The first thing I realised I wanted to do after I graduated was spend
time in another country doing nothing to do with Engineering. I had only
been abroad a couple of times before for short holidays, but that was
it. Some searching in the Overseas section of the careers service soon
directed me towards TEFL (it was by far the biggest section). Sure enough,
Japan had the biggest part to play in the TEFL section and so I eventually
applied to be in the government-run JET program.
In the year I applied, 1999, they were shipping nearly 1500 young UK nationals
over as assistant English teachers. An incredible number. Fortunately
I was lucky enough to be one of the 1500 and found myself in late July
on a plane filled with new JET participants who's main thing in common
was that few spoke Japanese and fewer had any idea what to expect.
Our first experiences of Japan were of 4 days of seminars on teaching
English and our duties as foreigners and cultural ambassadors of our countries.
A lot of emphasis was put on the point that they saw our main duty was
to promote "Internationalisation at the grass roots level.",
it seemed to many of us that they were throwing rather a lot of money
at this "key concept", but that is a deeper matter for debate.
Basically, the first 3 days were spent sitting in cultural workshops,
lectures and Japanese classes by day and getting acquainted with the Tokyo
night life by night. The 4th day was spent in the capital cities of our
respective prefectures doing pretty much the same as we did in the first
My first 4 days "intro" to Japan were dazzlingly fun. It was
a massive extravaganza of meeting new young people in a bright and bustling
new place, most of which like myself had just graduated from university.
As guests of the Government of Japan, we were treated like stars. We were
astounded by the politeness and efficiency and bowled over by our hosts.
It didn't prepare me at all however for my sudden dropping into the small
town where I was to work for the next year.
After the 4 day orientation seminars, we were met by our respective supervisors
who took us all to the places we were to live and teach for the coming
year. After a quick introduction to the other staff at my host school,
I was taken to the accommodation that had been organised for my stay.
A grand 3 roomed flat that seemed far too big for me to be living in on
my own after all those years of Uni accommodation.
My supervisor said goodbye and there I was to be left until my duties
at the school were to start in just over a week. I guess my decision to
come to this, most foreign of places hit me very hard at that point. I
was very alone. I spoke no Japanese and I wasn't going to be meeting anybody
who spoke English for over a week. I might as well have been on a desert
island. It made me feel worse that I knew there were people all around
me, very few of which I could communicate with. I really came down to
earth from the dizzy highs of Tokyo with a bump.
For several days during my explorations of the local area and attempting
to shop for myself I met and spoke to no-one. Incidentally, shopping takes
on a new level of difficulty when absolutely everything is packaged differently
and you find yourself having to open all the products to have a sniff
so see if you have washing liquid or shampoo, yoghurt or milk. The stares
for the Japanese can be intense!
Fortunately, after just 3 days of my lonely explorations, I met a rather
hungover looking lad called Jo on his way to hand back a video to the
local video shop. He seemed as eager to make friends as I and with a handshake,
the feeling that I was going to be spending a rather isolated year vanished
and there began the best year of my life.