Sep 17

Life After JET: Food for Thought by James Foley

Recently posted to the JETAA Oceania Facebook group by Eden Law:

The JET Programme has lead to many opportunities and careers, sometimes rather unexpectedly. This is part of a series of articles by former JETs about their lives after participating on the programme, and how it has shaped their careers and paths. We hope that it will prove useful as an insight for potential applicants into what we as ex-JETs got from our experience, and maybe provide some nostalgic memories for others. Please feel free to contact us if you want to write about your own experience!

Our next article in our Life After JET series comes from James A. Foley. A former Iwaki-shi, Fukushima-ken JET (2007-2010), James met his wife (who was also a JET) on the JET Programme and has successfully carved out a career as a reviewer and critic of New York’s Japanese food scene for the famous Village Voice publication. James is also quite handy with the camera, and his blog contains his writing, articles and photography. A little known fact is that he’s totally metal on the shamisen.

This August marks the third year since I finished my time on JET; I have officially been gone from Japan for as long as I was there. Looking back now over my time on JET, the connections between the Japan experience and my work as a professional journalist are abundantly clear.

Prior to packing up life and moving from the middle of America to Iwaki City on the coast of Fukushima, I worked as a news reporter for a daily newspaper in suburban Kansas City, Mo. While I was in Japan I continued to write and hone my journalism skills, but mainly just for a blog I kept for my own records.

Towards the end of my JET tenure I had no life plan or job prospects. I thought about continuing teaching, but my heart wasn’t in it. I thought about going to graduate school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study. All I knew was that I wanted to travel for as long as possible and that I could probably generate some income if I wrote about the journey. I starting pitching freelance story ideas to various magazines and websites. There was a lot of rejection (or, more accurately, no responses whatsoever). But I did have success getting stories published in Metropolis magazine in Tokyo, Japan Today, CNN Travel, CNN Go and Independent Traveler and some others as a result of 10 months of being a homeless, unemployed nomad.

By the time I was back in America I was with my fiance Lauren (who is also a Fukushima JET and will be my wife as of Oct. 11) in Monterey, Califonia for her to get a Master’s degree. I found work at a historic hotel, where I fell in with a well-traveled set of people. In September of 2011, six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the JET Program invited me and a handful of other former Tohoku JETs to come back to Japan for a week to do some reporting on the situation in Fukushima. Seeing my old Japanese hometown after the quake was surreal — some things looked exactly the same, while others were forever changed. I came back to the States with some good stories and tried to get them published. The cover story I wrote for my local paper, Monterey County Weekly, was published a year after the quake and is still one I’m very proud of — and it went over so well that I became a regular contributor for the Weekly, which was the most widely circulated publication in the area.

My editor there spent a lot of his time covering the vibrant local dining seen and food economy, so much that he could no longer appear at restaurants without being recognized. He asked me to review a local Japanese restaurant in his stead. The story did well, and the food writing assignments just kept coming. I spent the rest of my time in California working as a food writer, which is something I never considered as a possible career.

After Lauren finished her coursework we moved to New York City for her to do an internship at the United Nations. I eventually found work on the food team at Village Voice, where my three years on JET have really come into play. After myriad meals in Japan, I can speak and write with authority on Japanese food and drink, which has enabled me to carve out a niche for myself in the overstuffed New York food writing scene.

I don’t necessarily plan to keep on writing about food, or for that matter to stay in journalism at all, but for now it’s all I know, and I see my life now as a direct result of the choices I made on JET — everything from the work I do, to the woman I love, to the food I love to eat the most are all connected to my time in Japan.

James A. Foley

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