It was twenty years yesterday since I went to Japan on the JET programme. Twenty years – that’s almost half my life ago. I was twenty-two years old, fresh out of five years studying at a university only twenty-five miles from home. And there I was, about to fly to the other side of the world. The farthest from home I’d been before was central France, the longest I’d been away from home before was at the end of my second year at university, when my friend Louise and I spent sixteen weeks living in a tent and working on a flower farm outside Hillegom, in Holland. I’d never had any particular interest in Japan, but a little advertisement on a notice board near the cafeteria in my university had started the ball rolling. I applied for the JET programme and was one of 33 young Irish people chosen to go work in Japan that year.
Some of my friends and family thought I might not like Japan. I guess they knew how little experience I had of the world outside Ireland. I remember one friend saying that it was alright if I didn’t like it and decided to return home after a few weeks or months. But I couldn’t wait to go, and I told myself that even if it was awful, I’d stay for the whole year. In the end I stayed for three years, the maximum number of years you could stay on the JET programme at the time. I loved it from the start.
The JET programme was well organised. I was to be an assistant English language teacher at two junior high schools in Sue-machi, a small town in Fukuoka-ken, on the island of Kyushu. A representative of Sue board of education had been in touch, telling me about the schools, sending me photos of the town and of my apartment. From JET I received instructional videos about etiquette and cultural correctness, and whoever made those videos clearly had never lived in Sue-machi!
The thirty-three Irish JETs flew business class from Dublin to Tokyo via Heathrow – the only time in my life I have ever flown anything other than economy! Oh the luxury on British Airways. With thousands of other JETs from around the world, we had a four-day orientation in Tokyo. Prior to that, London was the biggest city I had ever been to, and I’d never been there at night. Imagine my little eyes popping out of my head as I sampled the night life of Tokyo for the first time. I was awestruck!!
After those four days we were sent by plane or train to our host towns. At Fukuoka airport I was met by Sue board of education representatives, who were friendly and smiling. Only one of them spoke English and I didn’t have a word of Japanese. In those early days I made so many cultural mistakes, made an ass of myself, got things wrong. Japan was even more strange and exotic than I had imagined. I loved it. I loved learning how to negotiate this strange and wonderful culture so different to my own. And gradually it seeped into my bones, and the strange became familiar, the exotic became mundane.
For a young woman from a very modest background, in her first ever proper job (apart from the flower farm and a couple of pub jobs) this was idyllic. I had my own brand new gleaming apartment, the smell of new tatami in the heat of August overwhelming my senses. I lived in that apartment for longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I was paid more money than I knew what to do with. For the first time in my life I could buy clothes when I wanted to, buy new music and books on a whim, afford to travel where and when I wanted to.
The two schools where I worked were so different to any schools I had been to before. Forty children per class, extraordinary discipline, exceptionally good behaviour. But boy, were those kids fun. I loved the kids I taught and I look back now and wish I had been a better teacher. The first year I was a useless teacher. I’d never taught before, I had no skills or training, and I was way too self-conscious and uptight. But as the years went by I relaxed into the job. I developed friendships with my colleagues, despite having only limited language in common with those who were English teachers. I went on school outings, on drunken nights out with my colleagues, and I engaged in a lot of school activities. Looking back I could have and should have done so much more.
During those three years I travelled extensively. I travelled all over Japan, camping, hiking on volcanoes, soaking in mountain onsens. I holidayed in Australia, learned to SCUBA dive and did volunteer work on two trips to Hawai’i, got serious culture shock in Hong Kong because it was so noisy and multi-cultural compared to Fukuoka, and flew home to Ireland once a year.
I fell passionately in love with Japanese food but sadly, after three years, my culinary skills were only rudimentary. I played the taiko drum, taught by Ito-sensei, one of the most generous-spirited and light-hearted people I ever met. The mother of my friend, Tashiro-san, made me a silk kimono, and taught me how to walk and sit and wear it properly, in preparation for the kimono-modelling contest she had entered me in. I did tea ceremony, visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and visited pretty much every historical, cultural and natural site of significance across the country. I went out for dinner with The Chieftains one night and sat between Paddy Maloney and Derek Bell, and another night partied with Jamiroquai in the VIP section of a Fukuoka night club.
And what friends I made. My friend Takako made me feel like part of her family and twenty years on she still sends me care packages of Japanese food. Three years ago she and one of her daughters visited me, and I was so happy that Julian and the girls finally got to meet my dear friend. I had other wonderful Japanese friends who I am not in touch with so often, and some who I have sadly lost touch with. The JET programme was wonderful too because it brought together young people from many different countries. Over the years I have visited my JET friends in Australia, Canada , the US and the UK and many of them have visited me. Last weekend Sarah and our families camped together and our children have known each other since they were newborns.
A year and a half ago a few of us started to throw around the idea of a reunion in Japan to mark the 20th anniversary of when we first moved there from our various far-flung home countries. If the plan had taken shape, we would all be in Fukuoka this week. Alas, Japan is a long way away, expensive to get to, and we all have young children and other commitments. So the plan foundered. Maybe if we start saving now, our piggy banks will be full for a 30th anniversary reunion in July 2025!
I went to Japan with a Masters degree in Anthropology and virtually no experience of the world beyond my little patch. Three years in Japan opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities of other ways of living, other cultures, other realities. I had opportunities to experience Japanese high culture and the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. During those three years I grew up, I discovered different aspects of my own personality, I saw myself and where I came from differently. If someone gave me the chance to do it all again, I’d leap at it. Someday I would like to bring my own children to Japan. Maybe we’ll even sail there.