Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?
I was an ALT in the port town of Imabari, in Ehime Prefecture, from 1992 to 1994. This entailed rotating among 11 junior high schools in the mountains and islands around Imabari. The island schools in particular were tiny, with maybe 20 to 30 students each. They were remote, so I had to commute by ferry or via a high speed boat that navigated around the Seto Inland Sea’s whirlpools. Then, after two years as a JET, I talked my way into Ehime University as postgraduate “research student” and spent a third year there studying economics and working on my Japanese.
What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?
Luck and a lack of other job prospects. As a senior in college, I was fascinated with Africa and wanted to work on development issues. I spent much of my free time looking for job openings in Africa. While I was doing this, a friend told me about this new program which was little known at the time and which would pay me to live in another country. That was the JET Program, which was then in its fifth year. I took her advice and submitted an application, although I was not very serious about it. At the time embarrassingly ignorant about Japan and even had trouble even finding it on a map.
In the end, I had to choose between a possible job in Africa and participating in the JET Program. My heart was with Africa, but the decision ultimately came down to plane tickets. I would have to purchase my plane ticket to Africa on my own, but I had only $230 in my bank account and at that time an Africa ticket cost close to $2,000. Meanwhile, the Japanese government was offering to pay for my plane fare to come to Japan…and they were flying new JETs over in business class still in the early ‘90s. So, I decided to go to Japan for one year, until I could earn enough money to get to Africa. I ended up falling in love with the country and making a career out of US-Japan relations….but it took me more than 20 years to finally make it to Africa.
What are some of the things your prefecture is known for?
The Seto Inland Sea near Imabari has incredible fish like tai (sea bream)—tai-meshi is a local specialty—and my town was also known for its yaki-suzume or grilled sparrow. But the most important thing is that the best mikans in the world are grown in the hills around Ehime. Everybody’s father or sister seemed to have a mikan farm, and in harvest season you couldn’t go a day without being given a bag of citrus. I even recall being given shopping bags of free mikans by the post office staff when trying to buy stamps and would have a 3-foot high pile of boxes and bags full of mikans in the corner of the kitchen by the end of the winter.
Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?
Ehime natives speak Iyo-ben, which is relatively close to the Hiroshima dialect. I didn’t know Japanese when I arrived, so some of the first Japanese I learned was Iyo-ben, and it took me a while to learn the difference between standard Japanese and our dialect. I recall picking up a phone in an office—I think I was in Tokyo by then—and my co-workers almost fell out their chairs in laughter when I replied something like, “shindoi jaken kaete kowai” (shindoi dakara kaete shimau/I’m tired so I’m going home). They weren’t sure what it even meant but they knew that you didn’t speak that way in a professional setting.
Do you have a specific memory or event that stands out from your time on JET?
Hundreds of memories, including some I won’t repeat without a few drinks in me. The excitement and kindness of my students left a deep impression on me. On my last day in one classroom—and I had a lot of “last days” since I taught in 11 schools—one boy insisted on tearing a metal button off of his school uniform to give me as a keepsake to remember him. I scolded him, but was secretly touched and never forgot him. There were also many extraordinary acts of kindness by regular people who were eager to share their community with me. One Friday the secretary in board of education office told me that I should meet her at the pier at 7:30 a.m. the next morning, but didn’t explain why.
I’d been in Japan long enough to just go on faith, so I showed up to find her husband and family friends there in his fishing boat. He wanted to take us out to see his birthplace, which was on the island of Shisakajima, which had been the site of a famous copper mining operation. His village was forcibly evacuated in the 1970s due to devastating levels of pollution from the mining, and it was forbidden for people to step foot on the island.
The scope of things started to make sense to me as we neared the island and saw a giant skull and crossbones painted on a cliffside. He ignored that as well as the signs that the island was off limits and instead took us to the far end of the island. We snuck ashore on the beach and he took us on a walk through the ghost town. It was remarkable to see how much pride he still had in his village, even as it was in ruins.
What are you doing now, and does it have any connection to Japan? How did your experience in Japan change your life?
I did not have a job for a while when I came back to the New York area after JET, so I ended up hopping a plane to the West Coast and worked in San Francisco for a year, first doing day labor and then eventually getting a full-time job at a Japanese travel agency. I returned East to go to graduate school for international affairs, then spent two years as a local researcher for a Japanese government agency before taking a position running a US-Japan policy institute, the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE/USA) as its executive director.
I still wonder what the founder of the organization, a legendary figure who ran its Tokyo-based parent organization, saw to take a gamble on a 30-year old like me, but one factor may have been that he was a big proponent of the JET Program. I ended up heading up JCIE/USA for nearly 20 years, and have had countless adventures, bringing senators and congressional members from the US to Japan and vice versa, setting up initiatives to channel millions of dollars in donations to help with disaster responses in Japan and COVID-19 relief in Africa, and expanding into fascinating areas such as US-Japan cooperation on global health and humanitarian assistance.
I absolutely loved JCIE and my colleagues, but after 20 years, as I was turning 50, I felt in my gut that it was time to hand the baton off to another up-and-coming leader and look for a new adventure. So, I stepped down last year. For the past 6 months, I have been serving as interim executive director of another great organization, USJETAA, shepherding it through a transition of its own, and I am hoping we can hand the baton off there soon as well. As I look back, I am stunned that what I thought would be a one-year gig in Japan before I got back to my real life somehow turned into 30 years (and counting) working on US-Japan relations.