworker (whom I last heard that he is still in Akkeshi) and the men that have come before them, but if there is one thing that being a Viscusi has taught me, "You never stand down to an idiot or group of idiots". At that point, I decided to just mentally check out of JET and start looking for adventure elsewhere in Japan. Besides, I didn't really want to stick around with a bunch of old coots whose sole purpose of using JET is to have their "Pet Foreigner".
Question: So how did you know it was time for you to leave JET and Akkeshi?
Well, there were a few more events that happened to me before I told Akkeshi that I was going to not re-sign for another year. But I think I'll go over the most important event which happened about 48 hours before my meeting with JET and the Akkeshi BOE.
One of other East Hokkaido JETs was throwing a concert at a local bar called "Gasoline Alley" in Kushiro's Sakae district (the "pleasure quarters" of Kushiro) and of course, I was invited out to the shindig. At this point I wasn't really interested in going for the sake of him or any of the other JETs, but probably more for getting wasted in Kushiro and going bar hopping by myself. It sure beats staying cooped up in frozen Akkeshi.
At the event, I ran into an then-acquaintance of mine, Eric (whom has appeared in Simple Gaijin Radio with me). We met a few weeks earlier at the Hokkaido English Camp in Akkeshi (which was also a major event for me, but not as big as this), and we really hit it off between the two of us. However that evening, it looked like he was having a hard time as well, like he had something on his mind that he wanted to discuss. So after the event, there was an after party at a nearby restaurant, and we both went together... and things started to come sideways no sooner than we arrived at the afterparty.
I will be fairly honest about my other ALTs in the Kushiro Block that were in the program with us. Most of them probably never realized that high school ended for them years ago, and they all started to act very cliquish amongst each other. In no particular order, amongst the Kushiro Block JETs, there were the following kinds of people...
- Wanna be Canadian Rockstar that was probably on drugs half the time whose music was second-rate at best. Also bad mouthed America quite a bit..yeah, like Canada has no blood on their hands? Seal Killer....
- Harry Potter lookalike that tried a little too hard to get everyone to like him
- A (nicely put) wanna-be American who was from New Zealand that had an opinion on everything American that especially rubbed me the wrong way (Liberal (him) vs Moderate/Republican (Me). I particularly do not like this guy, and still do not like him, for he gives REAL AMERICANS a bad image. Besides... what has New Zealand EVER done in world history, other than being Australia's ugly sister?
- Two third-wave feminazis that fully endorsed illegal immigration in America (whom was actually the reason why I voted for Donald Trump because I can't stand the rising numbers of illegal immigrants back home in Texas). They hung around with an alleged illegal Indonesian immigrant in Kushiro a lot, which I found rather unsettling.
- One really chill girl from California that did yoga... she was actually really cool and I wish I got to know her better
- One guy from DC that somehow knows my cousin's husband... strange coincidence indeed.
- Predecessor's best friend. No real comment on him.
- My former co-ALT, the ultimate "Yes Man". Sad that he spoke no Japanese and that most of the Japanese staff at our BOE hated his guts because he was a Native America... rather sad because he truly thinks/thought that they liked him.
Essentially, I was thrown into Social Justice Warrior and Politically Correct Land. As a guy that essentially grew up in a conservative household (though I tend to be more culturally moderate and fiscally and politically conservative), this was like stepping into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Everything I knew was always being questioned by these folks, which was one reason why I hardly, if ever, hung out with them.
But finally, it happened. One of the feminazis howled PC at Eric's karaoke song, which actually cocked my eyebrow too. Though I knew the meaning behind the song (and for the sake of the kids, I won't tell the name or artist here), I retorted back to her that if she could sing a song called "Men Are Wolves" (a famous Japanese man-hating song), then he should have every right to sing... that song. And at this point, the PC Police rained down on me and Eric.
In the end, Eric and I decided to have our own little after party in snowy Kushiro... at 1am in the morning. We left the peanut gallery behind and made our way into the snowy evening, not knowing what sort of bar we would end up at.
Actually, it turned out that we didn't end up at a bar, but at a 7-11 with a few cans of beer, sake, and coffee and made our way to Kushiro Port. From there, I had a conversation that forever changed my entire opinion about Japan, JET, and life in Hokkaido forever.
I told him about the BS from my BOE about me being in Okinawa with my cousin, how my village people won't give me any sort of privacy, and that being an ALT in Akkeshi just sucks.
And Eric said the magic words "Then do something about it and change your destiny".
Simply put, Eric told me that he was leaving JET because he was tired of the drama, the BS, and that he wanted to do more with his life. The further told me that I could be hell of a lot more than wasting my 20s in a backwater village in Hokkaido and that I ought to make my way down towards the main three islands for more opportunities. If I wanted to be an English teacher, then so be it, but don't do it in Hokkaido.
He also told me that the crowd back there and everywhere else in Hokkaido are stuck here because they really have no where else to go. They are making no skills that are transferrable to the job market outside JET and they will be in for a very rude awakening when their time comes to an end in JET. He advised me that it would be imperative for me to get my Japanese better and to come up with a skill that complements my Japanese. It was entirely up to me to find what that skill is, but being a "human tape recorder" and "not being allowed to help prepare lessons because you aren't Japanese" is a load of bull.
Finally, he told me that it's probably true that we are going to get some haters because we are leaving (by that point, I already told him that my mind was made up), but this was to be expected. Those who want to follow the money and their dreams usually are ridiculed first in the beginning, but in time, your time comes. And... I was sold.
I told Eric that come Monday morning, I am going to march into that meeting room and telling them to go "F" themselves. With that, we had a hearty clang of our Ozeki sake cups and continued well into the night and early into the morning drinking and talking about our dreams, aspirations, and how Eric was going to go to Sapporo to follow his heart and become a professional translator. As for me, I was unsure on where to start my new adventure in Japan. But, what I did know what that from this point, I was not to take anything in JET seriously. If I were to get fired or let go, so be it. Yet, at this point, a new sense of adventure tingled through my body.
Question: How did the Board of Education take your "F-You"?
I thought they took it kind of well... nah, who am I kidding? They were pissed...and I expected it.
Here is something that a lot of JETs do not realize. It costs a LOT of money for a board of education to train, retain, and hire a single JET ALT. It costs somewhere close to $100,000 - $150,000 for the board to have JET find an ALT, have them "trained" in Tokyo for 3-4 days, pay for their salary (which certainly isn't much at $33,600 during my tenure), and for constant support from CLAIR (JET's parent organization in the Japanese government) for the BOE/organization the JET is contracted to.
A lot of BOEs will get angry at their JETs if they decide to bail after one year. After all, $150,000 just got flushed down the toilet and could have been used by the town/village/organization for other usages. I was very well aware that Akkeshi's BOE and the village itself, once I decided to tell them my intentions, that I probably would be labeled "Public Enemy #1" in the village. Yet, I was willing to take that risk.
To make a long story short, I went into the meeting with my direct supervisor, the superintendent, 2 principals, and some dude from the Kushiro BOE (Akkeshi got their orders from Kushiro BOE, but I'm not fully sure). And to my utter astonishment, they offered me another letter to sign for another two years in Akkeshi.
I already knew that this letter was poppycock. First, JET does not allow for 2 year contract extensions and only allowed a one year extension up to two times. Second, they didn't care that I didn't contribute to the village or to the schools and all this really was about me keeping up an appearance that Akkeshi was in the process of "internationalizing", despite the fact that the village has been stuck in pre-war Japan for many years. In short, the letter was really an insult to myself and even to the villagers themselves since it was their tax money that funded this little charade.
Totally on a whim, I decided to act a "kabukimono" (a fool/eccentric/loon/crazy person of Medieval Japan). I flatly refused to sign the letter unless I got a full apology from the BOE for the villager's attitudes towards me, wanted a formal apology from the mayor for allowing this sort of thing to happen over a span of many years not only to me, but to other ALTs, have a say in what is done in English education in Akkeshi, and wanted a 50% raise in my salary (which I knew they would never agree to any of it). If they failed to meet my terms, then I wouldn't sign and they can find another ALT in July. In addition, I would not agree to any sort of extra activities if they were imposed on me, would continue on like I have before, with no responsibilities until the end of my contract in July.
There was a long silence. All I could do was just smile and told them that I would expect my plane ticket back to Dallas sometime later this summer. I then stood up and made my way out of the room... that was, until the ALT Tantousha (or the ALT's "baby sitter") quickly slammed the door in front of me.
『ほう？で。。。あるか』"Is that so?" I said, quoting Oda Nobunaga, with a smirk.
The BOE told me to sit my "stupid cowboy ass" down and told me that I wasn't leaving this room until I signed the extension. They would be damned if they had to lose money on "their investment" and that I was going to stay like a "good ALT" for 3 years, just like everyone does.
『良い指導者のようにこのクソ村にいらなければならないのか。。。で。。。あるか？＊＊ちゃん、この点までにもう知らなかったら、俺様良い指導者じゃねえよ。俺は。。。俺はレヴェルだぞ』"I need to be in this damn village like a "good little ALT"? Is that so? **-chan, if you haven't realized it by this point I am NOT a good little ALT. I am... a rebel". Taking the contract from the table, I went and ripped it in half. All of their eyes went as big as saucers.
It was at that moment that the air went out of the room and they all lost their cool in front of me. At this point I knew that I won my freedom from Hokkaido come July. Once a Japanese person loses their cool, they effectively lose an argument. All I did was take my seat, keep that grin on my face while they yelled at me, and just kept thinking how my life was going to get better in a few months and zoned the peanut gallery out. All I had to do was finish the contract and then I could be on my merry way to wherever I wanted to go.
When they finished (a good one hour later), I just smirked and said 『もう終わりか？俺の夢を追わなければならいよ』 "You fools done yet? I got a dream to pursue.", and left the room.
As soon as I closed the door on them, I could hear them arguing over who's fault it was hiring the "stupid cowboy/kabukimono". All I could do was whistle "I Wish I Was in Dixie" and continued about my day.
Question: Do you regret doing that?
Nope. If I regretted it, I wouldn't be writing about it.
Question: So what happened to you after that?
Despite the constant empty threats from the BOE to try and get me kicked out of JET by March, nothing really happened at the office. Shortly after the incident, most of the Akkeshi BOE was transferred out to other positions in the Akkeshi Village Hall, and my new boss (actually the only principal that liked me), Mr. Atsushi Takigawa, actually took me in under his wing to make sure that I was at least comfortable in Akkeshi before my departure.
Had it also not been for Takigawa-sama, I probably would have lost all interest in teaching and all things Japanese. It was also a recommendation from him that also launched my Japanese journey from Hokkaido... to the Kanto Plains.
In regards to the village folks, it didn't take long for the word to spread that I made the entire BOE lose their cool. Most of the younger folks didn't really seem to care (then again, the average age in Akkeshi is around 50-55 years young, so young folks are few and far between), but I earned further ire of the geriatrics, who stepped up their game in trying to interfere in my personal life. Following me around in the grocery stores and convenience stores, having them call my personal phone number at odd hours, and even having people watching me through the windows of my apartment started to make me realize that if this was the sort of treatment that my predecessors got, how in the hell were they able to tolerate it...
All in all, my final few months in Akkeshi went by fast. Knowing that they lost their investment in me, I was essentially released from all my teaching duties and all other functions as a JET ALT and was taking salary for just sitting in the office... which was all part of my master plan. Getting paid to prepare for my JLPT N3 test was exactly what I wanted (which I eventually passed with flying colors in Sapporo almost 2 weeks before I left Hokkaido, so mission accomplished on my end). Soon after... I made my way to the "Land of 1,000 Leaves", Chiba Prefecture's Asahi-shi!
Question: So are you going to do a story on your time in Chiba?
Maybe. I'm just busy at work and studying for the JLPT N2 (something I've long neglected to take), so I hardly have time to write anything long. But we'll see.
Question: Would you ever consider going back ton Akkeshi to visit?
Nope.... but, my friends and I have joked about going there for my bachelor party and pulling some sort of Viva La Bam or Jackass kind of high-jinx.
Final Question: Is there anything you would want to say to Akkeshi?
Well folks, there you have it. The story of my time in JET and the things that started it all in the birth of Simple Gaijin.
Now please understand one thing. This post is NOT bashing on Japan. I still have a lot of love for all things Japan and for the Japanese. However, this experience made me realize that Japan isn't a perfect country, much like the United States and every other country in the world. I work at an all Japanese company, and most of my working relationships with them are very good and close, whether they be clients, coworkers, managers, or my own kouhai. In addition, with most Japanese people I've met, they've been nothing but courteous and kind. I guess I just drew the short end of the stick going to that village. But hey, that's life.
In short, if anyone asks me to do the JET Program, I say to them.... Yes. Do it, but do not do it for teaching or gaining job experience. Use it either to improve your Japanese to at least a JLPT N2 or N3, find yourself personally, mentally, spiritually, and career-wise after college (one year is all you need), and don't really take JET seriously. It's not a full-time career, but more of a one-two year exchange program where you get paid to travel and joke around. If your lucky, you might get a decent placement. But you must always remember that JET IS NOT A JOB OR A CAREER. Being an English tape recorder is not a job, and while it might pay the bills in the short term, should you decide to go back to your home country, most employers will not look at this sort of job favorably. Meaning, DEVELOP OTHER SKILLS WHILE YOU ARE IN JET!
To anyone that is being sent to Akkeshi in the future, I truly hope you have a better experience than I did. Perhaps in time, Akkeshi will see the light. I try to see people and things, and even villages, in a positive light. But given my experience, and the overwhelming negative experiences of other Akkeshi JETs (though they will never have the guts to admit it), I (we) wish you the best of luck. You're really going to need it. I would stay one year, and get the hell out and see REAL Japan. Much more fun, nicer people, and adventure awaits you.
What about your JET Program Experience? How was y'alls? Any other horror stories that you had to live through? Or perhaps had an awesome location that you want to advocate for? How did you deal with your incompetent BOE? Would you do JET all over again if you had to? The floor is y'alls! Let me know what you think and send me an email at email@example.com !
- Thank you Reddit Group "Japan Circle Jerk" for mass circulating this article! I'll be sure to get to your "fan mail" / "witty comments" when I actually give a hoot. I still regret nothing I've done... after all, "Rebel Pride".