Where are they now?
In the January issue we featured three inspiring Hyogo alumni who are finding their feet immediately post-JET. This month, with the dreaded recontracting papers handed in, I thought it apt to think about the potential long-term effects of our time here. As such I spoke to my cousin Jane, from whom came my first awareness of the JET programme back in 1995 when I was just 6 years old.
Jane Rice-Bowen (née Rice) hails from the UK where she currently lives with her husband and adorable twins in London. She was a JET participant in Sakaide city of Kagawa prefecture on Shikoku from July 1995 through July 1998.
Why did you apply to JET?
In about the 3rd week of my law degree I realized I was never going to be a lawyer. The big plan for my future that had been nurtured by my Dad, my teachers and to some extent me began to crumble before my very eyes. I had no idea what I was going to do and when I was going to tell everyone that I wasn’t going to be who they expected me to be. I carried on with my studies and tried to think of another plan.
Meanwhile my best friend was studying Japanese and through her I began to get glimpses of Japan. She’d been on a term long exchange to Osaka and had great tales to tell. Then she went out to Gifu for her third year while I prepared for my finals. This was in the days before the internet and email so we wrote long letters on thin blue airmail paper and while I babbled on about boys and parties and exam stress she was climbing Mount Fuji, doing tea ceremony classes and regaling me with the many different kinds of vending machines there are.
Then she told me about the JET Programme and I realized that this was the Plan B.
It was perfect; I could earn money doing something I already knew I enjoyed (I’d taught at an English language summer school while I was at uni and I was a rowing coach, so teaching held no fear); I could see some of the world (I’d regretted not having a gap year and doing some travelling) and I could get some perspective on my life and work out what I really wanted to do.
I taught at a Commercial High School (Sakaide Shogyo Koko) where the predominantly female students were learning skills that they would need to work in offices. Two days a week I went to Hanzan High School which was an agricultural school with an additional stream of very well turned out would-be nurses.
We’re told that the JET programme has changed a lot over the years, what do you remember about teaching in Japan back in the mid 1990s?
It was boiling in the summer. I remember looking out over a sea of 40 lethargic students melting into their desks while the cicadas droned on in the background. In contrast the winter was arctic and you could see your breath in the classroom. The soundtrack to the winter was chattering teeth. [No change there then!]
I remember sitting in a foggy staffroom while the Head of English chained smoked next to me.
I remember the local fire brigade bringing an earthquake truck for us all to practice in and the Kocho Sensei saying to me in his well-meaning broken English; “Eto ne Jane-sensei, does the earth move for you in England?” Poor man couldn’t understand why I turned red and started choking with laughter.
What did you hope to gain doing JET? Did you?
A plan for the future.
JET changed my life for the better in so many ways. I spent three years in an extraordinary country that was so unlike my own and I not only survived, I thrived. I arrived with no Japanese and by the time I left (while nowhere near fluent) I could get myself into and out of any situation! That gave me incredible confidence in my ability to communicate which has carried through to the rest of my life.
I saved enough money to study for a Masters which then enabled me to follow the career I wanted (still not a lawyer!).
The thing that I perhaps didn’t expect to gain was the bunch of life-long friends who I met in Japan and who are still in my life. These are the Japanese, American, Irish, Canadian and Kiwi people who I shared such brilliant times with that we will always be friends. Whenever we can we meet (trickier now as we have lots of small children between us) and it is so much easier to keep in touch now than 20 years ago.
Do you have a favourite memory of your time in Japan?
There are so many to choose from! I suppose that my favourite memory is four of us piling into my car before daybreak on a Saturday morning to follow a typhoon because my friend Roisin was a surfer and she really wanted to catch some big waves. What followed was the kind of ridiculous road trip you only get in movies. Totally reckless but utterly brilliant.
Did you experience the dreaded reverse culture shock when you returned home?
Yes, it was awful.
Everyone was so noisy, no-one understood personal space and there were far too many breakfast cereals to choose from.
I felt bereft for a while but as with all things time healed and it passed.
What did you do immediately after leaving JET?
I went to Malaysia for a month and travelled with a friend who came out to meet me from England. It was a bit like going into a decompression chamber.
Please can you summarise your career path since JET.
On my return I embarked on a Masters in Theatre for Development examining what constitutes poverty and how the Arts can help to alleviate cultural and spiritual poverty while having an improving impact on social and economic deprivation indicators. As part of my MA I spent three months doing field research on a Native Canadian Reservation in Alberta.
I believe implicitly in the power of the Arts to change lives and empower people and communities. With this in mind I began a career in Arts Education working in regional theatres as an Education Officer. I moved into venue management in 2001 and ran an arts centre and then a music venue, during this period I did everything from producing pantomimes to staging rock concerts.
In 2005 I became the Chief Executive of Circus Space which is the UK’s National Centre for Circus Arts. Housed in a magnificent Victorian Power Station in East London Circus Space involves thousands of people in the creation and performance of Circus Arts every year. In 2012 we trained 45 deaf and disabled artists to perform as part of the Opening Ceremony for the Paralympic Games. This year we have been awarded National status and will become the National Centre for Circus Arts.
Essentially, I ran away and joined the circus.
How has the experience of living in Japan helped/changed you/your perceptions?
I had always been a very direct person who tackled things head on, some might say like a bull in a china shop. My time in Japan taught me that there are many ways to solve a problem and sometimes the long way round is the quickest.
I missed the food dreadfully but now London is awash with terrific Japanese food, so I am well catered for. When I started to hunt for some photos for you I was also reminded as I searched that the one thing I still really miss is Hanami parties. Catching sight of a cherry blossom tree in spring always takes me back to Japan.
For a while I missed being surprised every day. It was a remarkable thing to be in a place that was so alien that even the most mundane things were extraordinary; being back in the UK felt very dull. Happily I have rediscovered that sense of wonder since I had my kids.
Do you have any advice for ALTs moving home and thinking about their post-JET careers?
You have been to the other side of the world and lived in an amazing place and had an incredible experience. This sets you apart. Do something that you really want to do.