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June 5, 2022

Kentucky to Kibichuo - My JET Program Journey

“It is our great pleasure to inform you that you have successfully passed the final stage of the screening process for the 2018 JET Program and are being offered a spot on the Short-List for August 4th departure as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT).”

Saturday, March 24th, 2018. After two years of dreaming, I finally received the email that everything that I had worked for was coming together.

I didn’t know where I would go, or what the future held for me, but I knew that I was going

The first time I heard of the JET Program, I was a sophomore in college. It was my third day of Japanese class, which I was taking because I was planning to study psychology in Japan for a semester.

Up until that point the only thing I knew about Japan was sushi and anime. But there, projected on a foggy screen in Faculty Hall at Murray State University, was the recognizable JET logo - a silhouette of a teacher and student reaching towards one another.

I didn’t know that those few PowerPoint slides from Hatakeyama-sensei would carve my entire life path. I had never heard of teaching abroad before. I was most definitely not a teacher. But, it stayed with me, in a little corner in the back of my mind. Soon after finishing my semester abroad, I knew this was what I was meant to do.

Whether or not I was going to spend my entire life in Japan was still undecided, but I knew in my core that I was going back. I was going to pursue this career for however many years I felt was right; I was going to do whatever it took to get there.

And I did.

The JET program application is known for being long. It took several months to compile reference letters and craft the perfect statement of purpose - the most difficult part. How was I to sell myself on why I was the perfect applicant to be sent overseas and represent my country? In the end I wrote from the heart, the words flowing naturally and fitting just into the required 2 Microsoft Word pages. 

I was fortunate that my university’s Japanese department was so thorough, with amazing connections. My pages passed through the hands of several professors, gifted in language and life experience.

When, finally, it was complete, I sealed all documents in an envelope to Washington D.C. 

From there it was a two month wait until January when I finally received the email that I passed the initial screening and was invited to interview at my nearby Nashville consulate. I was also ecstatic to know that one of my closest friends, whom I roomed with when I did my one month study abroad program in 2017, would be interviewing the same time as me.

We went together, all dolled up in our very first professional suits. It was a short interview, but my nerves were on fire the entire time. I had never wanted something so badly in my life, and if I failed this part it was over. I would have to wait another year to reapply. 

It was an agonizing two more months before the results were sent out. 

When I opened the email, I cried. I knew that what was to come would be the greatest adventure of my life. More than that, I had succeeded in the one thing that I wanted the most.

That was almost four years ago, and I’ve since finished my time with the JET Program. I can say with 100% certainty it was nothing that I had imagined it would be, and it ultimately forced me to face some demons within myself, but it crafted me into who I am today.  

Exactly as the email said, I departed Nashville, TN on August 4th, 2018. The previous night the entire departure “class” was treated to a grand buffet at the consulate general’s home. Open bar to boot. I might have still been a little drunk boarding the plane the next day, but that’s the power of umeshu. 

It was a quick flight to Dallas Fort Worth, and from there a grueling leg to Tokyo. We landed in the pit of summer, when Tokyo swelters like a cauldron. Even inside Narita Airport’s air conditioning, everyone was drenched. I tied my shirt up into a crop top to try and help with the heat, and was soon met with judging eyes from our guide. “Aren’t you cold?” She asked me. It took every single thing in me not to snap. After almost a full day of flying, no sleep, no shower, and in this heat, this is what I’m greeted with? An inadvertent cover yourself ?

But, years later, I still choose to dress how I want - crop tops and all.

After that came three days of Tokyo Orientation. It was the first time in my life having to wear a suit multiple days in a row, to my indignation, but I complied because I was in Tokyo!

The days were full of lectures, pamphlet handouts, and lunches celebrated with people from around the world. It was where I made connections and new friends, which gave me reasons to travel to new prefectures to meet.

After the grueling sun set, and the conferences closed, the nights were filled with catching up with old friends and izakaya hopping. I rediscovered my love for highballs in Shibuya, and chased it down with some more umeshu. Fresh out of college, I had a much higher tolerance than I do now.

But those days ended, and I parted from the metropolis, trading Tokyo tower for towering bamboo thickets. 

My group boarded the plane to Okayama bright and early that morning, which suited the jetlagged group just fine. Most of us had been awake since 3am. 

Okayama Momotaro Airport is only a 45 minute flight from Tokyo, and from there to the place I’d spend the next three years, was a short 20 minute drive.

Kibichuo. 

I was collected from the airport by my supervisor, and put in a lego-like van. Even though I’d studied Japanese for years, both in the country and at university, my language ability was elementary at best. I did my best to make conversation, but ultimately had to rely on English and translators.

My new home was a humble place, a small block of mini houses owned by the board of education. It was smaller than an American apartment, but that suited me fine.

Up until that point I had been living in a whirlwind, and had not once allowed myself to come down. Flying was exhilarating; Tokyo was a dreamland. 

As soon as I put my suitcases in my apartment, I was whisked away shopping by my wonderful, motherly supervisor. Still not a moment’s rest. She made sure I had food to last for weeks, and that my apartment was completely up to my standards. My hand was held through every step of the way.

But, when 6pm rolled around, and I was dropped off, I suddenly realized how very much alone I was. For the first time in my entire life, I had no friends, no family, and even no neighbors nearby. When I opened my suitcase, which had been sent from Tokyo airport to my apartment on my behalf, reality sunk in.

Though this was now my third time in Japan, I was here to stay. There was no going back in a few months’ time. This was it. This was my life. 

The breaking point came when I unpacked my photos, and placed a picture of my dog on the fridge. When the magnet snapped, so did I.

I cried. I bawled. It was ugly, raw, and the high I had been feeling for the past week came crashing down. 

I have always been open about my struggles with anxiety, but I had always had help before. Who did I go to now? I knew no one other than the friends I had made during Tokyo orientation, but how could I message these people I barely knew that I was breaking down when they were probably settling in themselves, too?

All of my friends in the states were sleeping. 

It was just me now, and I had to handle it. 

I did not finish unpacking. Instead, I took a shower, realizing I was drenched in sweat. The air conditioning didn’t reach past my bedroom.

I slept unsoundly that night, tossing and turning, the sounds of monkeys crying in the thickets behind my apartment and the cicadas never ending hum keeping me awake. Now, years later and a journey fought, they are sounds that comfort me, reminding me of the place that turned from a prison to a home. 

It took time, a long time, to get used to living in the Japanese countryside. There were things I liked, like the rolling mountains and friendliness of the locals.

There were even things I loved, like the freshness of the local produce the neighborhood grandmas left on my doorstep.

There were things that took getting used to, like going to the local gas station in winter to fill up my kerosene tanks in order to heat my home properly. It took me a long time to figure out how to sort my garbage properly (which, four years later, I am still not very good at).

There were things I even disliked, such as the lack of a train station. Even in the most remote Japanese towns, there is usually a train that comes twice a day - but not here. I had to rely on driving (which is expensive in Japan). I am also a social person by nature, so being over an hour away from grocery stores and my friends was very hard for me. It ultimately took a toll on my mental health, but it taught me a lot about learning to enjoy my own company.

I settled into my routine of working. My schedule was more heavily packed compared to other JETs. I was placed in four schools - three elementary, and one junior high school. On elementary days, I was required to teach six classes at two schools. I changed schools during my lunch break. Most JETs have ample downtime at school, but mine kept me bustling busy at every chance.

In the winter of my first year, I was named my town's police chief for a day at an event. I was interviewed on the news more times than I can remember. At school the next day, it never failed that I was the hot topic of gossip. "Marie-sensei was on the news!"

I made lifelong friends. I spent my winters lounging under a kotatsu in a tiny cafe in a traditional Japanese house. I walked through cherry blossom tunnels in the spring. I traveled in the summers.

The seasons changed, and covid hit halfway through my second year. It was not hard to social distance in my town with such a small population.

I originally planned on only staying in Kibichuo for two years, but I extended my contract for a third year so that I would have a place to ride out the pandemic in. In hard times, Kibichuo offered me shelter in an unstable world.

Time passed, and my JET Program journey began its final chapter. It was nothing like I expected - but when are things ever? I was given a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in my inaka town, and I can only hope that my students learned as much from me as I learned from them.

When I first arrived, I was put in charge of teaching the first grade at my junior high school. I continued to be their teacher through the next three years. These students did not know that I was fresh out of college with no idea with what I was doing with my life. They saw me as a new teacher who could teach them English and tell them about the world.

I wonder if they ever knew how much I was growing with them.

March, 2021, I watched them walk their last steps through the school and say goodbye after a tearful graduation ceremony. We took pictures, and I received heartfelt letters that I will keep for the rest of my life. They may not know how much they meant to me, how much they taught me, but I know the reason I was put in Kibichuo was to grow with these students.

As their junior high school life chapter closed, I knew that my time in Kibichuo was waning. It was time for me to move on as well.

My JET Program journey was the catalyst to becoming an adult. Deep in the heart of the Japanese mountains, I grew into who I was supposed to be.

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