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Sean Bramble - Nagasaki (1992-1995)

[Sean, with the city of Nagasaki behind him during JET orientation, July 1992]

Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?

I was an Assistant English Teacher (yes, before the title morphed into Assistant Language Teacher) in Nagasaki Prefecture from 1992 to 1995.

What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?

I had graduated from university with a degree in writing and was trying to figure out how that would parlay into a career. I tried my hand at a number of jobs: congressional staffer on Capitol Hill, long-term substitute high school teacher, and newspaper reporter and editor. At one point, when I was between jobs, I came across a little book called Teaching English Abroad, which was a wonderful job-hunting resource around the world in a pre-internet era. Czechoslovakia sounded exciting, but they only paid teachers $50 a month. I looked into a job in Singapore, but they only wanted teachers with British accents.

Then I started reading about the JET Programme and realized the application deadline was quickly approaching. At the time I was writing for a computer newsletter in Virginia, looking out my second-floor window at a sea of parked cars, and realized I had to get out and do something different with my life. In retrospect, however, it’s incredible I ever decided to go to Japan once I learned I was offered a position on the program. I had never studied Japanese and couldn’t tell you ten things about the country if I’d tried. I literally had no idea where I was going.

[Team-teaching at Narao Junior High School, October 1993]

What are some of the things your prefecture is known for? e.g. food, hotspots, etc.

The bomb is of course the first and usually only thing most people know about Nagasaki. There’s so much more, of course. Nagasaki was the gateway between Japan and Europe for 300-ish years, and its international legacy is reflected in its o-kunchi festival in October, its local cuisine (champon and castella, for example), its historic sites, and its thousands of islands, some of which provided shelter for its “hidden Christians.” I was posted to one of those islands in the island chain known as the Goto Retto, and was pleased to see the islands form the backdrop in some of the key scenes in Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. (Though it was easy for me to tell from the topography that filming had taken place elsewhere; the coast of Taiwan was close enough, but not exactly the same.)

Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?

I wrote down some Goto-ben but I don’t remember much offhand. I think “bebenko” meant “cow” and believe “This is my pen” could be rendered something like “Onga pen dai.” There were days when studying Japanese was hard going. CLAIR (Council of Local Authorities for International Relations) had provided JETs with some basic Japanese study materials, but when the cassette tapes played standard Tokyo Japanese and the people around me were speaking anything but, it could be very frustrating at times.

[Singing karaoke at a local snack (スナック) ie. snack bar, March 1994]

If you were to return to live in Japan, would you choose to live in that same prefecture?

Well, I actually did return. After finishing up on JET in ’95, I took a ferry to China with the intention of traveling the world before returning home. I got as far as Shanghai; I had a friend there who helped me find work as a teacher at an international school. China in the mid-‘90s was a marvelous adventure, but I gradually realized that living in Japan was much more in my comfort zone. So I returned to Kyushu and found employment in Fukuoka, eventually staying another sixteen years.

Along the way I taught everywhere from language schools to universities, read hundreds of books about Japan, trained staff at the Kyushu National Museum, did voiceovers for radio and modeling for department stores, and wrote about Japan for The New Republic and my own guidebook, CultureShock! Japan. There will always be a place in my heart for Nagasaki, but Fukuoka offered so many more opportunities than Nagasaki could have.

[Leaving Nagasaki and JET on a ferry bound for Shanghai, July 1995]

How has your connection in relation to Japan changed since living in Japan?

Well, my wife is Japanese and our three children were born there, so it’s obvious that Japan will forever be a major part of my life. My wife is the assistant manager for Japan Airlines at Logan Airport, so we all try to go back at least once a year. As for me, I now teach high school AP world history and am forever introducing bits about Japan and Asia to my students: teaching them how to fold a paper crane, or having them design a floor plan for their own tea house and garden, or encouraging them to study Japanese at our school. Thirty-plus years ago I set out with so much trepidation as to what I would encounter on the other side of the world, and now so much of my identity is wrapped up in Japan that I can’t imagine how I could be otherwise. JET was for me a truly life-changing event.

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