Backtrack #16: A Small Window into the Greater World (Tom Schmidt-Makino, Yawatahama & Matsuyama ALT 2002-05)


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

Tom Schmidt-Makino. I was initially placed in Yawatahama in my first year on JET, and then in Matsuyama in my 2nd and 3rd year due to some changes in prefectural roles at the time. I’m originally from LA.

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

My father immigrated from Japan as a child, and I was an East Asian Languages and Cultures major in undergrad, so I have always had interest in Japan and its culture from a young age. I found out about the JET programme during my undergraduate days, and was always attracted by the opportunity to truly immerse myself in learning more about my heritage, while serving the local community.

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

My goals on JET evolved over time. At first I was interested in taking a year to two to learn the language and enjoy the experience in another country, but as I spent more time in Ehime I fell in love with the experience of meeting people from different countries and culture, and learning how I could make an actual career out of my experiences.

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

JET presents one of the only opportunities that children and adults in rural Japan have to regularly interface with people from another country. Coming from our relatively diverse home community and university environments this sounds underwhelming, but it really is true. We’re placed in a unique position to represent the greater world to children who haven’t yet had the chance to explore it, and I’ve seen my students go on to do wonderful things in the world. I definitely can’t claim credit for their accomplishments, but I’m proud to have represented a small window into the greater world for them at a formative age.

Where did JET lead you?

After finishing my time on JET I started a small translation agency that I ran for a few years in Ehime, then transitioned to business school in the US and joined a global consulting firm, where I continue to work to this day. The JET experience is what you make of it, but I do believe that the  linguistic, international, and educational experiences we are all a part of can be leveraged into wherever your future careers may take you.

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?

Practically, the vaccine is here and will soon lead to the reopening of borders. Ultimately your decision will depend on a number of factors personal to you, but the opportunity cost is diminishing with each passing day. If you’re waiting, make use of the time in limbo. If you’re thinking of grad school, study for and take the placement exams. Some schools will even let you defer enrollment while you enjoy your gap year. If you’re younger, the time you have available now before you dive into a full career is truly irreplaceable, as it’s much trickier to put work on hold to explore these options later in life. 

If you had been in their position, do you think you would have gone on JET if you’d been in limbo for a year?

I was an alternate candidate, so I actually already had assumed I hadn’t made the cut until I got the offer a couple of months after other JETs had started. For me I never had a doubt that the experience was one that I wanted to have, so while tricky logistically it all worked out in the end. Every situation is different, but for me delaying a year probably wouldn’t have affected my choice.

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