Ten years ago I participated in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). For one year, I was employed as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at a junior high school in Kochi Prefecture, located on Japan’s fourth largest island, Shikoku.
I didn’t know much about Japan before I went there, and I certainly didn’t know how to speak Japanese.
Except for a few words I picked up, I didn’t learn the language. It was too difficult, and since I knew my sojourn would not be permanent, I didn’t have the motivation to learn while I was there. I wish I had tried harder to speak to the people I met, but at the time, I was shy and withdrawn.
JET participants come from all over the world, but most of them are residents of Australia, Britain, Canada, or the United States. The JET Programme is run by the Japanese government, and their goal was to place at least one JET in each junior high and high school and some elementary schools too.
As a homogeneous country, their government recognized the need for the young generations to learn about other people and cultures in the world. They needed native English speakers to help their students learn this important language that is spoken widely around the world. As a JET participant, I also became a member of the community in which I lived.
In one orientation that I went to, I remember hearing a story of a JET participant who was traveling through the countryside, but she got lost. She spoke fairly good Japanese, so she went up to a house and knocked on the door, hoping to get some directions. An old man answered. He had never seen a “gaijin” or foreigner before in his life. He fainted at the sight of her.
With his family’s assistance, the JET participant helped the elderly man, and he woke up. Introductions were made, and the Japanese family was very welcoming to the young girl. The old man explained that he thought the angel of death had come to his door.
Without knowing the language, it was very difficult for me to discern what others were thinking when they encountered me in Japan. On one of my first nights in my new home, I took a walk. Though I lived in an apartment near the town’s shopping area, it only took five minutes for me to find myself walking through the beautiful rice fields.
On this first walk, I passed an old woman on her bicycle. She became flustered and excited when she saw me. She began to jabber away in her language, and she bowed over and over on her swaying bicycle. I have know idea if she was welcoming me or not.
During all my work and community gatherings in Japan, I always had good experiences, and I made some wonderful friends. But I also know that there were people who didn’t want me there, and occasionally I would become wiser to this when a friend would translate something that I wasn’t suppose to understand. I also heard stories from other JET participants.
If there’s one thing I learned while living abroad, it’s that many people don’t like what is different, and they don’t want to take time to get to know it. They don’t want anything to do with what they think threatens their way of life, even if it’s a small change. Though I respect their need to hold onto what they feel is the core of their being, I believe people live mostly in fear.
It puts things in a new perspective when you are the change and you are the threat. When you live in a crowded place where you’re the only person who is Different with a capital D. It is a strange and hurtful feeling to be hated because you are different. You may know that what you’re bringing with you is not meant for harm, only illumination. But only some people get that.
Though I learned much about Japan and its customs in my year living there, I feel I only skimmed the surface of that culture. Any culture goes much deeper than what we can learn in such a short time. I feel I learned more about myself as an American and how my own culture influences and shapes me as an individual. As I have written before, I believe that my time abroad keeps teaching me, and it always will.
Shelli Bond Pabis is a Winder resident and columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.