Category Archives: Japan

Three Little Things on the Third Anniversary of 311

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the March 11, 2011 triple disasters that ravaged the northeast coast of Japan.  As always, my thoughts are with the families still grieving the loss of loved ones, and those who struggle to find normalcy in a forever changed landscape overcome by nuclear disaster and uncertainty.  I’m in the process of writing a story about a Chicago photographer and sociologist who recently toured a town near the Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Fukushima and will share that soon.  In the meantime, below are some links of interest regarding the current state of Tohoku and its ongoing recovery.

Tohoku Tomo – a documentary made by three Chicago JET Alumni about the rebuilding efforts in Tohoku. The film premieres tomorrow at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Tohoku Tomo 東北友 – Teaser from Tohoku Tomo on Vimeo.

Unknown Spring – “an anthology projects that bears witness to the ongoing recovery in Tohoku.” A short documentary of the project can be viewed on Vimeo.

Fukushima: Don’t Forget – Stories of five Fukushima residents from Greenpeace International.

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High-Speed Rail, Japan & the Midwest

The list of things I miss (and don’t miss) about Japan is long and complicated. But without a doubt, the efficiency and thoroughness of Japan’s high-speed rail system is high on the list of things I wish existed in the Midwest.  I explore this issue in my latest “Letters from Japan” series at Gapers Block

Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 2)

This is the fourth article in a series about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) and about life in Japan in general.  Read Transition Japan: The JET Interview (Part 1) here.

I interviewed for JET four years ago, and while my memory of the day becomes less strong every year, I still remember walking down Michigan Avenue to the Chicago Consulate on a sunny February afternoon, hoping that in a few months, I would be on my way to a new adventure (and full-time employment).  Luckily, I succeeded. Below are some questions I recall being asked by my panel.  Good luck to all those interviewing for JET this month!

1). Why are you interested in the program?

How I answered it: I’ve long been interested in teaching abroad.  As a writer, I think it’s important to always explore and experience different cultures and see the world from a new perspective.  I’m also interested in giving back to the community, and I see the JET Program as the most established program to accomplish these goals.

Bottom line: Answer honestly and thoughtfully, but make sure not to say it’s solely for personal reasons (i.e. a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend).

2). What would you do if you had plans with a friend after school one day but a Japanese English teacher asked you to stay late?

How I answered it: I’d stay after school but hope in the future, the teacher and I would be able to communicate more effectively about our schedules.

Bottom line: Demonstrate professionalism and that you can handle tough situations with grace and with a smile, even if you don’t know the exact solution immediately.

3). What are some of your goals?

How I answered it: Since I’m trained as a journalist, I’d love to start a newspaper with my students.  I think it would be a great way to get to know my students.

Bottom line: Talk about your passions and what you’d like to teach your students, or how you’d like to interact with them outside of class, be it through sports, art or other extracurricular activities.

4). What if you get there and you can’t do that?

How I answered it:  Well, I’d move forward but hope I could find other ways to get to know my students.  I have enough work experience to understand that no job is perfect, but I know how to work hard.   Interesting note: When I got to my school, I asked about creating a newspaper with them or writing a column for my students’ existing newsletter. I was told no (politely) but luckily moved on and still had a great time at my school.

Bottom line: Once again, show that you’re professional and that you won’t be dismayed when something doesn’t go your way.  Chances are, you’ll be told “no” on a lot of occasions, but that shouldn’t stop you from achieving your goals and being a successful JET.

5).  You wrote in your application that you lived and worked in Ireland after graduation.  Did you experience any culture shock there?

How I answered it:  Yes, I still remember asking a bus driver for directions using a street name.   He laughed and told me that streets in Dublin change names every few blocks.  All the streets were so circular that I got lost constantly.  But there wasn’t a language barrier, and lots of people thought I was Irish, so I didn’t have too much culture shock.  I think being in Japan will be more challenging, but in some ways, I think not knowing the language is an advantage because my students will be forced to use English with me. (Note: When I said this last comment, I received some strange looks from the former JET participants. Now I know why.  You MUST study Japanese during JET to have a more meaningful experience, but I still believe in only using English in the classroom and as much as possible with your students).

Bottom line: If you have studied or lived abroad, show that you know how to handle culture shock. If you haven’t studied abroad, that’s OK! Just demonstrate that you have an open mind and can overcome challenges/bouts of homesickness.

6). Tell us about your placement preferences.

How I answered it:  I put anywhere near Kyoto as my first choice because I visited there once before and thought the city was a perfect mix of old and new. Side note: Little did I know that 1,000,000 others also probably placed Kyoto as their first choice.  I now laugh at the fact that I thought I had a chance of being placed anywhere near there.

Bottom line: Be honest about your reasons, but show you’re flexible too.

7). What would do if you didn’t get placed in a city (which was my first choice)?

How I answered it:  I’ll be honest and I say I wouldn’t be the happiest because I think I thrive in cities, but I’d make the best of the situation. (Note: I was placed in a small seaside town/ sleepy suburb of Toyama-shi, far from the fame of any major Japanese city!)

Bottom line:  Show you’re willing to move almost anywhere in Japan (country, suburb, city, north, south, east, west, islands).  Unless there is a specific medical reason you need to be somewhere, your placement choices probably don’t really matter.

Sayonara, Japan – A Photo Essay

The biggest decision I made in 2013 was moving from Japan back to Chicago.  Although I’m looking forward to establishing a career in America, I miss my Japanese friends and my daily life there.  Thankfully, I have hundreds of photos to remind me of the gentleness, beauty and challenges of life in Japan.  Below are 12 photos representing my year, and many of them were taken in Japan.  As always, thank you for traveling with me.  I’m looking forward to a great 2014, and I wish you all a prosperous New Year.  For the extra curious, see my 2010 in photos here, 2011 here and 2012 here.

JANUARY

I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s holidays in America (overhyped & overpriced) but New Year’s Day in Japan is more like Christmas in America — the days leading to January 1st are meant for reflection and quality time spent with family.  On New Year’s Day, many Japanese people visit shrines or temples to pray for a healthy year.  I rung in 2013 at Ishite-ji Temple and on January 1st, I visited Matsuyama Castle for kakizome (writing the first kanji of the year).

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FEBRUARY

On a balmy Sunday in early February, I traveled to Gogoshima Island to harvest mikan (oranges) on a steep mountain.  We sent 32 boxes of fresh oranges to the people of Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster still impacts so many.

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MARCH

The innocent faces of these two sisters, who were playing drums at a festival in Matsuyama, brightened the day of so many.

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APRIL

I had too many cherry blossom photos to choose from.  And while I don’t think this is necessarily my best picture, I couldn’t resist the chance to see sakura up close one last time.  The image of thousands of sakura petals falling to the ground every April is something I will always remember about Japan.

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MAY

I also had too many photos to choose from in May thanks to many travels, but May marked the first time I returned to my Japanese hometown of Toyama.  I bicycled to my junior high school on a cool spring day and was awestruck once again by the might of the Tateyama Mountain Range.

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JUNE

I took this photo with my old iPhone, so it’s not the clearest.  But to me, this picture describes the dissonance often apparent in so many aspects of Japanese culture.

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JULY

My friend Tsuneo-san took me to the top of Mt. Ishizuchi to see a spectacular sunrise.  I easily consider this one of the most serene views I have ever seen.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to live in another country other than my own, and to see life from completely different perspectives.  This picture reminds me that even through a sea of clouds, the sun always emerges eventually.

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AUGUST

As my time in Japan came to a close, Tsuneo-san and another friend took me to see an equally amazing sunset overlooking the Shimanami Kaido Bridges, which connect Shikoku Island to the mainland.

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SEPTEMBER

My last month in Japan.  In my three years in Japan, I experienced so much — earthquakes, typhoons, confusion beyond expression.  And yet I survived it all and loved so much about my time abroad, in particular the gentle people who I met and now hold in my heart forever.  I’m not the same person I was before Japan and will never be.  I climbed mountains with amazing friends, and always enjoyed the view, even on cloudy days.  Japan isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful time. (Pic is from the top of Mt. Tsurugi in Tokushima, the second highest mountain in Shikoku.)

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OCTOBER

And so I began my new journey in Chicago.  I was delighted to be around family again but also experienced frustrating moments where sometimes, I felt like an alien in a strange new country called America.

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NOVEMBER

Even though I visited my family every summer during my three years in Japan, I have realized that I also missed so much in my time away.  So, I’m especially happy to have moments now where I can reconnect with my family and learn more family history.  In November, for the first time, my father and I visited the grave of his maternal grandparents, who dedicated their plot to their son, my father’s biological father, who was killed in WWII.  Sound confusing?  Life almost always is.  Read more about the story here.

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DECEMBER

Footprints in the snow on a sidewalk near my parents’ house.  As I write this, Chicago is battling brutally cold, sub-zero weather that has forced schools and some businesses to close for two days in a row.  I’m also waiting to hear back about a job that I hope to get.  So I’ve been spending more of my days inside close to my computer and phone rather than outside.  But as I continue on my journey and new life, I’ll always consider myself a seeker, hoping to leave some sort of positive imprint in the world.

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Sunset Journeys

I feel sad that I haven’t had time to write as much as I would liked to this year.  My job keeps me quite busy everyday, and when I’m not working, I am trying to explore Ehime (and Japan) as much as possible.  Thanks to the help of my gracious students, I recently had the opportunity to see two beautiful sunsets.  The first was near Imabari City, home of the spectacular Shimanami Kaido Bridge, which connects Shikoku with Japan’s main island (Honshu).  The second was from Futami Beach in Ehime, a popular place for tourists and locals, mainly because of the stunning sunset that can be seen from the beach.  I suppose it’s fitting that I post two pictures of sunsets, as in exactly one month, I will be returning to America.  I’ll soon be reflecting more about my time in Japan, and chronicling more “Stories from the Inaka” as I look back on my three amazing years in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Sunset over Shimanami Kaido Bridge.

Sunset over Shimanami Kaido Bridge.

Sunset over Futami Beach in Futami, Ehime.

Sunset over Futami Beach in Futami, Ehime.