Each month, current and former JET participants are featured in the “JET Plaza” section of the CLAIR Forum magazine. The September 2013 edition includes an article by JET alumn Ari Kaplan. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.
Originally from the US, Ari Kaplan (Hyogo-ken, Suzurandai, 1993-94) came to Japan upon graduating from Boston University. He is now a business consultant in New York City and the author of Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Market Place (Wiley, 2011), which Akishobo recently released in Japan as ハスラー――プロフェッショナルたちの革新. Learn more at AriKaplanAdvisors.com.
I still remember the ceremony that the Hyogo Prefectural Board of Education held for departing JET participants when I left my position as an ALT at Kobe Kohoku High School in 1994. The host asked each of us to line up facing the audience, pass a microphone to one another, and share our reason for leaving. I distinctly recall advising the audience members that I was leaving so that I could return someday.
When Akishobo translated my second book, Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Workplace (Wiley 2011), into Japanese and released it in Japan last fall, I felt like I had somehow kept my promise. I was also excited to have the opportunity to publicly dedicate it to the JET Programme and the Hyogo Prefectural Board of Education.
I was only 20 years old when in July 1993, following my graduation from Boston University, I took that Japan Airlines flight from New York to Tokyo. Jetlagged the day after I arrived, I went on an early-morning walk into the Tokyo Metro to explore and noticed that there were a few homeless individuals living in refrigerator boxes down below.
As a resident of a major metropolitan city, this sight in Shinjuku station did not surprise me. What struck me, however, was that outside of each box sat a pair of shoes, presumably worn by the occupant inside, highlighting the individual’s personal respect and the extraordinary nature of the place to which I had traveled.
I spent the next 12 months learning the language, culture, and personality of the country’s Kansai region. Every weekend, I rode my black Yamaha Jog scooter from the hills of Suzurandai to the Hankyu Railway’s Sannomiya Station, where I explored Kobe and took the train to Osaka. I learned countless lessons, including the nuances of Sumo and the virtues of being a Hanshin Tigers fan, but two themes in particular have helped shape my career.
The first is the Daruma, which my students shared with me during one of our first lessons. Its message of goal setting and taking action has often guided me.
The second is the concept of isshokenmei (to do one’s best). Soon after I arrived, I immersed myself in the experience and began studying to take level four of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test. Recognizing my effort, the teachers with whom I worked explained the significance of isshokenmei, which is a uniquely Japanese approach and attitude that I appreciated immediately. I have proudly tried to incorporate dedication, creativity, and value-oriented service into my work.
Despite my efforts to be the best teacher I could, I was ultimately a student. In fact, my colleagues and I taught and learned together. It was incredibly collaborative and reciprocal. Each day was an adventure, a challenge, and mystery.
With respect to mysteries, unbeknownst to me, the teachers were expecting a wrestler-looking muscular New Yorker to walk through the front door on my first day, and were surprised to see a regular-looking thin guy (though one wearing a giant grin at his good fortune of being there) enter. Apparently, I had listed triathlon on my application as a hobby of mine (which was true at the time). That reference coupled with a grainy photo gave the impression that some kind of storybook giant was coming to town.
Their surprise makes me smile even wider these days because when I returned from Japan to attend GW Law School, I abandoned my interest in multi-sport events given the time commitment required. A few years ago, however, I rekindled my attraction to the athletic trifecta and will be competing in my first Ironman-distance race (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) at the end of July. I now tell myself “Isshokenmei ganbarimasu (I will do my best)” more often than ever.
In addition to traveling around Japan, I had the remarkable chance to visit China, Thailand, Nepal, and Hong Kong during my year in Asia. I took cooking lessons at a nearby restaurant called Family Farm and guitar lessons from a teacher who could not speak any English. It was surprisingly easy to learn given his skillful technique at having me mirror his playing style.
I even celebrated my 21st birthday at the Hard Rock Café in Osaka with my friend, and fellow JET participant from the U.K., Phoebe Dunn (then Phoebe King). We are still in touch and met for dinner when I visited London in November 2011 to keynote a conference and speak at the London School of Economics.
Phoebe and I spoke on the phone every night because when I lived in Suzurandai, there was no Internet or e-mail. I typed or wrote letters to my family and friends in the U.S. by hand. I was isolated in the most positive way in that I was completely immersed.
Today, JET participants probably benefit from being more closely linked to others near and far with Skype, video calling, and instant messaging. With the distribution of ハスラー――プロフェッショナルたちの革新, I am looking forward to offering providers of professional services in Japan creative ways to benefit from leveraging technology to address changing client expectations and overcome challenges to their growth.
Regardless of the travel, the freedom, and the adventures, my favorite part of the experience was still teaching. After practicing law for nearly nine years with large law firms in New York City, I left to become a writer. In the process, I created a program to teach professionals how to get published and how to leverage their writing to raise their individual profiles. As interest in that presentation grew, I created others.
And, now I have the chance again to pursue that passion for teaching that the JET Programme helped to nurture. I speak about my books and various research-oriented projects at schools, conferences, and companies in the U.S. and abroad. My students in Japan helped me shape a certain style that continues to resonate with my audiences two decades later. For that reason and so many others, I remain grateful to them and to the Programme itself.