Dec 6

Kyodo News “Rural JET alumni” series: Charlotte Green (Hokkaidō)

News agency Kyodo News has recently been publishing monthly articles written by JET alumni who were appointed in rural areas of Japan, as part of promotion for the JET Programme. Below is the English version of the column from November 2012. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.


“The subtlest things we observe in children are often the most significant. Of all the lessons I learned from JET, this is perhaps the one I have carried with me the furthest.”

Charlotte Green (Hokkaidō, Biei-chō, 2006-08), is from St. Helens, Merseyside, in the U.K.  After studying abroad in Tokyo for one year, she graduated from university with a degree in Japanese and Politics in 2006. The same year, she came back to Japan on the JET Programme and spent two years in the lovely town of Biei. Now back in England, Charlotte is currently studying for a post-graduate diploma in Psychoanalytic Observational Studies and working as a play worker  with Barnardo’s.


Looking Back with Letters

In a childishly-decorated shoe box at the back of my wardrobe is a collection of items I keep from interesting times in my life.  A lot of it was generated from my time as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the JET programme. I spent two years teaching in Biei, a rural town in Hokkaido with a population of 12,000 people.  Like most other ALTs, I arrived with only an anachronistic picture of the place in my mind.  I worked at three different junior high schools, the smallest of which had twelve students and lay amidst rice paddies frequented by storks and warblers, and hills of birch trees that, in the autumn, turned a spectacular yellow. Snow fell thick and fast for six months of the year.  The landscape was a constant source of intrigue. I can remember walking home from work one afternoon and hearing insects for the first time after the winter.  I stopped and listened to hear where the noise was coming from and felt genuine excitement.  Such curiosity in nature came rarely, or never, in the town where I grew up.  Every day in May, I cycled around and took pictures of the melting snow and the long, glossy icicles and their pattern of melting and freezing over and over until they were long enough to reach the ground.

Trawling through the keepsakes in my shoebox, I wondered how I might summarise my time on JET to you without crossing the line into mawkish self-indulgence. Perhaps it would be more purposeful for me to tell you how I saw JET impact upon my students, rather than how it impacted upon me.  The story of the foreigner who lived abroad, made memories and keeps them in a shoebox has been told enough times already.

In fact, my aversion for anything overly over-sentimental sometimes causes me to consider throwing away my shoebox of mementoes.  Perhaps the day will come when I don’t feel the need to attach such significance to objects from my past, but I think I’ll be keeping them for the time being. Part of my collection is a bundle of letters from students and I can’t extend my emotional minimalism to them just yet.  The letters offer more insight than photographs and remind me dearly of why I enjoyed JET so much.  The first that I opened read:

‘Hello, I (was) homesick, but OK now. So, don’t worry.

I’m sorry to have troubled you so much.’

It was written to me by a female student during an English summer camp I helped to organise in the summer of 2008. I remember the girl very well, and why she had written such a message.  HEC Camp (Hokkaido English Challenge) is a week of activities for 40 junior high students and 10 senior high students, held annually at a camp site in Sunagawa. All the camp staff are teachers from overseas and the entire camp is conducted in English.

On the first day of camp, the girl in question received the news that she would not be sharing a tent with her closest friend. Her understandable response to this (and, perhaps, the thought of spending a week speaking English) was to burst into tears.  Of all the students’ letters, hers makes me the most satisfied, however, because by the end of the camp she had undergone a small personal transformation and was crying only because she didn’t want to leave.  She was a shy girl, but in a few short days had grown enormously in confidence and had completely forgotten her fears.

Each day we did different activities at camp – a Crazy Olympics, a dramatic play, a hike – but the letters exchanged back and forth between everybody were integral to the experience and one of its most successful components. Every day there was time allotted to sit and write letters, and every morning, the camp ‘postman’ delivered our mail.  To the students, the thought of writing a pile of letters in English every day probably sounded like arduous tedium at first, but quickly it dawned on everybody – staff included – that writing short messages to each other was a novel way of getting acquainted, and an opportunity to say things that would otherwise remain unspoken.  The genuine old-worldly thrill of receiving a bundle of letters from the postman every morning further spurred us on.  Here are some of the letters that stand out to me. I hope the students would be proud to see them printed:

“Though my English is not so good, you understood what I wanted to say. I cannot thank you enough. I will never forget the memories of HEC! I am sorry that I couldn’t understand all that the teachers were saying. So, I will be a diplomat and master English! I wish that your life will be full of happiness and fun!”

“Thank you for inviting me to the camp again! I had a good time here last year. So, I will help students enjoy this camp, although it’ll be short time.  Let’s make a good memory together.”

“When I first came to HEC, I felt very nervous! But you said to me, ‘hello’… I was very happy! Thank you very much.”

HEC was the most valuable contribution JET made to the Hokkaido area.  A Japanese co-worker of a fellow ALT decided to become an English teacher because of her experiences as a student at HEC Camp.  One of the boys who attended the camp in 2008 (his letter is featured above) is currently living overseas and has now added Spanish to the list of foreign languages he speaks fluently.  These are JET’s success stories, and they all spring from students’ potential and hard work, and the JET Programme’s ability to tap into this.

Within my bundle of letters was one addressed from one student to another that had apparently become mixed up with mine (shame it’ll never get to the right recipient):

‘I appreciate God because you and I are in the same camp! I’m having a great time in this camp! And, thank you for saying my smile is good! I love you.’

The letters remind me that the subtlest things we observe in children are often the most significant. Of all the lessons I learned from JET, this is perhaps the one I have carried with me the furthest.

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