Special Message to all JETs

On April 1, 2012

As foreigners, whether you live in rural Japan or in its busiest cities, we are still by far a small minority. The Japanese government ministries set out, decades ago, to find a way to expose more of its citizens to foreign culture and different ways of thinking. What developed after years of planning and experimenting was the JET Programme.

In my humble opinion, I believe the JET Programme has been the greatest investment of government time, money, and effort towards internationalization on many levels. The ministries and countless other governments and organizations have worked together for over 25 years to give us the opportunity we are now experiencing to influence the future of our communities. Not just the communities we live and work in now, but also our future communities that we can influence based on our experience here and now.
I believe that this puts a great amount of responsibility in our laps. It would be easy to view your time as a JET as an extended vacation, or as a chance to go sight- seeing and have fun with very little stress or effort, because we’re not “required” to go the extra mile in our workplaces. However, if we take that route, we not only rob our communities of all they could gain from our knowledge, we rob ourselves of the fulfillment that comes with helping our communities become better.

That said, do you remember what we were told our goals are as JETs in this Programme when we arrived in Tokyo for orientation?

  • Share our culture.
  • Advise schools on Foreign language education curriculum/methods.
  • Act as an assistant in classes.

When you first hear that, in a room surrounded by other foreigners, all ready to jump into this adventure together head-first, it’s easy to say to yourself, “Yeah, I’m totally going to rock that!”.

The reality is, when you get to your workplace, no one is waiting eagerly on your plans and ideas, and many of your co-workers don’t even know why you’re there or even what the JET Programme is!

I’ve been advising new JETs for the past 4 of my 5 years, and I’ve experienced it myself. Some of you are in worst-case-scenarios, underutilized, and not feeling of much more use than a potted plant. You may be stuck in classrooms, feeling like a tape-recorder and that you’ve said, “Repeat after me!” for the bazillionth time! Maybe no one listens to you. Maybe you’re largely ignored, and you certainly aren’t consulted for your “vast experience from the western world!”

In my experience, most JETs aren’t prepared for situations like these and don’t know what to do about it. You may be sitting there in this exact situation, now, reading this, and thinking that there’s not much that can done about it. The Japanese have a saying “しょうがない” (shouganai), that essentially means nothing can be done about a situation.

I’m here to tell you now:
There is something you can do.

Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves in situations like these, and the burden of effort lies squarely on our shoulders. So, we have to make some serious decisions about how we approach the situations, projects, and education initiatives we are tasked with.

We, as JETs and guests in this country, are constantly confronted by situations where we know from our experience in our own countries that there may be another way to do things. That’s not a broad swipe on Japanese culture or a jab that says, “We do ________ better in our country!”. It’s just a plain and simple fact, which can easily be applied reversely in our home countries using information we’ve learned from our experiences here.

It’s up to us to find a way to influence our workplaces and those around us.

It’s up to us to influence our workplaces for positive change and progression. You can do as many on the Programme do (and it’s no secret), and sit at your desk day-after-day studying, reading, surfing the net and so on. OR, you can be proactive and speak your mind.

If you don’t like the way English classes are taught:
Say Something.
If you want to plan more lessons or have more input:
Say Something.
If you want to try a new internationalization initiative:
Say Something.
If you don’t feel integrated enough in your workplace:
Say Something.

And don’t just say it once. Say it again and again until you get your point across.

In Japan they have a saying: “石の上にも3年”。(Isshi no ue ni mo san nen)

Literally, it means you should sit on top of a rock for three years before you see the result you want.
We can learn a lot from this saying. It often takes patience and time to get the results you want. Not just a cursory question and answer. I truly believe, in my heart, that if you believe in what you are asking for, and that it is right and good, if you persist, then you can succeed.

In my time here I’ve been told “no” more times than I care to count. I quickly learned that if I wanted things I believed in to actually come to fruition, it was up to me to make others understand that.

I’ve made small changes like moving my desk to a new location in the teachers room, created an English room at my school, gone on school field trips, taught the lessons I wanted to teach.

I’ve also made BIG changes like creating a program to give Osaka JETs regional advisors when we lost our Prefectural Advisor to budget cuts. I had a vision for better Skills Development Conferences, demanded an prefecture orientation for new JETs, and created a program that stopped JETs from getting swindled by their predecessors when they moved into their new apartments. At school, I even changed our English program at our school by asking to teach 1st year students full time as well as developing, teaching, and giving them a full-fledged phonics education!

From all those experiences, and so many more that I haven’t mentioned, I can tell you that I was told NO the first time I asked in every instance.

Anything that is truly worth doing, is never easily accomplished. It is up to you to decide how to handle these situations. If you believe that being quiet and not speaking your mind, so that you “fit in” more makes your life easier, or if you believe it’s more important to follow Japanese cultural norms and keep harmony by not “being the nail that sticks out”, that’s your choice.

However, I’m telling you, here and now, this would be selling yourself short and at the same time, selling the ideals of the JET Programme short. JETS weren’t brought here to be Japanese. We were brought here to bring western culture into Japanese workplaces. We were brought here as westerners to interact in a Japanese workplace, so that they can learn from us and at the same time, we can learn from them!

There is a diplomatic, yet persistent way to argue for positive change. You may find yourself in a difficult situation where you know that you have the solution, but don’t know how to approach suggesting it. Making simple changes, that may seem obvious to us, may also come with hidden obstacles or roadblocks in Japan that you aren’t aware of, but does that mean that we shouldn’t say anything? Does it mean that no one will value your opinion if you make it heard?

Please don’t get the wrong impression. What I’m talking about here is not being the “loud, angry, gaijin”, who complains about everything around them! What I’m talking about, is taking the time to engage colleagues around you in dialogues, and ultimately build relationships with them, based on mutual respect. Because, when you have a relationship of mutual respect as a foundation, those colleagues will be more likely to back up your voice on the changes you want.

Yes, as foreigners in Japan, our situations are often difficult to navigate and it’s tough to be the odd one out, but this same adversity can also be a gift for a better life for those around us in our newfound communities. Some people may shut you out because you’re foreign, but in my experience, others are more likely to make an extra effort to try to understand where you’re coming from, because you’re foreign.

I hope that you will all seriously consider what I’ve said here the next time that you are confronted with a situation that you know you have the answer to. In my past messages, I’ve told you how “we can help more, we can do more”, but the ball is in your court to make that happen. How you proceed can help, or even be life-changing, for those around you (especially our young students).

I wish you all the very best of luck in everything that you set out to accomplish. I’ve learned a lot in five years, about this country, its culture, and about education. I hope that you can use my experience effectively in your workplace so that together, we can do more to change the world and help it to become a better place.

Connect with you next month,

Matthew Cook