Backtrack #7: Earnestness, a bit of Naiveté, and a Sincere Interest in Japan (Nicole Uehara, Saijo ALT 1999-2002)

JET class

How did you find out about JET, and what led you to apply?

I heard about the JET Program during a college internship from a few employees who participated in the early years of the JET Program. As an international business major studying German and Japanese, I was interested in living overseas and a chance to hopefully improve my Japanese language skills. My Japanese ability was not the best (unsurprising since the foundation was built on freshman year intensive classes that started at 8:30 am). I thought that the best way I could improve my language skills would be by living and breathing Japanese every day. Having grown up as one of a handful of Asians in a rural town in upstate New York, I also wondered what it would feel like to live in a place where I would not be the face that stood out. After graduation I was wondering what to do next when I learned that the JET application window opened in the fall. I filled out the paper application I received from the Embassy of Japan on a typewriter and bought my first professional business suit the day before the interview. Back in 1999 there wasn’t a Reddit forum or YouTube videos to explain in detail how to ace the JET interview, so all I had was earnestness, a bit of naiveté, and a sincere interest in Japan.

What did you hope to achieve on JET, and did that change during your time here?

I set a fairly broad goal to try to experience new things during my time on the JET Program, and that did not really change during my time in Japan. I was placed in Saijo as a prefectural ALT visiting 11 JHS between Saijo and Kawanoe (now part of Shikokuchuo). I knew I was not going to pursue a career in education, and tried to learn more about Japanese language, culture, and myself. I had weekly Japanese lessons and ikebana classes, traveled around Japan on annual onsen trips and ski trips with teachers, and joined in community events in Saijo and Niihama. Throughout the three years at different times I felt like a fish out of water, experienced culture shock, and dealt with the isolation of living by myself for the first time. I remember the expense of dial-up Internet and the joy of receiving a VHS tape with recordings of Friends episodes from one of my brothers. I climbed Ishizuchi-san twice despite a fear of heights, and performed a hula routine with a group of ladies at a cultural event despite having two left feet. I learned about kerosene heaters, why riding a bicycle in a typhoon is a bad idea, and that gokiburi can fly. I made myriad faux pas and mistakes along the way, but persevered, overcame challenges, and grew to love the smell of tatami and everyday life in Ehime. I gained a deeper understanding of how Americans are viewed by others in the global community, and made some lifelong friends.

What is your lasting impression of the work you did on JET and the communities you were part of?

I am really glad that I participated in the JET Program. I wasn’t the best ALT and doubt I helped improve anyone’s English skills, but Japan had a big impact on me. As a one-shot ALT traveling to different schools each day, I could not participate regularly in a club activity. However, I still remember English speech contest practice with one of my students who was in a wheelchair. He wrote a beautiful speech about his hope to visit America where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provided opportunities for people like him to travel and access places with more independence. When I see broken elevators and crumbling infrastructure in the U.S., I wonder if he ever visited the U.S. and hope he wasn’t disappointed. I remember the kindness of strangers and the shy smiles of my students. I was really lucky that my thoughtful predecessor left detailed instructions and advice. I didn’t fully appreciate the concept of a sempai at the time, but have tried to incorporate some of the lessons learned as I try to pay it forward for others and attempt to be a good mentor to my interns and other young professionals.

JET Ikebana exhibit

Where did JET lead you?

Following the JET Program, I returned to Washington, DC and remain deeply connected to Japan. I was extremely lucky and found my first post-JET job through the JET alumni list serve within three weeks. I worked at a four-person semi-governmental Japanese office as a research analyst and office administrator. Problem-solving skills and cultural flexibility learned during the JET Program helped me navigate the challenges of keeping the office running smoothly and learning about a wide variety of topics. In light of competition for Japan-related jobs and workforce dynamics in DC, I ended up working and completing an MBA degree at night. In 2011 I found my second post-JET job (again through the JET alumni list serve) and now work for the DC office of a Japanese trade and investment corporation researching and writing about a wide variety of topics. I have hosted American and Japanese interns, stayed involved with the Japanese business community and US-Japan nonprofits, and review JET applications and interview JET candidates. Through business trips and visiting my in-laws, I am also fortunate to be able to return fairly regularly to Japan.

Some incoming JETs have been delayed by more than a year, and are in the difficult position of choosing to indefinitely wait for Japan to open up or to give up on coming here. Do you have any comments or advice for them during this time?

Two of my former interns were accepted to the JET Program including one in 2020 who decided to postpone departure until fall 2021 due to the pandemic. She has been working in the interim and gaining job experience. I hope that she will be able to eventually depart for Japan, and chooses to do so. After a full year of working remotely, I just received my first of two doses of covid-19 vaccine and believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope that incoming JETs who were indefinitely postponed have used the forced timeout to continue their Japanese language study, vicariously travel through Japan with YouTubers, and maybe find a grammar book or podcast. Flexibility, adaptability, dealing with the unexpected and rolling with what life throws your way are all skills that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future. I hope that most of the candidates will choose to participate in the JET Program for one or more years. Ultimately the JET experience will depend a lot on choices, including saying yes to new opportunities and accepting invitations to try things outside one’s comfort zone.

The chance to see, taste and experience life in Japan while working with students and teachers and other ALTs/CIRs is an amazing opportunity. In addition, the JET Program doesn’t end when the contract is over. JET alumni groups include an amazing array of professionals from artists to teachers, government officials to entrepreneurs. I have met some really remarkable people at JET alumni events through the years. In particular, virtual happy hour Zooms with a group of JET alumni ladies helped me weather the past extraordinary year at home. The conversations with these friends, old and new, helped me to feel connected to a community that uplifts and supports one another, whether navigating job changes or cheering when a vaccine appointment was secured. 

Do you think you would have gone on JET if you’d been in limbo for a year?

Yes. I live in the DC suburbs and this past year has been tumultuous with the election and aftermath. Like many others I dabbled in making bread, tried out container gardening, hosted a Thanksgiving family Zoom, and worked remotely since March 2020. If I was one of the candidates in limbo, I would prepare for the worst but hope for the best. I encourage the incoming JETs to reflect on what sparked their interest in Japan, the JET Program, and evaluate if their motivations remain the same.  The delayed departure and uncertainty surrounding departures are immensely frustrating, but can also be an opportunity. Take this extra time to prepare, whether it’s language skills, potential travel itineraries around Japan, or how to decorate your new place on a budget with Daiso products.

Additional Advice

When I meet recently returned JET alumni in DC, I recommend they try to have informational interviews with mid-career and more seasoned professionals. Informational interviews are a great way to investigate potential career paths and to gain advice. There’s likely a JET alum who is doing a job you may think sounds interesting, and by talking with them you can get a better idea of what the job really entails. Utilize your networks and take a good look at online resources including USJETAA and JETWit for Americans, and other information from your local JET alumni groups. “Where were you on JET” is a great icebreaker question and you can run into JET alumni in the most unexpected of places. After over 34 years the JET Program has an extensive network, both active and not in local alumni groups, who are potential mentors, resources to learn about a job opening or internship opportunity, or even future friends.

JET Team Teaching

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