Things to know about JET and Japan

Once you’re accepted onto JET, you will get endless amounts of literature both before you leave and during the orientation in Tokyo. You will also hear from your predecessor and your contracting organization. No doubt the awkwardly large CLAIR handbook you have to lug with you to Tokyo, as well as the correspondence with your pred and CO will teach you plenty of things, but there are a few aspects of JET that are, shall we say, omitted from this and other fliers.

Ahead: what is ESID, how well will your JTE speak English, can you ever move within JET, and other miscellaneous things. Continue reading


Getting Ready to Leave the JET Program

So here you are, you’ve spent somewhere between 1 to nearly 5 years in Japan, you’ve laughed, you’ve cried, you’ve been complimented on your chopstick skills hundreds of times, but all good things must come to an end and it’s time to leave JET. Maybe you’re heading to another gig in Japan, maybe you’re off to backpack South East Asia (probably not a good idea in August), or maybe you know in four months time you’ll be on your mom’s couch. Either way it’s time to pack it in and leave the apartment, schools and town you’ve come to know over the last few years.

Leaving JET is as much of an adjustment as coming on JET, and something that can easily sneak up on you. The key is to prepare well and to prepare early. A fellow JET said to me, “Never underestimate the amount of time you need.” Good advice, and I tried to follow it, but that didn’t stop me from rushing around the morning I left. Continue reading

A glimpse into your ALT life

So last post, I said I would do a post a week here. But I’ve decided I want to keep this blog kind of focused on JET/Japan/Teaching English (also I’m far too much of a procrastinator to write a post a week).

Anyways, a friend just introduced me to an awesome JET-related comic called “Life After the BOE“. It covers some of the more, well, irritating aspects of being an JET in Japan, as well as the things they don’t manage to tell you during the 3-day Tokyo Orientations. For example:

It’s a fun, well drawn comic that definitely speaks the truth. I encourage all current, future, and former ALTs to check it out.

10 random things I miss about Japan

There are many things about Japan that’s bound to get on the nerves of anyone who has lived there for an extended amount of time. After being home for a while, I think about how happy I am that I won’t suffer through another winter with no central heating, or be referred to as “American Sized”, or have to deal with the nuances of communicating (which I found was not so much “reading between the lines” as it was “reading minds”). But for every one thing I don’t miss about Japan, there probably three things that I do miss. Naturally I miss my town, my friends, and my students, but there’s also countless “little things” that I miss about Japan. Here is a list of a handful of those things, in no particular order.

The diplomacy of Janken (rock-paper-scissors): In elementary and junior high school, there are few conflicts that can’t be resolved with a round of janken. There’s an extra jelly dessert? Janken. Who won that last karuta card? Janken. No one wants to volunteer to present first? Janken. The loser may groan about it, but no one ever demands a rematch. The word of Janken is final!

Combini: Oh how I miss these beacons of light, a place where I could pay my bills and buy my onigiri, where I could stop in for pudding at 12 pm or 12 am. Where I could pay for a bottle of water with an 10,000 yen (roughly $100) bill and the clerk wouldn’t even blink. I’ll always remember the friendly chime and the “Irashaimase” of my local Family Mart.

Saitama Mascot, Kobaton

Saitama Mascot, Kobaton

The Cuteness: How could I not love a place where everything has a mascot? Where no matter the location, there’s a gift shop with charms of Hello Kitty, Rilakkuma, AND Doraemon dressed like local fruits and flowers. Where my school lunch milk carton has a picture of Kobaton conducting a train or having a picnic. Frankly, everything without a smiley face is just boring now.

Meeting people from around the world: In my hometown in Colorado, meeting someone from east of the Mississippi river is about as “international” as it gets. So you can imagine my wide-eyed delight when I first karaoke’d with a group of Australians, or went to an onsen with a German, or danced at a club with a South African. Now it seems normal to go out with a Brit, an Aussie, and a Japanese person and then meet someone who’s Spanish but grew up in South America, and is stopping over in Japan on their way to Thailand.

Rated PG13 for language

My students’ English mistakes: Sometimes when I’d grade my student’s journals and tests, I worried that they haven’t learned any English at all. But usually the worry was replaced by delight as I read things like “I was in the blue grope.” and “I took part in an event like a cowboy.” Months are especially fun, “Jury” for July, “Nobender” for November. However, I still have no idea what month “Juniary” is supposed to be.

Kotatsu: While heating during the winter in Japan leaves quite a bit to be desired, kotatsu is completely awesome and something I wish I had back home. When the cold would set in around December, I’d throw the quilt over the table and tried to have everything I needed within arms-reach because I wouldn’t leave until April.

Being a semi-celebrity: What can I say? I enjoy it when my kids exclaim “Your eyes are blue!”, or marvel at my curly hair, or ask for my signature on their notebooks. It’s also fun to hear “Ro-ren-sensei, hello!” as I ride my bike around town. Of course, there are two sides to this coin, such as being spotted talking a guy friend and being asked, “Was that your boyfriend?” at school the next day. Or a student forgetting my name and referring to me as “gaikokujin”. Despite this, I’ll be sad not being so “exotic” when I return home.

Seriously, this is like a porno shop to me

Stationary: Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always loved shopping for school supplies, and Japan is a stationary junky’s dreamland. Even relatively small stores have pens that come in 17 different widths and an aisle devoted to stationary paper. There also all the wonderful stickers, notebooks, and file folders that have any animal, character, or famous landmark you can imagine on it. I’ll especially miss the awesome pop-up, foil embossed, and die-cut greeting cards.

Souvenir snacks: I think most of us think of “souvenirs” as tacky little trinkets we give to friends who probably will put it in a box and never look upon it again. But in Japan, the word for souvenir, “o-miyage”, also means little individually wrapped treats. Every little town has them in all shapes and flavors. They can be . . . interesting, like say a sembei with a slice of octopus baked in, but it’s a perfect gift for co-workers.

Heading to an ikebana lesson

The General Bizarreness: Can you think of your first “Wow, this place is weird” moment in Japan? Was it when you first encountered a talking toilet? Or watched a variety show about eating? Or saw a little old man using a pink keitai with 17 charms dangling from it? Or learned the latest character all your students are obsessed with is a bowl of rice with a face called “Gohan-chan”? I miss these nearly daily encounters with the lovable weirdness that is Japan.

Blast from the Past

A white concrete building that looks more like a hospital than a school.
A school yard full of kids playing on rusty swing sets and jungle gyms, kicking a ball around on a dirt field.
A classroom with 40 students that gets so frigid in the winter, kerosene gas heaters are brought in. As for the hot humid summer? Open the windows and fan yourself with your notes.

Would you believe this is a typical school in Japan, home of countless electronic and car companies and by all measures one of the most advanced countries in the world?

One of the strangest part of living in Japan is the feeling that I’m not only in another country and culture, but in another time. It’s like the late 50’s early 60’s America that never really existed except in movies and TV shows. People leave their car going when they run into the convenience store for a drink. Many women wear their quintessential “mom-aprons” during all waking hours. Train workers wear white gloves and department store employees wear funny little hats. Phones still have cords, people still hang their laundry, and there’s still cigarette vending machines on every corner. Japan is a strange place.

Golden Week

For those that don’t know, Japan has an obscene number of Public Holidays, 15 to be exact. However, four of them are within a magical one-week period called “Golden Week”. Those four holidays are:

  • Showa Day (April 29th) which commemorates Emperor Hirohito
  • Constitutional Memorial Day (May 3rd)
  • Greenery Day (May 4th) also referred as Green Day
  • Children’s Day (May 5th)

Wikipedia also tells me that Greenery Day is a recently named holiday, before it was just “Public Holiday” because in Japan, if two holidays are a day apart, then that day is also dubbed a holiday. Wikipedia doesn’t tell you that this period is called Golden Week because hotels rake in the gold by doubling their prices, and trains and buses make a nice profit adding holiday surcharges, so if you want to go anywhere, you need to book in January and make sure you have plenty of money. Since I’m not a big fan of planning ahead, I have avoided travel during Golden Week in my time in Japan. Which is just as well because the crowds are rather insane. In years past, I’ve fought through throngs of people on the streets of Toyko, and waited in long lines for bus to take me to see a giant koi flag descend upon the innocent population of Kazo, Saitama. This year, I stayed closed to home, but even going to a local shopping mall was a hassle (waited two hours to be seated for lunch). There’s talk of the government staggering Golden Week according region. It sounds horribly confusing, so it just might work in Japan.

My main beef with Golden Week is it’s not actually a whole week! This year, Showa Day fell on a Thursday, but Friday was still a work day. Now after Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off, I’ll return a two day work week. Next year, the 3 consecutive May holidays will fall on Tuesday to Thursday, meaning Monday and Friday will still be work days! Japan, you so crazy!

My other beef with Golden Week is that, after 4 holidays within a week of each other, there’s no Public Holiday for 2.5 months (Marine Day in Late July). Time to take advantage of my nen-kyuu (paid vacation).

A day in the life of an ALT

One thing that’s frustrating about being a new ALT is no one seems to tell you what you’re going to be doing once you reach Japan. I used to think this was a JET thing, but talking to ALTs in other companies, it seems to be and anywhere thing. It is ESID and all that, but at the very least it’s good to see what other ALTs are doing. So as a service to you new JETs and other ALTs, here is a day in the life (specifically April 25) of me, a typical junior high school ALT. Continue reading

Don’t Make Waves, Stay in Line

Sometimes when I think about the laws and unspoken rules here in Japan, I think of the little ditty Shrek and Donkey hear when they go to Duloc, “Don’t make waves, stay in line, and we’ll get along fine. Duloc is a perfect place.” Now, Japan’s not Singapore or anything, but the laws are strict and the police and justice system have a farther reaching authority than you may be used to.

First, take a second to read this hilarious incident of drug-dog training gone wrong in Narita. Now, funny as that is, I have to feel sorry for the person who has all that weed because they will have a hell of a time if they want to return it. Japan has very strict anti-drug laws: I saw a news story about some famous guy being busted for having 0.2 grams of marijuana. Now, I think everyone whose ever been to a Dave Matthews Concert ingests that much weed without even meaning to, but the way they were talking about this guy you’d think he was peddling heroin to 12 year olds. It’s not only the ganja that you have to beware of, some perfectly legal over the counter medicines in other countries are illegal here because of Japan’s anti-stimulant laws.

Now here are a couple cautionary tales: one of a tourist being found with a pocket knife, and another of a JET accused of shoplifting. While I think both of these people could have benefited from knowing more Japanese and just using a bit more common sense, it shows how severe Japanese police can and will treat you for things that may only be a minor infraction back home. If you’re arrested, you can be held without formal charges for nearly a month. Japan’s justice system is “Guilty until proven innocent”, and really, they’re not interesting in proving you’re innocent, only in getting you to confess.

This also brings up the fact people here are simply more suspicious of “gaijin”, whether or not there’s really any statistics to back that assumption up. Once a cop stopped me on my bike. He claims he saw my bike lock was broken, and it is, but there’s no way he could have been able to tell that from glancing at my bike while I was riding, so I think the real reason he pulled me over was clear. He then proceeded to ask where I got the bike; in other words accusing me of stealing it. I fortunately knew just enough Japanese to explain I got it from the previous JET (and also don’t know enough Japanese to say “If I were to steal a bike, I’d steal a better one than this rust-pile”), and he let me go. The lesson is, yes, you are being watched.

Some other things to remember here in Japanland:

  • Until you get your “gaijin card” (alien registration card), you should carry your passport at all times. Even after you get your card, I recommend carrying your passport when you travel in Japan just to save hassle.
  • In multi-level stores, you need to pay on each floor. Also beware of places where there are several shops on a single floor. Just go to the nearest register after you pick up anything. (If there’s no register, look for a calculator and a woman not paying attention).
  • You are representing your school, your BOE, your country, and all foreigners in general. So, try to behave well. Don’t buy too much booze at the combini, some mom with nothing better to do will call the school and tell on you.
  • Be careful what people send to you because once it gets to Japan, you will be held  responsible for it’s contents. Here’s a student whose friend sent him some pot cookies to Japan, and now he faces 10 years in Japanese prison.
  • Keep off of the grass, shine your shoes, and wipe your . . . face.

Ah, I’ve been looking for one of these

I wish I could take credit for this gem of an Engrish find, but it was the other ALT in town who spotted this in the conference room of one of our junior highs. I just wish I knew what these guys were going for. Is it possibly because the brand is “Peacock” and they wanted to use one syllable, but decided “double pea” didn’t roll off the tongue as well? Whatever happened, the result is hilarious.

Double Cock Keeper

One for you, and one for your friend!