Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?
I was an ALT in Takasaki, Gunma from 2013-2014. I worked at a kindergarten, elementary school and junior high school.
What sparked your interest in Japan?
When I was a junior in high school, I won a scholarship from Toyota to participate in a summer immersion program through Youth For Understanding (YFU) and traveled to Nagoya, Aichi, in 2007. For two months, I lived with a host family and attended a local high school. My host family could not speak English and I did not speak Japanese. I somehow managed to communicate with them using a paper English-Japanese dictionary, body language/gestures, and new vocabulary that I picked up every day. By the end of the summer, I had fallen in love with Japan and was determined to start studying the language in order to strengthen the bond with my host family.
Fast forward to 15 years later, I’m still in touch with my host family and can communicate with them proficiently in Japanese now. Every time I visit, I tell them how grateful I feel towards them for opening up their home to me. They are the reason why I decided to learn Japanese and, eventually, pursue a career connected to Japan.
What are some of the things your prefecture is known for?
I’ve seen daruma dolls all over Japan, but it wasn’t until JET that I learned that daruma dolls originated in Takasaki at Shorinzan Darumaji Temple. Daruma dolls are like a good luck charm. When you buy them, the pupils are blank. You make a wish and draw in the left pupil and once the wish comes true, you draw in the right pupil. Throughout the year, completed daruma dolls are collected at Shorinzan Darumaji Temple, piled up and burned at the end of the year in a bonfire. It also wasn’t until JET, that I realized the popularity of Gunma-chan, the prefecture’s mascot. Gunma-chan won the Yuru-chara Grand Prix in 2014, right after I had left Japan!
Gunma is fairly rural and has a lot of farming villages. I frequented farm-to-table restaurants and remember everything tasting so fresh! The majority of Japan’s konnyaku is supplied by Gunma and there is even a Konnyaku Park where you can learn how konnyaku is made and eat at a konnyaku buffet (my favorite was the konnyaku “karaage”).
Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?
The only Gunma dialect I remember learning was applying -be or -danbe to the end of certain words/phrases. For example, instead of saying “soudesuka” you would say “soudanbe” or instead of saying “ikimashou” we would say “ikube.” I rarely used Gunma dialect, but when I did, it would usually get a laugh out of my colleagues.
What is your favorite memory of your time in Japan?
I have so many favorite memories during my time as an ALT. From driving my little kei car to work every day to watching the teachers chase a wild boar out of the school to wearing a borrowed junior high school uniform to my classes on Halloween to watching my students graduate. I created a close bond with many of the teachers I worked with through cultural exchanges during lunch, free time and nomikais. They liked to give me suggestions to try a local food or restaurant or use a Japanese product (like a yutanpo) and I had fun trying things and sharing my experiences with them. The generosity, thoughtfulness and kindness of the people I met are something I carry with me to this day.
How did your experience in Japan change your life? What are you doing now, and does it have any connection to Japan?
After the JET program, I continued to do Japan-related work. I moved to Singapore and worked at a Japanese medical clinic and now I’m living in Kentucky and working as project manager of the Japan/America Society of Kentucky (JASK). In my current job, I help people in Kentucky connect to Japan by managing programs and events that teach Japanese culture and/or language.
During the pandemic, I helped one of the former Japanese teachers I worked with during JET with her virtual English classes. In exchange, she helped out with some of the virtual Japanese programming for JASK during that time as well. I’m really thankful that JET was able to connect us and that we can continue to collaborate. I love the work that I do and I hope that I can continue to influence the people around me to be as enthusiastic as I am about Japanese culture and language!