Ciara Kenny

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Teaching English and exchanging cultures in Japan

Teaching English to children in a remote Japanese village was one of the highlights of my life, and I now help to prepare other Irish teachers for the trip, writes Naomi Crosbie-Iwasaki.

Sat, Jul 7, 2012, 10:52


Teaching English to children in a remote Japanese village was one of the highlights of my life, and I now help to prepare other Irish teachers for the trip, writes Naomi Crosbie-Iwasaki.

Naomi teaching English at Kindergarten in Umaji

I was born to an Irish mother and a Japanese father. I grew up in Dublin, but I have always been curious about my non-Irish side. I first visited Japan when I was a teenager. I spoke no Japanese and had to shadow my father as he introduced me to my extended family. It was after this first encounter with Japanese culture that I wanted my own personal Japanese experience.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I first heard about the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme. I attended a presentation at my college and was encouraged to apply by the enthusiasm and passion expressed by the JET coordinator. I was initially hesitant to apply as I had no Japanese ability, teaching experience and I was terrible at spelling. However, these fears were put to rest when I was told that such qualifications would be useful but weren’t necessary. My degree in physics was also not an issue. The free return flights and €32,000 a year certainly sweetened the deal.

The JET application process is not easy. There is stiff competition with only 30 per cent of applicants accepted. There are many forms to complete, certificates to be obtained, and references and transcripts to chase up. It may seem like a lot of preparation, but it is well worth it in the end.

Hurling at Umaji Elementary School

There were only 30 outgoing JETs from Ireland in my year. We all thought the 200 or so UK JETs that we shared a plane with were a big group, but little did we know what was ahead of us. The introductory orientation is held in one of the biggest hotels in Tokyo, with about 1,500 new JETs attending meetings, presentations on life and work in Japan and receptions. The three-day orientation flew by in a blur of conference rooms, neon lights and some slight foolery in a karaoke bar, and before I knew it I was in a countryside airport meeting my new colleagues.

My placement was in the tiny mountain village of Umaji in Kochi Prefecture on the smallest of the four main islands of Japan, Shikoku. With a population of 1,000 people and 97 per cent forest, it’s about a rural as you can get. The best comparison is to imagine a Japanese person finding themselves landed in a village in Kerry without any English.

It was hard enough dealing with life in a completely new country and culture, but they all spoke in a language completely different from what the practice CDs had promised! I was a little worried at how the villagers would take to a loud, clumsy Irish girl trampling around the village. I was very nervous during these first few days and wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into.

To my delight, the people of Umaji were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Everywhere I went people were eager to meet me and invite me to events. I spent my first weekend playing with some students in the local river, introducing myself as I wandered about, and eating and drinking with some of the local older gents. This village was slowly but surely becoming the place for me.

Making pizza with English conversation class

My first lessons were scary. I had never taught anything before and I couldn’t speak much Japanese – the two things I thought would be essential for teaching. My first few lessons were a bit confusing for all involved but little by little I soon got to grips with becoming a teacher.

I think the main thing to remember on JET is that you will never change the Japanese educational system and it will certainly not change for you. You have to learn to adapt and make a place for yourself there. It is a JET’s job to make English interesting, relevant and exciting to the students and teachers. However, it could be argued that the most successful and most important part of the programme is international exchange. I often focused on Irish life and culture inside and outside of the classroom.  I’m quite proud of the fact there is a small part of Japan where the children love hurling.

I really bonded and became part of my village in Japan over the three years I lived there. I see my time in Japan as a very positive and unique experience. Given the chance, I wouldn’t change my mountain placement for the centre of Tokyo. There are a number of ways Japan has left its mark on me and I can hope the same can be said for my presence in the small village of Umaji.

Now as the 2012 JET Coordinator I have had the delight of preparing 39 young Irish JETs for life in Japan. I have seen them through the entire application process and with a tear in my eye, I’ll be waving goodbye to them in the airport on 28th July. I hope their experiences will be as rewarding and life changing as mine.

The JET Programme in Ireland is open to any Irish passport holder with a Bachelor’s degree in any discipline. Other nationalities should contact the Embassy of Japan in their respective countries for information. Recruitment for the 2013 programme will start in September 2012 and the application forms will be available online. See for more information.