Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?
Urahoro-cho, Hokkaido 2003-2006
What sparked your interest in Japan?
My father was posted to the Yokosuka Naval Base during my childhood (ages 1-6). We lived off-base and this was my first immersive dive into Japan as I ran around our neighborhood as part of our local gang of Japanese kids. Friendships solidified, language skills blossomed and I assimilated into the culture with a level of ease that only a young child can slip into. I still have friends from my old neighborhood- including one of my besties with our close friendship now running in its 4th decade. I continued to return to Japan throughout my life via any avenue I could find- language classes, study abroad, stopovers while moving around the world and finally with the JET Program in adulthood.
What are some of the things your prefecture is known for?
Hokkaido is known for its incredibly beautiful and plentiful wilderness and open space not found elsewhere in Japan, its friendly and open people, the native Ainu people, the Snow Festival (in Sapporo), their abundant onsen (like much of Japan), delicious produce, cheese and meats, and their long, cold winters (with great skiing).
Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?
I have always found Hokkaido's place names fascinating since about 80% of them derive from the Ainu language. If you dig deep enough, you can decipher the original Ainu names, what they meant and therefore what was culturally important to the Ainu people. But, beyond that, Hokkaido does have a light regional dialect that is mixed into standard Japanese. Some of my favorites that found their way into my lexicon were nageru (used for throwing trash away as opposed to suteru), oban desu (instead of konbanwa), kowai (instead of tsukareta) and shibareru (instead of samui), which I used often during the colder months!
What is your favorite memory of your time in Japan?
Having spent 8-9 years there, it's really hard to drill down to a favorite memory. But, one of the most authentic and memorable experiences I had was completely by happenstance, as is so often the case in life and travel. A friend had heard of an Ainu festival from another friend working on his PhD on indigenous cultures. We followed their cryptic directions to the town of Shiranuka and parked in a lot with perhaps 15 other vehicles. We wandered around and within moments were welcomed to this small, intimate gathering of Ainu with smiles, kindness and an eagerness to share this cultural tradition. We were the ONLY non-Ainu at the Shishamo Festival, which affirms the importance of living in harmony with nature. Prayers are made for the success and safety of shishamo smelt fishing for the season at this occasion. It was truly other-worldly and allowed me to imagine what the past must have looked like on this island. But it was the genuine openness, willingness to include, and an unspoken understanding that we shared the experience of living in Japan, but were not fully Japanese, that left an impact on me. The dissection of this one experience has been long-lasting and continues to inform my global perspective.
How did your experience in Japan change your life? What are you doing now, and does it have any connection to Japan?
Having had immersive touchpoints with the country and culture throughout my life and meaningful friendships and relationships with its people resulting from those, it's difficult for me to separate Japan from myself. I completely identify as American, but Japan holds a large part of my heart. Since returning from the JET Program in 2006, I have worked exclusively in the US-Japan field. Each position I've held has allowed me to gain another perspective, learning more about how this bi-lateral relationship continues to grow and flourish. I worked at the Japanese Consulate in Denver for 7 years, then moved on to serve our local Colorado community via the Japan America Society of Colorado for 6 years and just this month (January 2023) took on the role of Executive Director of USJETAA. I continue to feel passionate about facilitating connections between the US and Japan. I feel as though my life's work continues to serve the friendships I forged as a young child running with the Japanese neighborhood gang of kids.