Long centuries ago, when the world was a shadowy mist, the islands of Japan were born of the sea. Among the many gods inhabiting the misty abode were Izanagi and Izanami.
One day, while they were standing on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, talking with each other, Izanagi said: ‘I wonder what is down below us?’ This aroused Izanami’s curiosity, and they began to think how they might find out.
Taking the Jewel Spear of Heaven, Izanagi lowered it into the air and swung it around in an effort to strike something, for he could not see through the dense mist. Suddenly, the spear touched the ocean. When Izanagi raised it, salty water dripping from it was dried by the wind, becoming hard, and forming an island in the middle of the sea.
‘Let us go down and live on the island,’ said Izanagi. And so they descended from the Floating Bridge of Heaven to live on the island.
~as told by Morton Wesley Huber in his book, Vanishing Japan, published in 1965
Dedicated to my girlfriends: Audrey, Caralyn, Catherine, Jean, Maria, Megan and Betsy, to whom I wrote these shared journals. Without their kudos (the best coming in the form of laughter) and encouragement (especially in rereading their letters twenty years later) I never would have been inspired to document the good, bad, brazen and bizarre experiences during my two years in Japan.
To my Shintomi Family, who never failed to share their love and their lives with me and, who never – ever – questioned the many hours I spent at the Board of Education Office writing these journals when I really should have been working.
And then, of course, to Sam, who helped me live it and then joyously re-visit it 20 years later.
August 11 to December 13, 1990; Getting the Hell Out of Dodge
This is the first officially unofficial correspondence to all my dear friends back home since arriving in Japan just seven days ago. I’ve been here in Tokyo for an orientation with 1,500 JET, AETs (Japanese Exchange in Teaching, Assistant English Teachers) from across the English-speaking globe. Sadly, 100% of all the attractive, English-speaking men I’ve met here are going to be everywhere BUT the village where I’ll be employed. Even sadder is that this piece of news made top priority in the lineup of what is and what is not going on in my life. But I have to be honest in saying to all of you, I’m hoping the next year proves to be far more… abundant, shall we say, than the past male-starved millenium has been for me in Chicago.
Climbing our way back to higher ground, or at least to sea level… my time in Tokyo has been very interesting. I’ve only been able to catch a glimpse of this populous metropolis, this eensy-weensy economic powerhouse, but my first impression is that it is very glittery, very crowded, very, VERY expensive, expansive and a feat in organized chaos. Personally, I can see a weekend sourjourn here during the year to explore its darker “Blade Runner” feel, but after the past five years struggling to make ends meet in the big city back home, I’m looking forward to a little country livin’.
My rural haven will be south of Tokyo.
On the island of Kyushu.
In the prefecture of Miyazaki.
Shintomi Cho, the town where I’ll live and work, is a tiny farming village of about 19,000 people (“tiny” for Japanese standards) and is best known for the vegetables grown there.
It’s said that the region where I’ll be residing is where the Gods initially descended from the heavens and reigned over the country and I’m anxious to explore everything from the volcanic crater of Mt. Aso to the wild horses and monkeys roaming Nichinan Kaigan.
While in Tokyo, I’ve had a chance to see Graham.
If you’ll think back to the onset of all this, Graham (who was a participant in the JET Program during its first two years and is now living here in Tokyo) is the reason I’m writing to you from half-way across the world. As you well know, ever since the latter part of his tumultuous relationship with my sister, Mia, I had become his sounding board and, in turn, he was obligated to listen to me gripe about my miserable existence.
Graham knew I was struggling – working three dead-end jobs (the total income of which put me snuggly just below poverty level), trying to finish my Masters in English at DePaul University.
Dealing with past due bills.
And a fucked-up-friend-turned-temporary-roommate.
Wanting desperately to get the hell out of Dodge.
“Have you ever thought about going to Japan?” was how he began the conversation.
But leaving behind my insolvent, sexless, sorry-ass subsistence in the Windy City had me instantly thinking about it.
After all, I’d travelled.
Why not Japan?
The next thing I knew, I was filling out my application to the Japanese Ministry of Education for a year’s employment in the JET (Japanese Exchange in Teaching) Program and crossing my fingers.
Admittedly, this exciting, new prospect made it very difficult for me to concentrate on all the books and notebooks piled high in my pint-sized apartment in Chicago. Be that as it may, in a few, short weeks, I was expected to take the comprehensive exams which would determine whether I would earn my M.A. in English, or find myself in exorbitant debt for naught – as us literary types like to say.
Despite the daunting task of cramming a Dickensian proportion of literature into my brain – while at the same time trying to keep my lettered ass above water on the reality homefront – I mustered up enough resolve to buckle down and concentrate.
I got through my exams and continued in my daily struggles (trying not to put too much hope on my getting into the JET program) until the day I received a call from a sugary-voiced lady from the Japanese Consulate in Chicago who informed me I had made the final cut and was scheduled for an interview.
This was it, my ticket outta here!
Don’t be nervous, I told myself repeatedly, don’t panic and whatever you do, Anne, for God’s sake…. don’t screw this up.
When the day of the interview came, I was led into a large banquet hall where, along the back wall, a long table with a starched, white tablecloth stretched from one side to the other. Behind the table with pens and clipboards, pitchers of water and stacks of files, sat a panel of (if I recall correctly) somewhere between 8 and 80 people, all reviewing my incredibly unremarkable dossier.
The next thing I knew, I was in the thick of it.
“Yes, I’ve travelled abroad.”
“No, I don’t think being far from home will be an issue.”
“I’d much prefer being located rurally. This way, I feel I could get to know the people, the culture and even the lanuage better.”
“No, I don’t speak a word of Japanese, but I’m anxious to learn.”
“I think international understanding is vital to the fabric of our global community.”
I was on fire!
And not just my stomach, which was smoldering with coffee, cigarettes and a steady diet of cottage cheese and baked potatoes (both filling and cost effective!).
I felt it.
They saw it.
I even made them laugh (or at least smile). I showed them a confiident, poised individual dedicated to a common cause.
I was a “Let’s Do This Thing!”, never-say-die, woman-of-the-nineties – which my research and pep talks with Graham assured me would go over well with the my Japanese interviewers.
I was accepted into the program soon after and started making plans to wrap things up in Chicago as tidily as posiible. My about-to-be-former, far-too-well-to-do-to-be-freeloading friend was told she needed to find other living arrangements.
I gave my notice to all my places of employment, started selling my furniture, packing up my life, and reassuring remaining friends, family – and myself – that all would be well.
At least better than what my life had become in Chicago.
Which left me so destitute that if it hadn’t been for the love and generosity of my Aunt and Uncle (my father, having his lion’s share of financials woes) I wouldn’t have had a penny until my first paycheck in Japan.
And so, here I am in Tokyo, staying in one of the top hotels in the city, where we are being treated – dare I say it – like media-hounded celebrities. (This program has received a lot of press in Japan – both positive and negative.)
It’s just too bad we’re having to endure a tortuous amount of terminally uninspiring seminars attempting to prepare us not only for our new jobs, but our new lives in this ancient, unfamiliar culture.
The good news is that I’ve found another workshop-challenged cohort in my new British friend, Sam, who’ll be living in the city of Hyuga, about 45 minutes north of me.
STOP right where you are my friends. Sam is short for Samantha and although she isn’t a he, she and I have instantly bonded and are happy to begin our adventure together as a “we.”
So what exactly is it that “we” have gotten ourselves into?
Sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education, the JET program was not only designed to promote international understanding (a lofty task, indeed), but even more important, was created to advance the efforts of teaching and learning English as a second language.
Most Japanese kids begin taking English classes very early on and are required to study through high school. The problem is that for as long as anyone could remember (at least since the American occupation in post-WWII Japan), Japanese students have been taught the language by rote – memorization and repetition. In addition to what most now consider an outdated and incredibly unsuccessful teaching method, the English being used in the textbooks is so awkward and archaic that it has little to bear on the real world or real language.
So, the JET program gathers English-speaking persons from around the world and scatters them among the classrooms of Japan where they work alongside Japanese English teachers in order to bring a new energy and inspiration to uninteresting, outdated textbooks and ineffective teaching techniques.
Some people love the idea, while others both openly and inaudibly (the Japanese don’t like to cause public scenes), yet indubitably express their disapproval – the quietest outcry coming from the teachers who only know the language as it reads in the textbook; and we were assured that each of us will likely encounter at least one of these “teachers by rote” in our roster of classroom partners.
The most valuable thing I came away with from the seminars we attended this week was that there is clearly a lot of work to be done and high expectations on all parts. On the whole, however, I think we can make a difference and I’m excited to get started.
So, onward ho.
To Shintomi-cho, on the eastern shores of Miyazaki Prefecture, on the largest of the southernmost islands, Kyushu.
My new home away from home.
I’ll write again once I’ve settled in.