Nov 15

POLITICAL ANIMALS – Stories of politics from days of JET

We didn’t go on JET to run for office or start a revolution, but sometimes politics had a way of finding us. Here are some stories from fellow alums.


Clara Solomon (CIR Tottori-ken, 1999-2001)
Meredith Wutz (Saitama-ken, 2000-02)

One Prize: $25 to Kinokuniya Bookstore, now on 6th Ave. between 40th & 41st Streets in NYC
The Other Prize: Dinner for two at Bao Noodles (2nd Ave. between 22nd & 23rd Streets), owned by Chris Johnson (Oita-ken, 1992-95) (

Domo Domo to the panel of independent JET alum judgesElizabeth Sharpe (Pacific Northwest), Jennifer Lee (Southern California), Elizabeth White (Southern California), David Kowalsky (Pacific Northwest) and Mark Frey (Northern California)


Two days before our three-year stint on JET was to end, we had lunch with the mayor of our city, who wanted to thank us for our time and efforts. Nick and I were the only JETs in our relatively 30,000-small Hokkaido city. When the waitress came, we were asked what we’d like to drink and Nick and I both looked at each other and I knew what he was thinking, so I said, “beer nonde mo ii desu ka?” He thought about it for a second and said that he normally wouldn’t drink at lunch, but would make and exception and ordered three beers. Well, it was obvious he “made exceptions” often as he was later forced to resign because he was taking bribes from companies for city projects. D’oh!! We both enjoyed the beer we had with him, though. It was a nice finish to a fun three years in the beautiful outdoor playground of Hokkaido.

Toby Weymiller (Hokkaido-ken, 1997-2000)

I call this the time that I used the power of fashion to chase away the right-winger black trucks. It was a typical Sunday in Harajuku. The cosplayers and indie bands were all out in full force, enjoying the attention of the crowds on Meijijingu-bashi. A black truck pulled up, parked, and was spouting (or rather, blasting) its propaganda, so I decided to take advantage of the photo opportunity. As I struck my poses in front of the van, more and more photographers, both Japanese and foreign, gathered around, snapping photos. Behind me, the right-wingers discussed the situation nervously and within a few minutes had packed up and left. For all of their convictions, it was the foreigner who wound up chasing them away. They had no place in one of the most liberal-spirited places in Tokyo, anyway. In the photo you can see them packing up their ladder, while I sport the visual-kei with flair.

Dawn Mostow (Gifu-ken, 2003-06)

I was tired and hung over as the doors opened and I flopped out of the train and onto the platform. It was 7:30 a.m., and I had taken one of the first trains out of Tokyo back to my town. I smelled like beer, smoke and God knows what else as I did my best to avoid the main roads of my town on my stumbling walk to my apartment, for fear of running into students or co-workers. All the backstreet navigating proved successful, and I found myself staring blurry-eyed up at my apartment, just four short flights of stairs above me.

“No shower,” I thought, “Just sleep.” Yes, deep, deep sleep into the afternoon hours of a lazy Sunday was my plan. I burped and then smiled as I unlocked my door, slightly giddy since my journey home had ended. I tossed off my shoes and proceeded to close all the curtains to hold off the morning sun. I fell into my futon and just about nodded out when from a distance I heard what sounded like music and talking all at once, amplified, and moving closer. I couldn’t make out the muddled Japanese, but it grew louder and louder until it felt like it was underneath me. It then slowly passed, only to be followed by similar booming music and talking 10 minutes later. After the third episode I got out of bed and made myself some tea. Sleep was futile. Election season had begun.

Rick Ambrosio (Iwate-ken, 2006-08)

One day I was approached by a faculty member at Kashiwazaki Shoyo Junior High, an advanced “SELHI” school, to formulate a lesson about my experiences on September 11. What did I think or know about America before 9/11? What do I think or know now?

With assistance from the Japanese teacher, I taught three classes intended for 2nd grade junior high and 6th grade high school. More than just a recounting of events, my goal was to inspire consciousness about the importance of political activism or even simple awareness. I wanted them to think about the meaning of icons–how their country was represented to the rest of the world and by whom. Like many teenagers, topics like fashion and music came before prime ministers and elections. However, I found it striking to notice in casual discussion that more students seemed to be aware of the American presidential candidates’ backgrounds than their own prime minister. There seemed to be a general sense of disinterest and or lack of knowledge whenever I asked my Japanese friends or colleagues about the current political climate in Japan.

A number of the upperclassmen I spoke to that day were aiming for Tokyo University–the place where prime ministers, cabinet members, CEOs, lawmakers and ambassadors get made. Because the fight to get into Japan’s top university is so strenuous on the student as well as the student’s family, it is generally accepted that once the goal is reached, very little is to be expected from the prize filly. For students like these, an awareness of politics and a motivation to think positively about national representation is an essential lesson best served young.

Kirsten Phillips (Niigata-ken, 2005-08)

On JET, I lived in a very small town in a very small prefecture (Nichinan-cho, Tottori-ken). One of those places where everybody knows everybody, and as the resident gaijin, EVERYBODY knew me. I knew the mayor, the council members, and all of the other politicians in town (along with the shop owners, garbagemen, policemen, and little old ladies in their gardens). It wasn’t until I returned to New York, however, that I really learned how close-knit Tottori-ken really is. A few years ago, I was at the JETAA NY Welcome Back Reception at the Nippon Club chatting with some JET alums new and old, when one of the staff from the JLGC pulled me over and said, “Kurara-san, you used to live in Tottori, right? There is someone else here from Tottori, you should meet him.” So I wandered over to this newcomer to say some “Yoroshikus.” The Japanese man I introduced myself to looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it (he was, after all, another Japanese man in a suit; perhaps they were starting to blend together in my mind). So I said I used to live in Nichinan-cho, expecting him to say “doko?” Which is the response I typically get when I mention my lovely town. But instead he said, “Oh Nichinan! I know Mayor Yata well.” We continued talking in Japanese and I asked why he knew the mayor of my town, and he responded by saying he used to be “chiji” of Tottori-ken. Now, I was a CIR and I know my Japanese pretty well, and I thought chiji meant governor, but I double-checked, “Chiji?! Honto?” He said, “Yes, chiji, like Arnold Schwarzenegger!” Right, no wonder he looked so familiar! Governor Hirai recently came back to NYC for a business trip, and I was invited to a party for Tottori residents in the NY area to greet him, I’m now an official “Tottori ex-pat” in NYC. Leave it to the power of JETAA NY to bring me together with the governor and other residents of my favorite ken!

Clara Solomon (Tottori-ken, 1999-2001)

My Japanese “mother,” who kind of adopted me, teaching me Japanese and feeding me every week, has a brother who is a Harvard-educated economist and member of the diet. Never met the guy but it was interesting to hear about him. My friend at the Bank of Japan says that the guy is always attacking the BoJ.

Brian Hersey (Fukuoka-ken, 1994-96)

In terms of local politics in Japan, those big political campaign sound trucks were a real interesting cultural difference. One time, a local politician on the campaign trail turned up at my door, presented his meishi, and began his spiel for a little bit, before I politely informed that I wasn’t actually Japanese so I couldn’t vote for him. But I told him “gambatte” anyway. Granted, I did live in a “city” of 80,000 people, but since when did politicians in this country actually go door to door themselves to campaign? In any case, I thought it was rather quaint. Certainly a novel relief from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that would show up without fail every month or so bearing copies of the Watchtower in Japanese. One of their women actually brought me bentos for a while. Not enough to get me to convert, though.

Lee-Sean Huang (Oita-ken, 2003-06)

I was discussing the finer points of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines with the former prime minister of the Netherlands, secretly marveling at how I never expected to meet any heads of state when I first applied for JET. Life is occasionally like that.

Mr. Dries van Agt was in Kobe for several days, and my assignment was to show him around and provide any necessary translating. I ended up being a test audience for a speech he wrote for a conference later that week on posh Rokko Island. That’s politics for you.

We made a good team, and my bucho tagged along on every step of the way, which was typical when the international center hosted dignitaries. This made for some interesting conversations. Since Baba-bucho (whom Mr. Van Agt slyly dubbed “the Arabian” whenever he was out of earshot) spoke decent English, Mr. Van Agt grabbed the opportunity to ask him all sorts of loaded questions about Japanese society, culture and-especially-culinary customs.

Mr. Van Agt made a strong impression on me. At over six feet, he was remarkably open, direct and inquisitive. I didn’t know at the time whether that just went with being Dutch, but it was refreshing to meet a man with a larger than life personality after spending several months in a formal Japanese office.

Towards the end of Mr. Van Agt’s stay, I was given an extra duty: speechwriter, or more appropriately, speechtyper. The night before his talk, it occurred to the simultaneous interpreters that his speech (written entirely in longhand!) looked more like binary code than standard written English. Since they needed copies of it the next day, could I be a dear and type the whole thing out? I agreed, and Mr. Van Agt was generous enough to dictate at his opulent hotel suite, which made parts of the Met look shoddy.

It took about two hours to hammer it out, and Mr. Van Agt was delighted, since he probably didn’t have anyone else to help him with such a unique task. His talk went well, and on his last night in town I was asked to introduce him for the toast at his farewell reception. There was a lot I wanted to say (finally, a chance to go nuts with keigo!), but we were told that Mr. Van Agt unfortunately succumbed to jetlag, forcing a no-show at his own party. Still, I’m glad to have helped him leave Kobe with positive memories of the city and its efforts for internationalization.

Justin Tedaldi (CIR Kobe-shi, 2001-02)

Way back in 1999, I was with some friends at a free outdoor techno concert in Yoyogi park when all of the sudden Dr. Nakamatsu, the wacky inventor of pyonpyon spring shoes and floppy disk technology, jumped up on stage with his campaign flag and started dancing with the techno heads. He was running for Tokyo governor at the time and I guess trying to win over some young votes. The crowd started to go wild and chant his name. It was such a great spectacle that I tracked him down for a picture. He’s known to frequently run in elections but always loses, the poor guy.

Meredith Wutz (Saitama-ken, 2000-02)

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