Cristy Burne


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Smile Kids Japan – Volunteer your friendship

A plug here for a great non-profit organisation I just discovered thanks to Twitter: Smile Kids Japan.

It’s a volunteer-led organisation that encourages people in Japan to visit their local orphanage armed with games and good times: what a great idea!

Smile Kids Japan has been set up by members of the Japan Exchange and Teaching program, which is the program I was part of for my first trip to Japan.

It can be isolating to be a foreigner alone in a new place, so organisations like Smile Kids Japan provide terrific win-win situations for volunteers and kids alike.

You can check out their website for info on how to get started volunteering or follow them on Twitter.


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The JET program, budget cuts and Return On Investment

My students meet my sisters on their holiday

Yokozo Japan!
I studied Japanese at high school, but my first trip to Japan was as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, or JET, a huge international exchange program that now has 50,000 alumni around the world. I was a JET in Kawanishi (the town Miku Takeshita and her family come from ;-)).

Mata ne, JET?
Thanks to JET, I had two brilliant years in Japan. However, the chance for other young people to share this experience is under threat: the Japanese government are considering a massive cut to the JET program’s budget, and although this is not surprising, given that  Japan has to tighten its economic belt, it is sad.

Remember, though, that JET began 22 years ago, when seeing a foreigner in Japan was as rare as seeing a sushi train in an Aussie department store.

Now, more than 50,000 young people have worked and lived in Japan as part of the JET program, which means tens of thousands of people carry a warm flame for Japan in their hearts.

Return On Investment: JET the catalyst
Warm flames aside, the Japanese government need to show concrete return on their JET investment, and fair enough too. In economic terms, my time in JET has sparked a whole heap:

– Education: As a JET I worked as an Assistant Language Teacher at the local high school, interacting with Japanese students and teachers, trying kyudo (archery) or chado (tea ceremony) and never quite brave enough to try kendo (you have got to be kidding!).  I encouraged my students to write and perform theatre, to create stories, to talk to each other in a foreign language, and I still keep copies of their work, and photos of our time together (we even performed our theatre at the school Cultural Festival…in English! Woo hoo!). I also worked with the Parent Association, holding English classes for interested parents and hosting our very own quiz. It was great fun!

– Tourism: My family of four visited me in Japan twice, and both times we traveled all over the country. I’ve also returned on a holiday with my husband and continue to encourage everyone I know to spend some time traveling in Japan. (My aunt and uncle were there just last month!)

– Industry: After JET I returned to Japan for a year, working as a technical editor for a Japanese company, contributing directly to the Japanese economy and continuing the good work that JET began.

– Arts: My time on JET directly inspired the creation of Takeshita Demons, a children’s novel that features a Japanese heroine, Japanese culture and traditional Japanese demons, or yokai. Takeshita Demons won the 2009 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award and has been selected as part of the UK’s highly respected Booked Up program. It will be published in the UK, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and hopefully beyond. Children everywhere are reading Takeshita Demons, learning more about Japan, and sharing JET’s vision for an international, multicultural world.

And remember: it’s 100% humidity

Multiculturalism: While working as a JET I assumed I was the only gaijin or foreigner living in Kawanishi – I never saw another in the street or in the shops, although other gaijin did live in neighbouring towns. With my white skin and unruly hair, I stuck out. I also did things differently: ate strange things at strange times, laughed at odd moments, marveled at ordinary things. And all of this is potent medicine for cultural understanding and cultural exchange. Now, thanks to JET, Japan is a much more international place than it was.

Internet shopping: My house is decorated with Japanese art and pottery and furniture, my bookshelves are covered in Japanese dictionaries and literature, my pantry is full of dashi and miso and mirin…

…and my head is full of Japanese memories and culture and warmth.

The influence of JET extends far beyond the classroom, acting to promote Japan and the Japanese culture whereever JET alumni are. In my case, I could never have written Takeshita Demons without my JET experiences.

So what to do?

In these lean times and hard times, it may be that Japan needs the JET alumni more than ever. That said, perhaps JET has done its job? There are thousands of ex-JETs spreading their enthusiasm for Japan globally, and Japan is a much more multicultural place than when JET first began. So what to do?

I respect the need to budget and perhaps the JET program is a more sensible target than health or science. But, whatever happens, the good work of JET should be celebrated and recognised and hopefully, in times more flush with cash, continued.