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.

Tips for the JET application: Part 2

A continuation of my tips to JET applicants.

Tip 3, You have more international experience than you think: On the application, there’s several sections were you fill in your teaching, international/inter-cultural, and Japanese experience. Do you best to write down something, anything in these sections. You might have a lot of experience in one area, but writing down 10 things in the international experience section isn’t going to make up for writing nothing in teaching or Japanese experience sections.

The first time I applied, I had nothing in the “Teaching” section, but the second time I put down that I volunteered with ESL students (I only did it for a month) and was a lab monitor for three semesters (I determined that talking people through computer and printer trouble every time I monitored qualified as “tutoring”). It might have just been the thing that got me an interview that second time.

For those worried about lack of international experience, you can list pretty much any time you’ve stepped foot outside your country as international experience. If you’ve barely left your home town, try to think of anything cultural you’ve done. Did you host an exchange student? Take part in an international fair at your university or in your town? Attend French club regularly, or even semi-regularly? Write it all down.

Don’t worry if your “international experience” isn’t related to Japan at all. As I wrote in the JET FAQs, international experience is going to show you’re adaptable to different cultures, which is arguably the thing JET wants the most from a participant.

By the way, if you have some related event planned and it’s happening after the app due date but before the interview dates (like an int’l fair in December, or a trip abroad over the holidays) I’d go ahead and write it down since it will be applicable come interview time.

Tip 4, Statement of Purpose; Ask not what JET can do for you: All you really need to do in this 2-page double-spaced essay is talk about your experience and why you’ll make a good JET. Sounds easy in theory, but in practice this is probably the most stressful part of the application. And I did it twice. Here are some quick tips:

– Don’t talk about your love of Japanese pop culture: If you have some nice story about how you meet a Japanese exchange student who liked the same anime as you and that lead to a lasting friendship, put it in. Otherwise it’s best to just avoid mentioning Anime, Manga, Visual Kei, whatever. Some might say that if an anime is what got you genuinely interested in Japan, you can mention it, but the JET app reviewers already know Anime/Manga is most people’s first encounter with Japanese culture.

– Ditch the flowery language: This isn’t an Ivy League Dissertation, it’s an essay for a job where you’ll stand front of 14-year-olds and try to get them to pronounce “month” so it doesn’t sound like “mouse”. Your SoP should show you can communicate well, so keep your writing clear and concise.

– It’s about them, not you: Of course you should talk about your qualifications and what you hope to gain from being on JET, but don’t forget to talk about what you can do for them. When you’re done with your first draft, go through and see if you can’t eliminate a few I/Me/My’s. Also check the “what I’ll gain” verse “What JET will gain” balance. Do you have a whole paragraph about what you want to gain from JET but only one or two sentences about what you’ll do for JET? Try to even that out

Get someone to proof-read it: This should go without saying (you should get someone to proof-read your whole application, actually). Get a couple opinions; I recommend you ask someone who doesn’t have anything to do with JET or Japan just so you can get an outside perspective. If you get two or more opinions, you’ll probably get conflicting advice, so that’s where your good judgement has to come in.

(2nd time applicants) Don’t completely scrap last year’s SoP: If this is your 2nd or even 3rd time applying, you’ve already put a lot of work into an SoP, so why start from scratch? Dig out that old SoP and read through it. Cross out the weak parts and circle any passage, sentence or even just phrases you feel are still strong. See if you can’t incorporate that into your new essay. Of course re-reading your old SoP might just reaffirm you want to write a completely new essay, and that’s fine too.

Tip 5, Chillax: Hey, I was there (twice): reading and re-reading my application, revising my essay, triple checking that I had everything in the right order. Really what I needed to do was relax, take a break for a day or two from the app and do other things. You don’t get bonus points for sending in your application early, so take your time. Print out the check list and maybe have a friend go through the papers with you, making sure everything is there.

Once you send it in, it’s out of your hands. Don’t re-read your SoP because you’re likely to find a typo which will just cause you stress. Don’t second-guess your placement requests or the way you worded your international experience. Really, just try to forget about the whole thing until January.

And so ends my tips (for now). As I said before, I don’t mind answering any questions, so please comment.

Tips for the JET application: Part 1

It’s October, which means the application for the 2011 JET Program will appear, and hundreds will start crawling the internet looking for tips and tricks to making their application stand out. As someone who went through the application twice, I thought I’d offer some word of wisdom.

Please keep in mind that I’m not any kind of JET insider and don’t have any secret info about the application process. I can only base this on my personal experience and stories I’ve heard from fellow JETs.

Tip 1, Get your sh!t together: The JET website already has a list of documents they want you to send with the application. Get going on this now, especially transcripts from study abroad (if you did). If you haven’t graduated yet, you’ll need some sort of “intent to graduate” form. My university told me to print out some BS thing online, and though I have no idea if that cost me an interview my first time applying, it probably didn’t help. Tell them you need a letter on university letterhead with a seal or signature from the registrar.

Tip 2, Your placement requests don’t matter (until they do): I’ve met plenty of people whose requests were Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto and still managed to make it on JET, so no, requesting big cities won’t earn your app an automatic trip to the round file. However if you get an interview, it’s very likely you’ll be asked why you picked a particular city or prefecture, so have a good reason for picking that place (or come up with one by interview time). Good reasons are: Did homestay there, hosted a Japanese person from there, your home town has a sister city/state relationship with that city/prefecture, your Japanese significant other is from there (by that I mean spouse, being engaged sometimes doesn’t cut it).

While I don’t think requesting a big city is gonna count against you, you can look at the data yourself (in the JET pamphlet) and see how likely it is you’ll be placed there. There’s 9 JETs in Tokyo (they ain’t in Shinjuku either, most of those JETs are on a tiny islands hundred of kilometers from Tokyo Bay), there’s also only 9 in Kanagawa-ken. Many major cities use private ALTs exclusively, so if you really have your heart set on Yokohama, JETs probably not for you. You might think you’re more likely to get your first choice if you choose a less “popular” prefecture, since not so many will request it. Not necessarily; I had a friend who requested Fukui, then ended up on Shikoku.

It’s just not worth stressing over placements since the Contracting Organization’s preferences (they can request that their JET be a certain gender and nationality) will take precedence over your requests anyway. Some towns always request a JET from a certain place because of sister city relationships, some placements are meant for couples, or for JETs bringing children.

So, pick wherever you want, try to have a good reason for that request, but be open-minded because they’re gonna place you where they place you. Or you can just not write down a placement request at all.

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So there are your first couple tips. Come back soon for advice on what to write for international experience, and the dreaded Statement of Purpose, spooky!

I’m more than happy to answer questions, so please leave a comment if you have any!

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.

And then she burst into tears – Teaching Grade School

I love teaching Japanese elementary school for all the reasons I don’t much like teaching junior high school. The elementary kids are excited to see me, they ask me all sorts of questions (mostly in the vein of “what color do you like?”), and when I ask for an answer or for a volunteer, 20 hand go up in the air with a deafening round of “Hai! Hai!”

Most of my uncomfortable moments at junior high come when I’m doing a dialog with students. Just the other day, in a 7th grade class, the teacher asked me to pick a few students and ask them “What (something) do you like?”. I asked a girl “What books do you like?”; she responded “I like…” and then silence for roughly 15 seconds before the teacher told her to sit down. Maybe it didn’t bother her very much, or maybe she was traumatized will hate English for the rest of her life. This is the game of chance I play whenever I have to call on students.

Fortunately, elementary kids aren’t quite so embarrassed when they make a mistake. Or are they? Today I taught 2nd graders, “How are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “I’m fine, too.” After making them repeat it 20 or so times with a partner, I asked for volunteers to present. At first, I have them present with a partner, then I had them do the dialog with me. One little boy really wanted to do the dialog, but his partner sat shaking her head “no”. I said, “OK, just me and the boy” but for some reason the girl stands up.

Boy: “How are you?”
Girl: “How are you?”
Boy: “No, you say, ‘I’m fine, and you?'”
Me: *trying to get the girl to repeat after me. “I’m fine…”

Suddenly, tears are just streaming down the girl’s face. Oh Lord, what have I done?! I stood with a slightly panicked look on my face as the homeroom teacher walks over and does the dialog in place of the girl. The girl recovered eventually, but I can’t help but feel guilty.

And thus are the occupational hazards of teaching English to 8 year olds.

Months of the year

Spelling was hard for me as a native, so I can’t imagine how difficult it is for my Japanese junior high schoolers. Unfortunately, English spelling is very much taught by rote learning here with no emphasis on phonics or even really basic spelling rules. This is terrible for their English education, but for my personal entertainment, it’s hilarious. Today, the 8th graders had a spelling test, and by far the most entertaining was the months of the year. Here are a few of the misspellings:

  • January – Janney, Junwary
  • February – Fvrey, Federey, Fevraliy
  • March – Mach, Match
  • April – Eiprl, Epler, Eiplir, Aplir
  • May – is one most kids managed to get, though there were a few “Mai”s
  • June – Jnu, Jun
  • July – Jaril, Jury
  • August – Orgest
  • September – Sertanbay
  • October – Octorber, Octanbay
  • November – Nobender, Noder, Nadeny (wtf?)
  • December – Deasnbay, Disember

These are just one class, I’m sure many more await me tomorrow.

There were also many non-month misspelling pearls, such as apoo – apple, tachy – teacher, lunt – lunch, and goil – girl, which gets half points ’cause “goil” is correct in some part of the States.

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

Now that you’re in JET. . .

I figured I’d take a moment from my lack of updating and congratulate the shortlisters for the 2009 JET Program. One of you lucky kids will be working with me come August, so you better be cool! Or at least tolerable.

Anyway, you’re coming to Japan and I’m sure there are a million things going through your head right now. Here’s just some quick unsolicited, half-baked advice on what to do now that you’re just a few months away from a year (or more) in Japan.

Do save your money: Local government offices were feeling the budget crunch long before the current economic slowdown. As a result, there seems to be an increasing number of BOE’s asking their ALTs to pay for the start-up costs of their living arrangements, such as key money (think of it as large deposit . . . that you will never get back). Usually you are warned if you have to pay such fees, but never-the-less some JETs get it sprung on them the day they get here. Even if you are lucky enough to not have to pay key money, you will likely be asked to pay your rent and other utilities the day you get to your town . . . and weeks before your first paycheck. Many contracting organizations will give ALTs a loan if the start-up costs are high, but you don’t want to spend your first few months in Japan indebted to your C.O. Save as much as you can.

Do learn *some* Japanese: If you don’t speak a word of Japanese, there’s no better time to start than now. JET will send you a beginners Japanese textbook in your welcome package. It comes with a CD and a chart of kana (the phonetic Japanese scripts). Practice 5 kana a week and you can have it mastered by the time you reach Japan. Also, you’ll probably meet people like the mayor of your town, superintendent, and principals when you first reach your placement, so it’s a good idea to practice basic intros. Don’t worry about it being perfect, you’ll likely be complimented on your Japanese no matter your skill level.

Do read the General Handbook: The GHB is awkwardly large and makes for some dry reading, but it’s important because your supervisor will have the same book. Your supervisor will not any kind of ALT affairs expert, heck, they may not speak English at all, so this book (which has Japanese on the left and English on the right) can be valuable when trying to sort something out. Read through at least once before you come here and highlight the important bits. Oh, and do watch the ‘JET Life’ movie. Yeah, it’s cheesy, but for someone like me who hadn’t been to Japan before JET, it helps you visualize what your life will be like.

Do whatever needs to be done now!: It’s all too easy to think, “Eh, I have till the end of July to do this”. You will be shocked how quickly the end of July comes around. If JET sends you anything that requires a response, don’t even look at the deadline, just do it and send it back. Don’t depend on your coordinator too much to tell you exactly what you need to send and where you need to send it. They’re busy getting ready to send dozens off people to Japan (and, of course, some are less of top of things than others). This applies especially to alternates; I understand not wanting to spend the money on the physical, the FBI check or the tax forms, but if you’re serious about going to Japan and want to be able to go on short notice, it is in your best interest to get this stuff done now.

Don’t worry about teaching (yet): When browsing JET forums around this time of year, there’s always people who are already worried about things like what their self-intro to their students will be, or what lessons they should have planned out. I have one word of advice: Relax. First off, at this point you have no clue what age/level you’ll be teaching. Second, after you arrive here, you’ll have around a month before you even teach a class. That’s plenty of time to sort out what your JTEs will expect from you.

Don’t assume you will recreate the awesomeness of the semester you spent in Japan 2 years ago: Studying here and working here are two different things. Many of the ALTs I’ve meet that have been less than satisfied with their experiences are people who studied abroad. During study abroad, you’re in an urban/suburban setting, surrounded by people your age, are being taken care of by a host family or other student housing, and able to be constantly doing non-academic related things because, let’s face it, college in Japan is not the most difficult thing in the world. JET’s certainly not the most difficult job in the world either, but you do have to be at work 8-4, Monday-Friday, and you’ll (likely) be in a rural setting, living alone in a town of sweet little obaa-sans. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t let your previous Japan experience shape your JET expectations too much.

Don’t decided how long you wanna stay just yet: When I surf JET message boards, I’m always surprised to see a lot of people saying, before they even set foot in their towns, ‘I’m gonna do JET for 3-5 years, then move to (such and such place in Japan) and work there’ or ‘I’m gonna only do a year, then come back and do this and that.’ I understand having a goal, but sometimes it turns into an obligation you put on yourself. Don’t stay in a terrible placement just because you promised yourself ‘three years’, and don’t leave a great placement just because you told everyone you only do a year then go to grad school. Just say, ‘My contract is a year, and we’ll see after that’.

And last, do be freakin’ excited! You’re going to Japan! Don’t let the nay-say-ers diminish that by telling you, ‘A desk job in Japan is like a desk job anywhere else’, it’s certainly is not. There will be awesome moments and awful moments, but it will always be pretty interesting.

Brushing up that Statement of Purpose

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I didn’t make it past the application round the first time I applied to JET. When it came time to apply again, I was faced with having to gather transcripts, letters of recommendation, and of course, the Statement of Purpose. After spending so much time on my first SoP, I decided it would be a shame to simply scrap it. So I didn’t. In fact far from it, I kept my intro and conclusion (and probably 2/3rd of the body) virtually unchanged and adjusted three things. Yep, three things.

The best advice I got was from a friend who got into JET the same year I was rejected; make it about the kids. It’s a bit misleading since the essay criteria says “you” or “your” 10 times, so naturally you think they want to hear about you! No, they don’t, they want to hear about them.

Here are the changes I made to my SoP.

Revision 1:

Before:
It will be a challenge to live in a different country, but I feel my education and my willingness to learn will help me to adjust to the Japanese lifestyle.

After:
I feel my education and my willingness to learn will help me to adjust to the Japanese lifestyle.

It’s a much more definitive statement without the “it’s a challenge” line, which I now feel probably set off the “this girl’s gonna freak out and quit” alarms in the reviewer’s head.

Revision 2

Before:

The Japanese Language program at my university provides students with great learning tools by bringing volunteer teachers from Japan to aid in our language studies. These teachers assist my classes in listening and speaking activities, as well as providing knowledge about the Japanese language and culture that we cannot learn from a book. In applying for the ALT position, I would appreciate having the opportunity to return the favor by helping Japanese students with their English studies, as well as teaching them about the culture of my country. As educators themselves, my mother and grandparents have passed on to me a love of learning and taught me to have a patient and positive attitude in working with people of all ages.

After:
The Japanese Language program at my university provided students with a great learning tool by hosting volunteer teachers from Japan who aided in our language studies. These teachers assisted with listening and speaking activities, and provided knowledge about the Japanese language and culture that cannot be learned from a book. I have had the opportunity to return the favor in tutoring Japanese exchange students and volunteering as a conversation partner at the university’s Intensive English Program. In applying for the ALT position, I aspire to further this intercultural exchange by helping Japanese students with their English studies, as well as sharing the culture of my country.

Eliminating this collective “we” business gave the sentence about the volunteer teachers a little more punch. “Tutoring” simply sounds more official than “helping”. As for the Intensive English Program, I only did the conversation partner thing for one month, but it gave me something concrete to list as “teaching experience”. If you can do anything like this before mid-November, do!

In retrospect, the whole “comes from a line of educators” thing only drew more attention to the fact that I had no real teaching experience, so I dropped it.

Revision 3:

Before:
Living in Japan would provide me with an opportunity to experience the language and art of the Japanese people first hand. As an artist, I would gain a new perspective that I am certain would be a positive influence on my future design work.

After:
Living in Japan will deepen my international perspective, and working with Japanese students will deepen their international perspective.

The before was me thinking that they when they asked what I wanted to “gain professionally” from JET, they actually wanted me to address what I can gain that would be directly related to my major in graphic design. Second time around, I determined they really don’t care, so I went with the much more vague “international perspective” then emphazied I will be working with students and deepening their international perspective. It’s all about the kids!

So that’s it, eliminated a few “me”, added a a few “Japanese students” and “Internationalizations” and I was gold. Good luck to you all, especially those of you trying for a second time!