The Yomiuri ShimbunRachel Sweeney shares her experiences and insights as a JET Programme participant.
I’m Rachel Sweeney, a high school ALT in Kyotango, Kyoto Prefecture, from Indiana, USA. This is my second time in Japan but my first time living abroad. My hobbies include theater, hiking, reading, studying Japanese, running, and trying new foods!
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I’m a self-proclaimed homebody. On any given night you can find me curled up on my couch either reading a book or watching a movie. Upon moving to Japan I quickly became comfortable — admittedly a little too comfortable — in a solitary lifestyle. Everything made me nervous. Even the thought of going to the grocer filled me with anxiety, and I would only go under the cover of darkness just before closing. The fewer people I had to interact with, the better. I didn’t want to meet anyone new for fear of sounding like an absolute idiot when forced to use my limited Japanese. I was a bit of a recluse, and living in the countryside only reinforced a sense of isolation from the outside world. It was a rocky start to my new life in Japan.
But that was the cue for the countless people I have come across who have basically forced me into the Japanese lifestyle I came here envisioning. The Japanese people as a whole have an incredible sense of inclusivity when it comes to people from other countries. Perhaps it’s because they understand how difficult life can be here for someone who can’t speak the language well or who is rusty on the customs. This sense for sniffing out wayward foreigners like me makes being a hermit almost impossible. My previously empty after-school schedule quickly became full with kendo and karate practices, mutual language exchanges with local residents, family-style dinners that have taught me how to cook traditional and local dishes, and countless festivals and ceremonies to attend. A coworker once jokingly said to me, “You are more Japanese than the Japanese.”
But that goes to show the amazing Japanese power of making non-Japanese feel included. Many Japanese are so incredibly generous and unapologetically enthusiastic about sharing their culture, language, and livelihood that it’s impossible not to get swept up in the sensation that you are a part of something much bigger than yourself. The sense of community is overwhelming and it leaves one feeling full in a way that a giant bowl of ramen could never match.
At first, I thought that being placed in the countryside was a disappointment. If I had been presented with the opportunity to go back home within the first two months, no strings attached, I probably would have taken that offer. Now, though? Well, now I’ve realized that my journey is only beginning. I may always look like an outsider while living and working in Japan, but I have slowly discovered that it’s not always about how you look, your insecurities, or your fears. It’s about the power of the people who surround you.