Work as a JET CIR and Life in Japan
Contributed in Feb, 2009

Time flies when you’re having fun-I’ve yet to feel this more keenly than my abrupt realization that has been well over 2 years since I first set foot on the shirasu (volcanic ash) soils of Kagoshima, Japan. To sum up each and every fleeting moment of happiness, homesickness, wonder, perplexity and poignancy would be a most impossible task; however, a couple of impressions do stand out quite clearly from amongst the myriad of experiences gained in Japan.

As a Coordinator for International Relations (CIR), the bulk of my duties involve translating documents, letters, newsletters and acting as an interpreter for visiting officials or groups on exchange programmes, however it was the other part of a CIR’s responsibilities-grassroots international exchange, which had me stumped during my first year into the job.

Having been placed right in the centre of a fairly large city and living in a quiet apartment block, I was not sure where to start looking for that “local community” and embark on my ambitious plans for grassroots internationalisation. Before coming to Japan, I had envisaged myself in a quaint little town where everybody knew everyone and their dog. However, I found myself in an apartment, with the nearest rice paddies and quiet country lanes miles away. I would suffer pangs of envy whenever I heard about how the other JETs in rural areas had neighbours leaving piles of fruits, vegetables or sacks of rice on their doorsteps. It was not so much envy that they got free foodstuffs but rather the fact that they had neighbours they interacted with on a daily basis: my immediate neighbours consist of the stairs to my left and an empty apartment to my right. Of course I enjoyed the convenience and comforts that city life offers but I could not help but wonder where my captive audience for my internationalisation talks was.

This changed, when I had the opportunity to visit a small primary school situated on the active volcano, Sakurajima. The pride and joy of Kagoshima, Sakurajima, is an imposing volcano that rises majestically from the waters of the surrounding Kinko Bay. Despite the small island population, the islanders have their own primary schools and secondary schools. Unlike Singapore, where school mergers may occur due to a dwindling intake, the schools in Japan seldom do so and it was indeed a surprise to learn of a school with a grand total of 50 students. When I arrived at the school, I was surrounded by kids with beaming smiles and inundated with questions ranging from my age and birthday to the kinds of bugs Singaporean children play with, all while they clung to my hands, arms and legs. Bringing Singapore to the residents of Kagoshima- greater leaps were perhaps achieved through the mere 30 minutes of playtime with the schoolchildren than hours of presentations.

That one school visit was a startling reminder of something important that I had lost sight of. I had initially signed up for JET with the simple reason that I wanted to let the people of Japan put a face to the word Singaporean, to let them know of a Singapore that is more than just a “fine” city with a Merlion and no chewing gum. However, caught up in grand plans and ideas of presentations, events and festivals, I had forgotten about the simplicity and effectiveness of one-to-one communication and the importance of reaching out with my heart. Since then, I’ve started to take the initiative to really talk to people, be it while soaking my feet in the ashiyu (foot bath), eating at the local restaurants or pubs, at the hairdresser’s or even at the greengrocer’s.

This new awareness has also opened my eyes to the little things that make Japan unforgettable to most JETs: morning greetings from the people living in the same apartment block; greetings from passersby when I was trudging along a mountain road in Kirishima; the kind lady who not only moved to a different seat so that my mother and I could sit together but even offered to swap seats with my father seated at the other end of the train so that we could all seat together as a family; the co-worker who surprised me with cold medicine and lozenges after hearing me cough and wheeze. These are mementos that will not show on film, neither can they be put on display; however, they have left an indelible mark on me that will shape the rest of my life.