When I taught English abroad in the inaka (countryside) of Japan, I lived in a very small, very old mountain village. From afar, it was beautiful. Rice fields surrounded the mountain, lush greenery was everywhere, and in the summer, tall cumulus clouds floated slowly across the sky. It was like a scene straight out of a Miyazaki movie.
What you couldn’t see in that lovely picture I’ve painted for you, though, was me riding my bike on the side of the road that led from that same mountain and into town where the train was- a twenty minutedescending journey of anxiety that made me feel like I was gambling with my life. Semi-trucks whizzed by within a few feet of me as I tried to find a zen-like state of mind to keep from having a full-on panic attack.
Within the first week of moving to this little village, I begged the BOE (Board of Education) to transfer me. Everyone else I knew in the program had been placed in quaint little cities or towns where train stations were a short (safe) walk or bike ride away. Beg as I might, though, a change was not to be made. I had advanced Japanese skills, and oftentimes the better you were at the language, the farther out into the middle of nowhere you were placed. The main thing I was told? “Ganbatte, ne!” Good luck!
And so, I settled into my new life and my new home, come what may.
What came after was a time in my life that I’ll never forget and that I’ll always have mixed feelings about: joy, appreciation, disappointment, nostalgia…a strong desire to ugly-cry with regret but to also take pride that I stayed as long as I did (it’s very complicated).
I want to stress that this is my personal experience, and, based on other participants’ stories I heard during and after my time with JET, it is not a common one. The drastically isolated placement like the one I had is gloriously rare.
I’ll walk through the moments that stick out to me the most when I reflect back on my time living in the inaka while teaching English. Fear not- I won’t go too Heart of Darkness on you.
I’ll never forget the ride I took, sitting in the back seat of a car as two members of the BOE, two complete strangers, drove me farther and farther into the countryside. I’d known I was going to a small town ahead of time, but it’s one thing to know something, and another to actually see proof of it.
Rice fields whizzed past with the occasional grouping of small houses dotted here and there. We finally turned onto the road that led up into the mountain, and at last, we halted in front of a small, four-unit building.
Once I was dropped off at my apartment and left completely alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere, I had a bit of a meltdown. This was to be my home for the next twelve months, and I felt about as far away from the rest of the world as someone standing on the moon.
Over the next days, I did my best to stay positive: Look at the mountain! It’s so…mountain-y! Look at the gecko! Wait, why is there a gecko skittering up the wall in the kitchen?
Don’t even get me started on the spiders or the centipedes.
The Scarf Incident
I taught four days of the week at my village’s junior high, assisting its two English teachers, and one day was devoted to a different school (which I’ll get into later). The English teachers at my main junior high spoke English very well and initially were warm and made me feel welcomed. But as time progressed, I started to feel more and more isolated from the staff and especially the head English teacher – we’ll call him Nakamura-sensei – whose responsibility it was to oversee me. He rarely used me in class except to occasionally act as a parrot, repeating English vocabulary and phrases that the dazed, sleepy faces of the students would half-heartedly repeat back to me.
I felt distant from Nakamura-sensei and unsure of my role in his world. He was sometimes short and dismissive, which came as a surprise since my predecessor had told me how friendly he’d been to him. The worst moment came, though, when he intentionally embarrassed me in front of the students.
One day during winter, he and I were walking down the hall to class, briefly going over the lesson plan. I was wearing a scarf around my neck, as it was especially cold that day (some Japanese schools don’t have central heating, and classrooms use room heaters only when class is in session, leaving the hallways to feel like a walk-in freezer).
We walked into class, the students sat, and we greeted them in our usual manner: with a bow, standing front and center, almost like a traditional Japanese comedy duo, minus the wacky, slapstick humor. Nakamura-sensei then suddenly turned and asked me, in gruff Japanese, “Why are you wearing a scarf during class?” Any remaining class chatter came to a halt. I looked at my teacher and could feel my students’ eyes on me, waiting for an answer.
Even remembering it now, I can still feel my face turn scarlet.
He’d never before that moment addressed me in Japanese, but had wanted to make sure the students understood his question. I knew at once he was making some sort of power move, but I didn’t know why (spoiler alert: he turned out to be a sexist jerk who didn’t like women).
When I didn’t answer, he scoffed and asked me again, in informal Japanese reserved for talking down to an inferior,“Why, as a teacher, are you wearing something like a scarf while in a classroom? Don’t you know that’s not allowed? Take it off.”
Not knowing what else to do, I apologized in Japanese, explaining that I didn’t know it was a rule (I found out later it wasn’t), and took my scarf off.
He’d had the entire walk from the office to the classroom to let me know about this supposed rule, yet chose to wait in order to shame me in front of our students, on purpose.
Now, I know that something like this may not read as anything too shocking. But it was laid on top of so many other things that I was dealing with: the loneliness, the isolation, the stress that arose anytime I needed to leave my village and take that dicey journey, the disappointment at the experience not being what I’d hoped it would be…his treatment of me (and this is just one example) exacerbated everything.
When You’re the Village Outsider
Being constantly stared at in my village also caused me to feel more separate from everyone around me. I was one of only two foreigners living there (the other wasn’t too interested in being friends, which was fine), and almost everywhere I went, gaping stares greeted me. I’d try to smile and bow, or say hello, which was met with mixed reviews: sometimes I’d get a friendly “Hello” in return, other times, children would (literally) turn and run away.
I also take my age in as a major factor. I was fresh out of college and didn’t have the confidence in myself that I have today, almost a decade later. Were I faced with the same issues I had then as the person I am now, I would be able to handle them with confidence and stability. I’ve lived in New York City for the past seven years, and trust me, had I lived here before my stint in Japan, 99% of the things that bothered me during my experience would have bounced off of the tortoise-shell-tough exterior that all New Yorkers wield and out into the outer reaches of space.
A Change in the Tide
But of course, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were some truly wonderful things I took away from my time with JET. By far, the best of these were the friends I made and the places I went to. They make up the warm memories of my experience that I’ll carry with me all of my life.
I went to Kyoto almost every other weekend with friends, or sometimes alone, wandering the city and taking in the full beauty of the place. I took a 17-hour ferry ride up to Hokkaido for one of the best trips of my life. My brother and sister-in-law visited that fall, alleviating the distance I felt from my family, and we all laughed at how incredibly out in the boonies I was.
Having a government-sponsored job meant security, dependability, and having someone to go to whenever a problem arose. I wasn’t entirely on my own, even if I felt like I was. JET is a generous company that assists you with rent subsidies and, I feel, genuinely wants you to succeed. It’s worth noting that at the time I went to teach, the economy was reeling, and jobs were not easily had. I was lucky.
As I mentioned before, I taught once a week at the prefecture’s smallest school (it’s since been shut down, I heard, which broke my heart). I taught two 7th graders, one 8th grader (really), and four 9th graders. I would hop on the bus early in the morning and head up the windy, slightly nerve-wracking roads and into the heart of the mountain.
The staff at the school was endlessly kind and made an effort to get to know me. The kids were all close to each other, and lessons were fun and light. Every time I was up there, I felt like I was visiting a large family rather than a small school, and I wished more than anything that I taught there every day.
Beauty in the Boonies
Living in the countryside was tough, but it was also inarguably beautiful. I watched the seasons through my windows and the changes they brought with them to the mountain. Cicadas seemed to scream outside my apartment all day and night during the sweltering, final months of summer; leaves burned with gold in the autumn; snow quietly blanketed the mountaintop and the village in the winter; plum and cherry blossoms bloomed on trees in the spring.
Being in a beautiful place, but one that kept me so dangerously far from major transportation, was painful. All I wanted was to feel safe anytime I left the village. It would have made all the difference in the world (by the way, if you think the trip down on the bike sounds stressful, just remember, anytime I needed to get back home, a journey going up was required).
What I Wish I’d Done Differently
One major regret I have is not making more of an effort to get involved with the kids at the main school I taught at. I was asked, luckily, to take on tutoring one student, a girl I’ll call Ryoko. She was a sweet, quiet girl who was exceptionally good at English and needed help training for a speech competition. I stayed after school twice a week for about a month to help her with her pronunciation.
I built a bond with her and finally got a taste of what it was like to be a mentor. When she took the stage and pushed through the nerves in her voice and spoke to the crowd, I endlessly proud of her. My only regret is that I didn’t get to make that sort of connection with other students.
What I Recommend You Do
Be confident and throw yourself into the entire experience. Get involved with your school and your kids as much as you can (without dying of exhaustion). Help out with after-school clubs. Travel while you’re with JET. There is so much to see in the country, but don’t forget, you have beautiful countries nearby, too.
You may think that after my experience, I would recommend you stay away from the JET program, but I don’t. If you have a desire to teach English in Japan, you should go on what will be your completely unique, personalized journey.
I’m happy to report, by the way, that they never used that apartment again after I left. I met with BOE members before I left and once again stressed how unsafe the trip from the mountain to the train station was. They finally listened. An apartment near the train station was found, and the newcomer was able to take the bus up to the mountain to get to school.
It’s also rare to get premium grade jerk teachers. Most, I believe, are helpful and kind.
In Spite of It All
What I hope I’ve given is an honest telling of an experience I had, which in no way changed how much I love the country it took place in. Yes, I wish some things could have been different, but I don’t regret going, and I’ll always be grateful for that time in my life.
If you’re planning to apply for JET, get going! And if you already have plans to teach abroad, I wish you the best of luck. May your journey be full of gecko-free kitchens and kind teachers to show you the way. And if you’re cold, wear the damn scarf.
Have you taught abroad with JET? Have you ever been to the inaka in Japan? Leave us your comments below!