written by Heidi A. Lange
Hey, y’all! it’s your Northern Miyagi Representative Heidi! I’ve been told many times by many people I’m always too busy, so let my madness be your asylum! I came to Japan as an Early Departure JET with absolutely no connections in northern Japan and a relatively low level of Japanese. Now, I’ve made friends all over town and all over Japan in the mere 2.5 years I’ve been here.
Starting out, you may experience some culture shock, especially if this is your first time traveling and you don’t know much of the language. It will be extra rough if you are the only ALT in your area. You may feel the urge to isolate and stick with what’s familiar, but I invite you to challenge yourself and reach out!
Your senpai here on MAJET hope that you will find many long lasting friendships within our walls as you enjoy our events, but we don’t have to be your only source of connection! Your town senpai will be one of your best assets to getting used to your town. When I first came onto the JET Programme, I made a point to say yes to all the opportunities for events and clubs they offered me, even just to try things once. This got me involved in the town’s annual summer festival, my local eikaiwa (English conversation) groups, and town’s International Friendship Association. From events and conversations I’ve enjoyed with these groups, I’ve then gotten involved in a Filipino cultural club, a calligraphy club, and playing in a band at music festivals. Also, just by being a newcomer (a foreigner, especially) in town, you may find yourself with some surprise interviews and being featured in the local paper, on TV, or on the radio. Being curious and letting yourself fall down the rabbit hole will earn you experiences you never expected.
Asking around my workplace also opened me up to cultural events and activities at school or in the prefecture. For instance, I and some other ALTs in my area sometimes hang out after school with the bukatsu (school club) activities. I also make a point to keep my phone on me to translate flyers on the wall or handed to me by the school secretary. And at least in my first year, I saved enough room in my schedule and wallet to enjoy the enkais (drinking parties). After school hangouts with your Japanese coworkers are hard to come by as they tend to work late, so enkais are your chance to get to know people outside work! Work connections (except for your JTEs) tend to use the most Japanese, which can be nerve wracking if you aren’t confident in your speaking abilities. Thankfully, in my experience, coworkers are very understanding and genuinely want to help you fit in.
Speaking of flyers, I love exploring my town, keeping an eye out for cafe and community center posters, business cards, and flyers. From what I’ve seen, rural town businesses are very strongly interconnected and you’re likely to see the same people all around town this way. Befriending them is like befriending the heart of the community.
The moment I was accepted onto the JET Programme, I devoured the internet immediately looking for people in my Departure Group or people with shared interests. As an Early Departure, I wouldn’t even meet most Miyagi JETs until the big prefectural meeting, so I knew I needed to reach out and ask about people or events on my own.
For the Miyagi area, websites like Sendai Motions compile lists of events you can invite ALTs or coworkers to enjoy together. I also made use of all the Facebook groups for JETs in other prefectures as well, getting in touch with CIRs in the area to keep up with events and sights to enjoy. The information is out there for you to find, from town tourism associations to foreigner-run pages.
Facebook also has fantastic subgroups for JETs and general foreigners in Japan. Who do you want to befriend? Early in my JET career, I wanted to get involved in some Filipino and LGBT communities. So, I scoured the internet and found Tohoku University’s International Festival student organizations and Stonewall Japan. Even if I can’t always make the drive to meet people, talking online helps me feel connected and excited for the times I do get to meet. For JETs arriving and surviving during COVID-19, the internet may be your best resource for networking.
Continuing with the idea of seeking out your passions, take the initiative to find or create ways to use the hobbies and interests you already have. In America, I was doing martial arts, so I started taking karate classes at my local gym in Japan. From there, I’ve also had the opportunity to do kyudo (Japanese archery) and befriend the older community in my area. What do you already enjoy doing? Can you share that with other ALTs or Japanese people?
Your network grows itself just by asking. If you don’t know something, you almost certainly know someone who does, or you know someone who knows someone who does.
Make a list. What do you already do? What would you like to try? Ask around. Hunt it down. Make it happen.
“Every success begins with a sucks...and ends with a yes! Sucksyes!” - Beetlejuice: the Musical