Backtrack #13: The Most Inaka Place I Could Think Of (Bruce Baird, Matsuyama ALT 1992-1993)


What’s your name, when and where was your placement, and where are you from originally?

My name is Bruce Baird. I was just about to graduate from college (Columbia University) and I was looking to get back to Japan because I wanted to practice and improve my Japanese for a year before I went to grad school in Japanese studies. I don’t recall how exactly I became aware of the JET program, but JET was known as an option for going back to Japan. Of course, I was aware that I would be teaching English to students, but I tried to think of the most inaka place i could think of, where most of the people wouIdn’t speak English, so I would have a lot of chances to practice my Japanese. I had been in Japan previously and had been to Kochi once, and really liked the dialect there. So, I applied to go to Kochi, but was placed in the Ehime Education Research Center located on the southern side of Matsuyama city.  The Educational Research Center was a place where school teachers could take a six month sabbatical to do further research on teaching techniques and part of my job was to assist with whatever research the English teachers were conducting. I wasn’t associated with a specific school, but I did have an assignment to go out to about seven schools mostly in the hill towns south of Matsuyama. Then one of the ALTs in Matsuyama got homesick (and quite frankly was having a huge case of cultural shock) and went home early, so I got an assignment to also go to all the high schools in Matsuyama.

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

As I mentioned, I wanted to practice my Japanese, so I asked the three other researchers in the my office at the Research Center if they would be willing to speak in Japanese. One of them was a bit miffed, because he wanted to practice his English, but one of the other ones was delighted not to have to try to speak English all day everyday, although he had impeccable reading skills. So I talked with them, and during the down time, I read Soseki’s Kokoro in Japanese, which was my first full length novel in Japanese. That really endeared me to everyone in Matsuyama because of the connection that Matsuyama has to Soseki. As far as what changed, sometimes I questioned the value of what I was doing in the classroom on my visits, because they were just one day visits and I only visited each school twice over the course of a year, but over time, I thought hard about how to make the visits as meaningful as possible. I realized that  that was different for different schools. For the small hill town schools and for the industrial high school in Matsuyama, I am not sure how much English we really learned, or how much it stuck, because I didn’t know enough about language pedagogy and we didn’t have enough contact hours to make a big difference in their English language education. So I concluded that my job was really to be an ambassador of cultural exchange (as corny as that might sound). If I could have an interaction with the students so that they would come away convinced that I was a normal human and not an alien, I figured that was enough. And that approach extended to other interactions in the community. I like to cook, so when they found out that I could also speak Japanese, I appeared on the local TV station on the cooking show showing the audience how to make pesto. We got the basil from a school teacher who said he usually fed it to his rabbits!! In the more academically rigorous high schools in Matsuyama, I saw my time as a chance to help them have their first taste of authentic foreign language interactions.

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

It is hard to know exactly how successful I was because I only stayed on year, but I have such fond memories of my time in Matsuyama (and also of my time with the other ALTs). I can still see in my minds eye a young school kid (Junpei, Jun-chan) from one of the hill towns running after the car shouting good bye when I left it for the last time. People knew that I was interested in contemporary Japanese theater, so at one school, they just assigned me one-on-one conversation (in Japanese) with a kid who they said was the weirdest kid they had ever known, because he wanted to got to Waseda University and be a playwright. They couldn’t quite understand why anyone would want to leave Matsuyama and go to Tokyo and be a playwright, but they figured that he and I would connect. One of the high schools was really good at judo, and I had wrestled in high school and college, so I went there and participated in judo practices and picked up some judo. It was a fantastic year among wonderful people. I also met a guy in Matsuyama who did the equivalent of Japanese poetry slams and wrote his own kind of proto-dojin manga. So I met some people who were really doing super creative stuff.

Sometimes, things didn’t go exactly the way that I intended. I was assigned to be the MC of an event, and so I thought that I better make up a few jokes about Ehime as part of my opening monologue. I am sure you are aware that there are these 88 Buddhist temples around Shikoku and if you do a pilgrimage to all 88 then it will help you attain enlightenment or help you accrue good karma (or something like that). I also noticed there there was a brand of pachinko parlors that all had the same name but each had their own number, so there was one in Imabari, Niihama, Saijo, Iyo, Yawatahama, Ozu, etc. I don’t know if there were 88 pachinko parlors, but I tried to make a joke about if you went on a pilgrimage around to all 88 of the pachinko parlors then you would get enlightenment, but either my Japanese was not worded properly, or they didn’t get it, and they very earnestly told me that I was confusing the pachinko with Buddhist temples, and it was the Buddhist temples that you had to go to to get enlightenment. But all in all, it was a fantastic year among wonderful people.

Where did JET lead you?

After JET, I got accepted into grad school in Japanese studies. It was there that I had a job TA’ing a Japanese class and first learned language pedagogy techniques. That made me wish that I had already known more about language instruction during my time in JET, and if I had to do it over again, I would study more about language instruction. I like to think that now I could make a bigger impact, even if I still had only a few contact hours with the students. I eventually got my PHD with a dissertation about the contemporary performing art butô. Now I teach Japanese studies at UMass Amherst, including surveys of Japanese theater, a manga and anime class, and a Japanese video game class. I have also traveled to many places in the world giving lectures about Butô because people in the world of performing arts are so interested in this avant-garde performance and although the pandemic has interrupted my visits, I had been making it to Japan about every other or every third year.

Right now, 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?

I don’t have good advice for this situation, but if you decide to defer, spend your time here taking language pedagogy classes and Japanese classes so that you can make a difference in the classroom, but also communicate with the people outside the classroom. That is the way to make the experience the most meaningful for you and them.

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