Backtrack #26: I Had Never Seen the Ocean (Jae DiBello Takeuchi, Nishiumi ALT, 1996-99)



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

Jae DiBello Takeuchi. I was an ALT in Nishiumi (currently Ainan), in Ehime prefecture from 1996-1999 (I was the first JET in my town). I am from the US.

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

When I was an undergrad, I majored in Japanese. I believe one of my Japanese teachers told me about the program. I applied because I was majoring in Japanese, and I wanted to work in Japan after college. This was a long time ago, and study abroad less common (and more expensive) than it is now, so I didn’t study abroad during college and I had never been to Japan before starting JET.

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

I don’t know that I had very many specific goals. I mainly wanted to improve my Japanese. In December of my first year, I took the JLPT (level one at the time, pre N1 era) and failed it (I was no where close to passing). It was a big shock because I foolishly assumed I could do it since I’d majored in Japanese in college. After that, I worked really hard to improve my Japanese and I passed JLPT level one the second time I took it. After that, I switched to taking the Kanji Kentei tests, and passed up through level pre-2 before leaving Japan.

In terms of my JET experience, because there were no other JETs in the area who could speak Japanese, and the CIR for the prefecture was very far away, I had lots of opportunities that I might not have had in a more urban placement. For example, I often conducted workshops or gave speeches in Japanese, I wrote for the town Kouhou, and I translated and interpreted for the town hall, and for ALTs in neighboring towns, etc.

So although I didn’t arrive in Japan with a specific goal, it was clear that there were lots of opportunities I could take advantage of because I spoke Japanese. As a result, I think that made it easy for me to continue studying and improving, because I could see that having language skills that went above and beyond “survival Japanese” or “conversational Japanese” would continue to open doors for me.

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

This is hard to answer because I stayed in the same prefecture for many years after JET… but in terms of where I lived as a JET, I do think I was successful at connecting with people in the community, and that was important to me.

As I said above, I was the first JET in the town, and they told me I was also the first non-Japanese ever to be registered as a resident in the town. I had a lot experiences of being stared at and pointed at and so on. I was always out and about though, and I love chatting with my neighbors or people I run into, so eventually that shifted from being stared at by strangers to being people I knew saying hello.

In my first year on JET, the third-year junior high students, especially the boys, were very shy around me. Sometimes I felt like they resented my presence there, and as you might imagine, my English classes with them were always horrible. One day, I don’t remember what happened, but English class was even worse than usual and as I was leaving the classroom, one of the boys yelled アメリカへ帰れ (go back to America). I remember sitting in the staff room, trying very hard not to cry. Well, many years later, I was in a supermarket and a young man came up to me. “DiBello-sensei, do you remember me?” he said, in Japanese. Of course I did! It was that boy! He told me that he was happy to see me because he had wanted to apologize for being a bad student. I certainly was not expecting that! We chatted for a bit and he said that he and his friends were afraid of me and embarrassed because they couldn’t speak English. Then he thanked me again and went on his way. After that, I remember sitting in my car in the supermarket parking lot, trying very hard not to cry, although for different reasons this time! Some years after that, I received a letter from another student from that same time. She had gone on to college and become an English teacher and she said that I had motivated her to do so.

I think little moments like these really stick with us as JETs.

The other detail for me is my JET placement was the first place I ever lived in Japan. The junior high faced the port of a little bay, and my apartment was a little ways up the mountain behind the junior high. Before going to Japan, I had never seen the ocean. But living in Japan, suddenly I could see it from my living room window. I could also go down and walk along the coast to a small shrine. During festivals, they brought the mikoshi in front of my apartment, along with all the other neighbors. One of my neighbors always had something to give me, a pastry or some sweets… It just felt magical to be there, and that feeling really continued for the entire time I was there.

So, I do think I made an impression on the community. And they certainly made an impression on me as well.

What did you end up doing immediately after your time on JET, and where did JET lead you?

In my third year on JET, I got married to someone from a nearby town, and after JET we moved to his hometown. I ended up being a private-hire ALT in the BOE there. In addition to visiting elementary schools, I also did translation and interpretation for the city hall and was the go-to person for any kind of language help. I also worked with the JET-ALTs who were there, helping them get settled in and so on. At that time, I was the only one who went to elementary schools and the JET-ALTs all went to junior high schools, but I believe that’s no longer the case.

I worked there for nine years, until one day, I decided I needed to go to graduate school, and I decided it needed to be in Japanese, which was my original field, not English.

My spouse and I moved to the US so I could complete a PhD in Japanese linguistics. During grad school, I worked as a Japanese-language TA. I also discovered that American college students are much taller than Japanese elementary students. It took a while to get used to that!

After finishing grad school, I took a position as an assistant professor of Japanese, which is where I am now. In addition to teaching Japanese language classes, I also do research. Most of my research focuses on second language speakers of Japanese, and I have done studies that look at how second language speakers deal with Japanese dialect, keigo, and other aspects of Japanese language. I have published several articles and I have a book coming out next month.

One of the biggest concerns for JETs is what they are going to do when they finish JET. Did your plans for after JET change during your time on JET, and if so, how?

Yes, my plans changed, but ultimately the changes were more superficial than maybe I realized at the time. By that I mean, at the core, I always wanted to get better at Japanese and use Japanese in my job. And from my first day in Japan, I was doing that in one way or another. Before I met my spouse, I had thought that after JET I would move to a big city, but that never happened and in the end, I’m glad it didn’t! I never thought I would go to grad school, until suddenly, that seemed like the most logical next step. And now, here I am, a professor teaching Japanese and doing research… the one constant has been the Japanese language.

For JETs currently working out what they want to do when they finish, what advice would you give them?

This may seem obvious, but I would not have been able to do the things I’ve done, get the jobs I’ve had, without having worked really hard in each of the positions I was been in. The work I did as an ALT, and the connections I made with Japanese teachers and with the people in my BOE at that time, meant that after three years, I was known in the area beyond my specific placement. And when I applied for my first post-JET job, my JET supervisor was there to tell them what kind of person I was etc. I was also able to show up to the interview, do the whole thing in Japanese, use keigo etc., because I had been working on those skills throughout my time as a JET.

When I applied to graduate school in the US, I drew on both my experience teaching English in Japan and my Japanese skills, to apply for a teaching assistantship. I received that, and it paid for my graduate tuition (plus stipend) and allowed me to teach Japanese during grad school. That teaching experience then put me in a strong position when I went on the job market to find a job in a university Japanese program after finishing my PhD.

I say these things not to brag, and of course I’ve just skipped over 20 years’ worth of not only successes but also many, many failures… My point here is to say that, whatever you’re doing right now is contributing to your future opportunities. And what you’re doing, and how well you’re doing it, will determine whether you’ll be able to take advantage of those opportunities or not. This is especially important for JETs, because your employment comes with a pre-determined end-date. When that date comes, you don’t want to feel like you’re not ready for the next thing.

So, always work on yourself. Time spent learning Japanese is never wasted. Time spent learning new skills, new hobbies, is never wasted.

Value the connections you make to others. You never know what kind of impact you might have on someone else. And you never know whether someone you just met might, a few weeks or years later, turn out to be some important connection to an employment or social opportunity for you.

Lastly, always be thinking and planning for your next steps. JET is not a destination, it’s a stop on the way. Make the most of it, but remember that there are exciting things waiting for you after JET as well and you want to be ready for them.

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