Backtrack #18: So Many Happy Days (David Leeming, Matsuyama ALT, 1995-1997)

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My time in Japan seems so long ago yet it feels like yesterday. My journey onto the programme was probably like many of you, as it was far from being straight forward. After my degree I undertook a TEFL certificate which led me on to teaching children in a summer school in Kent (Pilgrims). I loved it. I knew that teaching was something that I enjoyed and hoped to do it again one day. That day came quite quickly. A friend of mine called me to tell that he knew of a role teaching English at a school in Volos, Greece. I gave up my job that day and I literally packed my bags the next week, took a flight, and headed to the town I would call home for the next 9 months. I guess it was lucky I passed the onsite interview. The folly of youth 😊. It was a shock to the system as teaching for exams is very different from teaching English for ‘fun’ in the summer. Yet it gave me a great grounding in teaching and the use of English.

Fate again intervened when another friend of mine wrote to me and told me about the JET programme. I immediately began to dream of new adventures in a land that I was fascinated by from a very early age. I had studied Karate from the age of 6 and the thought of going to the place of its birth thrilled me.

I filled out the long and torturous application form, received the interview letter, flew to London straight after a long day of Friday teaching, had the difficult interview, then flew back to Greece on the Sunday night. That was intense to say the least. A few months later I was soon told that I had been successful with my application. Wow! A whirlwind year but so exciting.

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So that summer I set off for the bright lights of the weekend training in Roehampton and then to the real bright lights of Tokyo. I travelled with a good friend of mine, the person who had told me about JET, so a further reason to be so happy. Tokyo was a blast and a great introduction to my new home country for the next couple of years.

Then, we said our goodbyes and I was whisked off to my new hometown of Matsuyama. My first impression was how different it was to the huge metropolis, but that didn’t bother me. I’ve always loved smaller cities and especially the countryside, so Matsuyama really suited me. I was however taken aback by the accommodation. It was not quite what I expected from its outward appearance, but once inside it was cosy with lovely tatami mats. The sound of the local train and the incessant chimes of the crossing bells, along with the 24 hours Lawson underneath the apartment, did take some getting used to.

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Soon I met my new boss. Kusumoto Sensei was a Beatles fanatic, which was soon reinforced by his rendition of the Long and Winding Road at the many Karaoke sessions we all enjoyed together. From now on I was known by him as ‘Elvis Sensei’ on account of my middle name, a long story, and was requested to ‘Please sing Elvis, Elvis Sensei’ each time we went to a Karaoke bar. Good times! On the first day I was also introduced to my fellow JETS who had ventured from across the Globe. Many of them I am still close friends with years later. It was an expected bonus. The first night we were introduced to the ceremony of Enkai. Boy what a night! I do remember some of it 😯 …….

The next day, accompanied by a slightly banging head, we embarked on our first trip to Dogo Hot Springs. Beautiful building, lovely tradition, but the thought of being naked with my new boss, new companions and complete strangers took some getting used to especially when they offered to scrub our backs….anyway when in Rome 🤣….

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After a fab summer, reality set in, and we all began teaching in our respective schools. For me they were all a bike ride away, which was the first time I’d ridden a bike since I was a teenager. I taught at various Junior High Schools and sometimes at Elementary Schools. Although we were basically children’s entertainers at the Elementary Schools, I never complained. We just loved being with the young children. They had so much energy. What struck me when I worked at the Junior High Schools was the different levels of expectations by the different staff and management. Some would use me as a human ‘tape player’ while others allowed me free reign and autonomy to delivery my own lessons. The latter I enjoyed the most. One of my abiding memories was when I worked with a special needs class. We undertook all kinds of activities. One such activity was a cooking lesson. I remember I loved spicy food at the time. They asked me to teach them how to make the great British Shepard’s Pie. I obliged but decided we needed a ton of black pepper. Needless to say, we had a lot of children coughing by the end of the lesson. Happy days! I guess I played to the cliché of how delicious English food is. Oh well…we also put on a play for the whole school for which I played a teacher. Maybe they were telling me something. ‘Playing’ a teacher (or not as the case may be).

I did enjoy cleaning time and constantly forgetting to change my shoes and slippers around different parts of the School. ‘Is this indoors or outdoors’ I would often ponder. We’ve all been there, right? Watching kids seemingly hanging off the school roof did seem to break with safety protocols but that may be a blurred memory over time and may have not actually happened. Sitting and eating in the classroom with the children was also a new experience for me. They loved seeing my reaction when I always looked genuinely shocked to see little tiny fish look up at me mournfully from the rice dish I was about to consume. Luckily there was always some kid that would gladly take this off my mind. What is it with seafood and some British people?

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My final memory of being in school was the last day when I was asked to sing a well-known Japanese song. Now that was tough but emotional! It took me back to my first day when I was introduced in front of the whole school I was asked, without preparation or even knowing this was coming, to sing the British national anthem. Needless to say, like most Brits, I only managed the first verse.

Outside work I was able to live a lifelong ambition of singing in a band albeit in tiny bars. So much fun. I also made so many friends from across the globe as well as wonderful Japanese friends. One such set of friends are a family who run a Photo studio. If you are ever in Matsuyama then why not book a photo session with the Hirota family at One’s Photo Studio (hirota-photostudio.com). You won’t be disappointed. As a group of travellers, we often went to their place for ‘potluck’ parties. So many happy days. A number of us even had wonderful professional photographs taken in their studio. Years later we’re still in touch and when I visited in 2019, we spent a fantastic weekend together which included time in the studio having a new photo taken with me wearing a traditional kimono and brandishing a Samurai sword. Luckily, I was not arrested. They are my Japanese family and have stayed with us in the UK. I have also been privileged to see their children grow up and have met their own beautiful kids. Taking part in a myriad of Japanese cultural events was a blast from traditional dances to tea ceremony. I was also able to travel around Japan and much of East Asia. I felt so lucky.

Before JET I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew I just wanted to be there. As I mentioned earlier, I had studied Karate. I’d also worked for Sony and my then boss told me of his trips to Tokyo. It sounded oh so exotic for a boy from Preston to hear.

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Whilst in Japan I did try to embrace it as much as possible and I found the culture to be both fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Age, I guess wisdom, and deep reflection have enabled me to reconcile any perceived difficulties I had whilst living in Japan. At one point I did regret not studying Japanese more and if I had one piece of advice to anyone currently in Japan or thinking of doing this, it would be to really study Japanese as much as you can. Also, to really open your eyes to the culture and accept that they may ‘do things differently around there’. The very heart of cultural understanding. But this is easy to write on reflection and with age. You do need to find it out yourself.

Many of you would have been delayed in your journeys. If you can go in the future, I would recommend to still go. It will really change your life. In the meantime, I’d advise you to study as much Japanese language and culture as you can either formally, like at a university such as mine, at College, or informally using language software and/or Apps. If you can touch base with universities, JET societies, or any club related to anything linked to Japan then you should. Networking will always be a positive experience. I have found that even years after I first met people and interacted with companies the usefulness of networking. You do need to be seen and heard even if that is virtually. Personally, I love using VR to visit and revisit places in Japan. In fact, I am part of a project team creating a VR/AR experience around Hashima Island or as many know it as Battleship Island (Gunkanjima (軍艦島). That is a cool project between UCLan and Tokyo University.  I find VR informative and yet soothing.

Looking back, I truly believe the JET programme had a profound affect on my life. This is tangible. After JET I went back to the UK and studied a Master’s degree (one of three) at my home University of UCLan. I then returned to Japan and taught Business English in Fukuyama and then was able to secure a further Visiting Professor role at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies for three years through networks made at UCLan. So JET was the start of my lifelong Japan journey.

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After Japan I worked at various Universities before settling down at UCLan. I’ve been there for nearly 20 years. I moved from an hourly paid Lecturer in International Business Communication to my management position of Deputy Head in a School I truly love being part of. This current position has meant that I am able to develop International partnerships for the School. Under normal times I’d travel more but for now I help manage partners from across the Globe virtually. This means that I have been able to rekindle my relationship with Japan. As mentioned, in 2019, I was privileged to be able to return. I visited Universities in Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka, and Matsuyama. I gave talks on Intercultural Communication, met new and existing partners, visited students who were studying in Japan from UCLan. I also signed agreements to run a dual degree programme with Tokyo University of Foreign Studies which we are very excited about, and signed a new Period Abroad partnership with Matsuyama University which feels like my connection to Matsuyama can really benefit so many more young people going forward. I am very proud of that and I think this is what epitomises JET programme.  How can we, as ex-JETS, keep the flame alive and in fact make it shine brighter. I’ve also managed to introduce a new Japanese translation route on our Master’s in Interpreting and Translation as well being part of our efforts to create a new Japanese Institute. JET helped me find this path.

My trip back to Japan was extremely emotional. It was the first time back in nearly 20 years. I met old friends and made new ones. I saw ghosts on the streets but knew that these ghosts were still very much alive and kicking elsewhere in the world. It was a truly life affirming moment. I felt at peace with everything that had come before and everything yet to come. Indeed, this is only the beginning of my beautiful journey within the heart and soul of Japan.

David Elvis Leeming BA (Hons), MA, MBA, MSc, FHEA

Deputy Head for Business Development and Partnerships (UK and International)

The School of Humanities, Language and Global Studies

University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK

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