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JET Program Nears its 30th Year

Midori Aoki

Nov. 18, 2015

Every year, a few thousand young people from around the world arrive in Japan to help students learn English at schools across the country. They're part of the government's Japan Exchange and Teaching program, better known as JET. Since the first recruits arrived in 1987, more than 60,000 people from 65 countries have been part of the program.

Last week, 12 JET alumni came back to Japan as part of the run-up to the program's 30th anniversary. They've all maintained their ties with the country and say their experiences impacted their lives.

One of those to return is Fiona Uyema, who lives in Ireland, but still treasures what she discovered in Japan. One of those things is cuisine, and at a recent food festival in the medieval Irish city of Kilkenny, she demonstrated how to make hand-rolled sushi. She explained to visitors that they can use local-available ingredients, such as trout roe, and assured them that making Japanese food is not too challenging.

Fiona arrived in Japan on the JET program in 2002 and taught English for two years in a small community in the central prefecture of Niigata.

A few years after returning home, she was diagnosed with cancer and had to go through chemotherapy. She says that at the time she only ate Japanese food. "It was the one thing that I could eat and feel good about afterwards and easily digest," she recalls. "I found that the Japanese food helped me to get better and helps me to keep well today."

Fiona started with simple recipes she'd learned in Japan, making them every day. She regained her health and now has two sons. Japanese food became her passion and then developed into a profession. She published her first Japanese cookbook in September and has been travelling around Ireland for book signing events.

Last week, Fiona brought her family to Niigata for the first time. She was looking forward to introducing them to an elderly couple, Makoto and Mitsuko Kikuiri. She first experienced the taste of local rice and vegetables thanks to them and their farm. "Their rice was so delicious," Fiona recalls "And it felt so good to eat local rice made by a local rice farmer."

Fiona wanted to learn more about local cuisine from her long-time friends and got a recipe for food often made at New Years. "When something is in season, Japanese people eat it, like kaki fruit (persimmon), or chestnuts in rice. And then it's quite simple. They let the food taste come through, the natural taste, so it's not overpowered."

Fiona also visited the junior high school where she used to teach. She wanted to see the cafeteria, where the offerings on the day of her visit included rice, salad, sautéed pork and vegetable soup, all freshly prepared in the school kitchen, using locally-sourced ingredients.

Fiona says child obesity is becoming a serious problem in Ireland and the care the Japanese take over food for children offers valuable lessons. "Japanese food definitely saved me," she says. "And even if people take only a few elements from the Japanese way of eating, then I think it will help with how healthy they are and how long they live."

Fiona says her two years on the JET program changed her life and she wants to continue being a bridge between Japan and Ireland as long as she can.


Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu were joined in the studio by Fiona Uyema and NHK WORLD senior correspondent Miki Ebara.

Shibuya: Fiona, how was it that you got interested in Japan and the JET program in the first place?

Uyema: Well, I studied international marketing and Japanese in college. I really enjoyed studying that and wanted to come live in Japan. And the JET program is a great way to do that, because I got involved in community, and an opportunity to do something I love, which is teaching.

Shibuya: The community in Niigata where you stayed was remote and quite small, wasn't it?

Uyema: That's right. You think it would be harder, but because it is such a close-knit community, people were very welcoming. They invited me to take part in their community, with their calligraphy, dancing club and hiking. So I really became a member of the community. And as a result of that, I learned so much about their culture and food. I was always asking them questions about food, and they also happy to teach me things that I brought back to my country.

Shibuya: But I imagine it must have been difficult to teach and live there.

Uyema: It was definitely challenging to be the only foreigner in the village there. I was lucky enough to have some language, so that did help. I suppose if you didn't speak any Japanese, that would be a challenge. So learning some Japanese is something I would encourage people to do if they do go.

Shibuya: It seems the experience changed your life.

Uyema: That's right. Thanks to the JET program, my profession is now Japanese cuisine, cooking Japanese food and teaching it to people in my country. So I go around Ireland giving Japanese cooking demonstrations and cooking classes. And I was very lucky recently to publish my first cookbook. In that there are really a lot of stories about my time in Japan, and things that I learned when I was in Japan on the JET program.

Shibuya: What about the food culture itself? The students are preparing and serving their own food.

Uyema: That is something I was really intrigued with, the Japanese lunch culture. From such a young age, children learn how to respect food, and not have many leftovers. It is something I would love to bring back to my country, how they such a balanced meal every day.

Beppu: Miki, the Japanese government is aiming to boost English education for children before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with the help of JETs like Fiona. What's the plan?

Ebara: Currently there are about 4,400 JETs that are active as ALTs, or Assistant Language Teachers. But the organizers are planning to increase the number to about 6,400 by 2019. JETs are an essential part of English education in this country. But of course, hiring one JET isn't free for the host community. Program organizers tell me the annual cost is a bit over 40,000 dollars including travel expenses, salary, social benefits etc. So it could create a burden on less wealthy communities. The government is planning to cover the cost by allocating tax money to local governments. This would avoid disparities between rich and not-so-rich cities or towns.

Beppu: The JET program began in the days when trade friction was badly straining Japan-US ties. Has the program brought any benefits to Japan's diplomacy?

Ebara: The program has produced a lot of people who are knowledgeable about Japan and really understand the Japanese people and culture. The average age of JETs is 26 years old. They're quite young, and many don't lose ties with Japan even after they go home, as was the case with Fiona. In terms of diplomacy, for instance, the US State Department has about 120 officials who are JET alumni. Just this June, they established an alumni group. Countries like Australia and Canada have a considerable number of former JETs as diplomats at their embassies in Tokyo. Also now the program has a few hundred people who work as International Relations Coordinators in local governments. Many are from Asian countries such as China, South Korea and Thailand. So they don't just come to teach English and then go home. Former JET members have become a valuable asset for Japan, to help Japan have closer ties with the world.

Beppu: This year a new batch of JETs are now in many parts of Japan. Fiona, what's your message to them from someone who's experienced it?

Uyema: For the JETs going out, I would advise them to embrace Japanese culture and to definitely learn some Japanese language. And when you are teaching children, use your initiative and be creative, and think of ways they can use the language in real, practical ways.