Backtrack #15: Expect the Unexpected, and Prepare to be Unprepared (John Moraes, Toyo ALT 2004-2007)

Holly and John at Dogo

In 2004 I moved from Wellington, New Zealand to Ehime, Japan with a suitcase, a backpack and five words of Japanese in my vocabulary. It would not be overstating things to say the experience changed my life.

This was the first time I had ever been to Japan and, to be honest I didn’t know what to expect. The one thing I was prepared for was to be surprised. In retrospect, this lack of expectations served me well!

JET did a recruitment event at my university and I went along out of sheer curiosity. What I heard certainly piqued my interest – especially, to be honest, the thought of paying off some of my student loan. But I was also fascinated by Japanese culture. Not Anime, or Manga, or Kurosawa, or Kintsugi, but more of a general feeling of this culture approaches life in a different way to mine. Something that was always intriguing was the intricacies of even ordinary things such as wrapping presents, or raking pebbles, or bonsai. So, I applied to the program, was accepted and then started to do a bit more research.

I got in touch with my soon-to-be predecessor to get the lay of the land. I also spoke to other ex-JETs and tried to understand what I’d gotten myself into. The feedback varied – from folks who were bored out of their minds and feeling like strangers in the community to JETs who had great experiences and were super integrated into their towns/villages. With that in mind, the one thing I wanted to accomplish was to give the people of Toyo (now part of Saijo) some insight into the New Zealand way of life. Since my predecessor was American and I knew that Kiwis were under-represented on JET, I thought this would be a refreshing perspective for Toyo-ians.

When I arrived, I found out both the other ALTs in town were Kiwis! Learning to pivot your game plan is definitely a skill worth learning…

Something that I was determined to do after settling in was to find a Japanese thing to do. I gravitated towards Kendo at first (which I wasn’t great at) and Taiko after a year (which I was spectacularly bad at). But none of this mattered. I threw myself into being part of the culture, attending matsuris, getting to know my local yakkitori (Isse – where the people are the best) and learning Japanese as fast as I could.

The first year was really a blur and I felt compelled to re-contract for the second – just so I could continue to grow my skills and immerse more fully into the culture. Now that the language was coming along, opportunities kept opening up. I made friends with folks at the Eikawa who invited me to play badminton. There I met more locals and got pretty good at it. I stared playing tennis with the local dentist and his friends. I found a group of young gals who enjoyed a casual game of volleyball and introduced me to many, many karaoke joints. I would say the second year was a total blast and if you’re considering re-contracting, do go for the second year. Many of my cohorts would agree!

The second year also gave me the opportunity to give back to the community a little. You help new JETs get established. Set them up with friends, share teaching tips, help them with groceries and generally try to be a good sempai. I tried to create a series of lessons that JETs could just run off on the photocopier – basically creating a resource that I hoped would outlast my stay. It was a really rewarding year – both in the sense of what I personally accomplished and in the way I felt my contributions were being received.

Year three was a weird one and I am not sure how unique my experience was, but I started dating a girl who lived in a town three hours away and we started spending a whole bunch of time together. So, I was a little distant from the community, but she did go on to be my wife, so the trade-off was definitely worth it! Year three also seemed like a good time for the new cohort to be trained by the previous freshmen crowd. In many ways I felt old compared to the newly graduated whippersnappers who were pouring into Ehime. Spending time with Holly was a great way transition out of Japanese life and the JET whirlwind. We had both decided that we would not re-contract after that year and began plotting the future together.

Spring Matsuri

We first headed to New Zealand where we spent a year in Wellington before getting married in her hometown in the US. After that we moved to Australia where I did my PhD. Our son was born in Sydney and he decided to tag along with us for the rest of our adventures.

After enjoying almost 5 years in Sydney, we decided to head to Lausanne, Switzerland where I began a job as a research scientist. Being in Europe was a lot of fun and we definitely made the most of all the travel opportunities. But after 3 years, we decided to pick up stakes and move our family to the United States. And this is where we are still, 5 years later, enjoying the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Our daughter was born a couple of years ago so now we have an additional travelling companion for the next phase of our lives.

As you can see, both Holly and I are very comfortable with moving around a lot. This began with our experience of moving to Japan. It has really helped us be resilient as we adapted to new working and living conditions. All challenges we encounter are now put in perspective. Because if you can pick up a couple of suitcases and commit to living in rural Japan for a year, other curveballs life throws your way are much easier to deal with.

Since leaving JET, I have worked for a vaccine company, been a PhD student, a research technician, a teaching fellow, worked on antagonists for neural diseases, solar cell efficiencies and now managing a chemical compliance program for Nike Inc. I’ve been back to Japan four times (for various work commitments) and even made it back to Ehime a couple of times to see old friends. Each time is special, and I am reminded of how much I fell in love with the country and the people.

I definitely think JET was critical in building me into the person I am today. It’s a great experience and I think everyone should try it if they have a chance. I understand now, with Covid-19 running through the world, a lot of JET plans are on hold. I can understand that this limbo period adds additional complexity to an already complex situation. So perhaps, my perspective – as someone who has made a few big decisions like this – will help.

I like to consider the opportunity costs when making such decisions. If you chose to wait out the limbo period, what is that going to cost you in terms of opportunities foregone? Are you going to miss out on a graduate program that you’re enthusiastic about? Do you have a offer for a dream job that is pulling you in one direction? Are you in a relationship with the love of your life and cannot comprehend being away from him/her/them for an indefinite period of time? All of these are perfectly valid reasons to not go through with JET. Remember JET is not the only life-defining experience you can have. You will have other opportunities.

On the other hand, you might have specific goals you want to accomplish on JET such as learning Japanese, teaching non-native English-speaking kids, travelling around Asia, or learning from Japanese Karate masters. All of these, concrete, aims will be difficult to accomplish outside of Japan. So, in this case, you might want to hang in there while the world kicks the coronavirus. Also think about what you can accomplish in the gap year: it could be volunteering; taking courses at community college; interning; holding down a part-time job; travelling in your home country; learning photography. There are a bunch of things that you could do that will grow you as a person and serve you well when you do get to Japan.

I hope I’ve sketched out an outline of the meandering path life took me after I boarded that plane leaving New Zealand in mid-2004. Seventeen years later, I don’t think the specifics of my experiences will have strong resonance for the 2021/2022 crowd of JETs. But I do think there are general takeaways that are universally true. JET is a great opportunity to experience new things and let those experiences change you. It is a great way to train yourself to be open-minded and work with folks of different backgrounds and cultures. You will meet people that you might not have otherwise met. You will be able to learn from them and they from you. You will do things that will remain special to you long after you leave JET. You might even find someone special to share the rest of your life’s journey with.

I wish you the best of luck. Enjoy Japan if you are already there and look forward to it if you’re not. Either way, remember to expect the unexpected and prepare to be unprepared.

Ekiden at Doi

John Moraes was on the JET program from 2004 to 2007. He lives in Portland, OR and still loves mikans.

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