This time last year I was well into my first year on the JET Programme and coming to terms with my decision to recontract for another year. In December 2019 it was that time again to ask, was another year living in the Japanese countryside ‘to be or not to be?’
Last time I wrote list afterlist of the pros and cons of staying and it helped me to see that I still had a lot I wanted to do in Japan which outweighed the homesickness, missing friends, family and the home-comforts of accessible vegetarian food. I was and still am happy that I decided to stay for a second year.
This time, however, it was much a more turbulent decision. I’d flit between wanting to break contract early, feeling excited for a 3rd year to considering long term work in Japan. I ended up weighing up my decision right until the deadline.
Now that the decision is made though, I can safely say it was well thought out and I have nothing to regret. I’ve decided not to recontract for a third year and I’m going to chat through my main reasons why, starting from head and going to heart.
I’m hoping that this post will be useful for anyone in a similar situation; be it a career decision, relationship or anywhere you find yourself at a crossroads. I’m also writing this for myself, to mark another important decision in my life and because, someone very special to me once said, ‘the best thing for you is you’ and spending time with myself to write and reflect definitely feels like a positive thing to do.
1. Long-Term Goals
Starting with my head, I switched on adult mode and thought about the long-term. Very mature indeed Miss Langshaw. Now, while I’ve never been one to etch out my whole life, detail by detail, I usually have a hint as to what comes next. I pursue what I’m passionate about and go for the path with the most options.
This year I gained my TESOL qualification and so I had to ask, how could I use my third year, what would I gain that I hadn’t already, am I working towards the direction I want to head in?
A third year would allow me to network and improve my Japanese, which right now is conversational at best. When comparing this to the options of study, training and the variety of work experiences available outside of JET, it helped give me some perspective.
I’m 22 and pretty level-headed, so I need to get serious when it comes to a career. To answer my own question, I’m not sure what my long-term plan is but leaving JET allows me to work towards it and I’m motivated and exited to work hard finding out.
2. The Support Issue
Still at the ‘head’, the support I receive in Japan is another reason for my decision to leave. While JET may be a bubble, there are times when it lacks cushioning and it’s unfortunate that these times came when I needed cushioning the most.
I’ve had a few rough spots on JET and it’s sad to say that in these times of need, I received little support from the people I relied on, both in and out of work. In some cases, seeking support turned out to be more detrimental and it was at these times I found myself disappointed.
This became crystal clear with the death of my dad, which happened at the immediate birth of my second JET year. It’s the hardest news I’ve ever been dealt and ever since I’ve been left feeling numb, overwhelmed and disconnected all at once.
I usually feel like an old radio, frantically switching between glaring static and beaming clarity and even then, I felt unsupported, whip-lashed from words of comfort to cold and unforgiving expectations. While this lack of support has been useful, allowing me to become more resourceful and independent; there are occasions when support is a necessity.
3. Avoiding Avoidance
The ‘JET is a bubble’ phrase I used earlier was also used at this year’s Skills Development Conference by Greg Rammit to describe the comforts and cushiness of the programme. While I did find myself unsupported in some areas, I’m also aware of the other side of the coin. Prime example: having an English-speaking supervisor meant that all the admin of expat life was smoothed out.
It was easy at times to think of another year of security in my awesome mountain house, surrounded by breath-taking sunsets, monkeys, ideal running routes, financial security and endless travel opportunities. Plus, I’d have more time to keep strengthening friendships and doing what I love from tea ceremony to onsen, zazen mediation to visiting organic markets.
There came a time, though, where I had to be straight with myself and realise that I was idealising Japan as a form of avoidance; ignoring all the flaws in Japan and the all the benefits of the UK in one giant, anxious swoop. It had become Utopian Japan vs. UK, the Lawless Pile of Rubble. All because life on JET had become my security net.
Now I know my hometown isn’t the dream come true, tucked into the Northwest armpit of the UK, suicide capital and home to around 10 pound-shops. I also know that it isn’t the dystopia I’d created it to be and staying in Japan to avoid it isn’t what I want to do.
This was hard thing to accept, especially when taking on other people’s opinions. When people said to ‘stay in Japan, there’s nothing here to come back to!’ ‘This place is a shithole’ or ‘Japan is such an adventure!’ I let it influence me and lead me to feeling like leaving JET would be a failure.
This was silly for two reasons, one because other people aren’t me, and their opinions didn’t apply very well to my life. I’ve lived in Japan for two years and life here has become my norm; so for me leaving Japan is the real adventure.
Being away has given me perspective that lets me feel excited about all the things I used to take for granted. It’s like having your nose pressed up against a Salvador Dali painting and coming to Japan has allowed me to step back and see all the crazy, lovable chaotic details. I’ve missed the warmth and community of home, the stunning countryside, fireplaces and immersion I literary culture that’s woven into the country’s very fibre.
Reason number two- I’d become obsessed with polarity. It doesn’t have to be right vs wrong, stay vs leave (ring any bells Britons?) or even Japan vs UK. I was arrogant in the thought that coming home equated to ‘how the mighty had fallen’ and naïve to think that leaving meant losing everything I’ve gained; but Japan hadn’t made me mighty.
My sister told me this, while we waited for our chippy lunch, she said that Japan wasn’t in all the good I achieved, I was. She was right. My growth and overcoming of obstacles was all down to me. In the same way that Japan isn’t responsible for my rise, wherever I go to next won’t be responsible if I fall. If I stop running and gain weight, it won’t be the UK’s fault, or my mum’s fault for making amazing scouse. My growth is my responsibility and this decision has made me ready to take it.
In Salman Rushdie’s amazing new novel, The Golden House, I read something that has really helped me out.
‘The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home’ – Theodor W Adorno.
Rushdie’s narrator writes about the heroism of being ‘uncomfortable with the comfortable, uneasy about the easy, to question the assumptions of what is usually, and happily, taken for granted.’ While heroism might be a bit of a stretch, you can’t deny the benefit of change and gratitude, even at the cost of a little discomfort.
Right now, I’ve gotten as much out of this experience that I can, I’ve been too good at making myself at home and so it’s really difficult to leave. This might not be permanent, but right now there’s more growth for me outside of JET. Besides, I would rather burst the JET bubble on my own terms than be pushed out kicking, screaming and clinging to my kei car.
5. For the love of…
Time for the soppy ‘heart’ reasons!
Japan and JET
Despite all of the problems I’ve faced during my time in Japan, I cannot forget how amazing an experience this has been. I’ve done, seen, tried and overcome so many things and met so many inspiring and interesting people (and have a fair bit of time to continue to do so). I’m living in a place that I wouldn’t have even known about in other circumstances and instead I’ve had the priviledge of waking up every morning to an awe-inspiring mountain-scape (or a giant duvet of fog in winter). The nature in my town is unparalleled, and it could be the most beautiful place that I will ever visit.
Location isn’t the only thing. I’ve found myself in a job that I love with effortless passion and the community that I belong to in all of my schools, especially my two primary schools, is the hardest thing to leave behind.
Every interaction from 8:10 to 4:30 at my schools is a treasure and my kids are getting an unfair deal; exciting English classes in exchange for constant reminders that life isn’t as dark as it seems, the ability to find wonder in the little things and to be able to laugh at myself.
Holding these kids together, and sometimes physically pulling them apart, are the most-hardworking teachers I’ve ever met. Piecing together Japanese and English, supporting each other and sharing those looks when it’s just one of those days has made some pretty strong and hilarious patchwork friendships.
Leaving JET is not leaving Japan or the experience and relationships that I’ve made while I’m here. I want to continue to love it and this decision ensures that I will for a very long time. I had to come to terms that leaving Japan would divide me, but I was already divided. The second I joined the JET programme, I split myself in two. But I guess it’s like a kind of mitosis, dividing as necessity to growth.
Now more than ever, I understand the importance of family and my relationship with my mum and sister is one that deserves care. It’s singular, we’re the three blind mice, stumbling through life together knowing we have each other’s constant support, no matter what we do or where we are. While I have some good relationships here in Japan, most of these relationships (largely due to my temporary place here) are quite rigid or distant and I miss those genuine relationships, where you can be yourself without feeling self-conscious.
When I travelled home for Christmas this winter break, I had my family waiting at the airport and I was home. This feeling of warmth came over me and stayed throughout my time at home. It was the best place that I could have spent the first Christmas without my dad, the only place that it was in anyway bearable.
Even when his absence was everywhere, from his abundance of company pens peppered the house to his office building, visible anywhere in my hometown, to the thousands of little reminders of him in all of those nooks and crannies I’d forgotten about.
It was hard being home, surrounded by the memory of my dad. But it was also necessary. You’re supposed to feel bad when you lose someone, especially when it’s someone so important. It’s part of grief and I’m happy I got to go through that, even if only for a short time, with people who understand and love me.
Leaving Japan does mean leaving behind some genuine relationships, but I know that I’m going to work my arse off to keep them going, and that I’ll be going home, for a while at least, to some very special people.
Little Old Me
My decision to leave JET and how I made it has simultaneously helped me learn more about myself and sculpt who I will become. I asked myself the same question as last year, to be or not to be? Last year it was to be. I would stay in Japan for another year and explore. This year it is to be, I’m heading back to the UK to start my next adventure.
In Japan they say that everything has its place, that there’s a time for everything. When it’s time you enjoy it and when that time passes you think of it fondly and look forward to its coming again.
Love Jess x