This is what I’m talking about

English might not be the most widely spoken language in the world–that title may or may not go to Mandarin, the Chinese dialect favored by roughly one billion people worldwide*. However, given that better than 80% of those people are native Chinese speakers, it’s hard to make the case that Chinese has surpassed English as the world’s most ubiquitous language (yet).

As a result, there are lots of places one can go to teach English, many of them in foreign countries. A strong grasp of the language can take you to France, Korea, Ecuador, or Malaysia, and these are just the countries where friends of mine ended up. The list goes on.

So why Japan? I briefly touched on this question in the last post, but now I think I can offer a more definitive answer:

Unzen-Amakusa National Park

That’s a shot by someone named L Plater of my backyard. Unzen-Amakusa, apparently the oldest national park in Japan, is less than 10 miles from Minamishimabara. And while L Plater cites that these placid, inviting natural hot springs were used in the 16th century to drown Catholics who refused to renounce their faith, I have been assured that this is no longer standard practice.

So… yeah, that’s why Japan.

*Lots of debate as to the actual number of English speakers worldwide. Most estimates place native speakers at well under 500 million, but since so many people use English as a second- or third-language, the actual number is probably north of that. Most favorable estimate was 1.8 billion, but color me dubious.

Wait, what?

So I may have jumped the gun in that first post by not explaining at all what the JET Program is, why I am going to Japan, or where I’m actually going to be.

First things first: JET stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching and it is a program run by the Japanese government that recruits native English speakers to serve as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Japanese classrooms. The program started in 1987 and has grown considerably over the last 20 years–at the moment, there are about 4,500 JETs in Japan, representing 30+ countries. Not all of them are teaching English–some work to promote international relations at the level of local government while a few others act as a kind of “sports ambassador”–but ALTs do make up the vast majority of JET participants. As the largest English-speaking country in the world, America places more JETs than any other country, but there are sizable contingents from Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as well. Some JETs teach in elementary schools, some in middle and high schools, but often, a single JET will split his/her time between multiple schools and grade levels.

So that’s what the JET Program is, and by extension, an explanation for why I am going to Japan. Of course, that’s kind of a cop out, because I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to move to Japan, and I didn’t see an add in the classified section for “JETs WANTED.” My cousin was a JET in early days of the program (mid-90s) and that’s how it ended up on my radar in the first place. But my decision to apply was motivated by a variety of factors: the desire to live in another country, previously thwarted by the¬†goons in the Study Abroad Office at Tufts who barred me from studying overseas my junior year; my interest in pursuing some actual teaching experience before I pour years and money into an M.Ed; and, of course, a legitimate curiosity about Japan, stemming from an outstanding Japanese Lit course during that junior year stuck at Tufts.

As for where I’ll be, until a week ago, even I didn’t know the answer to that. The tripartite disaster that decimated Japan in mid-March understandably slowed the process, but last Thursday night, I learned that I’ll be living and working in Minamishimabara-shi, Nagasaki-ken. That’s South Shimabara City in the Nagasaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. For those unfamiliar with Japanese geography:

Prefecture map of Japan

Japan is broken up into four major islands: Honshu, the main island, has virtually all the big cities, like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Hokkaido is the second-biggest island by land area, but the coldest and most sparsely populated; as you can see, there are no lines on Hokkaido, because the entire island constitutes a single prefecture. Shikoku is the small, magenta island just south of Honshu. Kyushu is the gray, westernmost island of Japan; it is also the southernmost major island, excluding the chain of small islands known as the Ryukyu Islands that include Okinawa. For anyone who thinks I am crazy for going to Japan after a nuclear disaster, you can assuage those fears with the knowledge that I will be about 1,000 miles from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

This map isn’t detailed enough to show Minamishimabara, a relatively small city of around 50,000, but you can get an idea of its location based on where Nagasaki is. Nagasaki occupies an interesting place in Japanese history as, for hundreds of years, it was the only area in Japan where foreigners–gaijin–were allowed to live. For a time, many of these aliens were Christian missionaries, but when Japan closed itself off during the Tokugawa period, the missionaries were the first to go, leaving primarily Dutch merchants as the sole western presence in Japan. And, of course, Americans will recognize Nagasaki because it was the site of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan. Incidentally, the Memorial Day which commemorates the the lives lost in the bombing is August 9th, my first week in Japan. Not sure yet what to expect, but it will definitely be an opportunity for this gaijin to show some tact, delicacy, and respect.

Anyway, I’ll post again soon with more information about Minamishimabara, but in the meantime, I have to mail my visa application.

Sayonara for now.

Countdown to touchdown

Forty days and forty nights. That’s how much time I have left on American soil.

On July 30th, I’ll board an airplane at Boston-Logan airport, and after a quick transfer in Chicago, be on my way to parts unknown–unknown, at least, to me: the gaijin. “Gaijin” is a Japanese word that means foreigner, and if my conversations with JET alumni are any indication, I will be hearing it a lot. I’m not sure yet whether the word has a pejorative connotation, although it probably depends a lot on who is using it and in what context. Everything I’ve heard suggests that Americans could learn a thing or two about tolerance from the Japanese, but since there are xenophobes everywhere, I might as well start getting acquainted with outsider status.

And so–Enter the Gaijin. This is where I’ll begin to chronicle my experiences as an English teacher in Japan. Between now and my departure, as I prepare to leave, this space will likely be filled with equal parts excitement and anxiety, energetic fist-pumping and nervous hand-wringing. Consider this an open invitation to come along for the ride.

(DISCLAIMER: Given the strict weight limitations on luggage for international flights, you are not actually invited to come along for the ride.)