Feb 25

CLAIR Magazine “JET Plaza” Series: Don Brown (Osaka)

Each month, current and former JET participants are featured in the “JET Plaza” section of the CLAIR Forum magazine. The March 2014 edition includes an article by JET alumnus Don Brown. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.


Don Brown

“I’ve been in Japan for 14 years now, but those first three in Kawachinagano were the most thrilling and character-building. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now, and thanks to JET, I’m now doing exactly what I always wanted to do.”

Originally from Auckland, New Zealand, Don Brown (Osaka-fu, Kawachinagano-shi, 1999-2002) majored in journalism and Japanese at university and worked in television before taking part in the JET Programme as a CIR. He subsequently remained in Japan and held several jobs including Public Affairs Officer at the New Zealand Embassy in Tokyo before becoming a freelance subtitler and translator specializing in Japanese film. In 2013, films for which he provided English subtitles were screened at the Cannes and Venice film festivals.

20/20 Hindsight


Somehow I doubt that I’m the only JET Programme participant who looks back on their time with regret. Now don’t get me wrong – this isn’t the beginning of some bitter diatribe. When I say regret, I mean along the lines of “I wish I’d spoken to that colleague more,” or “I wish I’d reacted differently in that situation,” or “I wish I’d done more in the time I had.” It wasn’t until my time on the Programme was up that I became fully aware of how lucky I’d been to have lived and worked in Kawachinagano.

No, you can’t ski there. Despite the “nagano” in the name, the city is located in the southeast of Osaka, on the border with Nara and Wakayama. Or as I liked to explain, the heel in Osaka’s boot. 70% of the city is forest (toothpicks and bamboo blinds are its major exports), and it even boasts mountains and a lake, but it’s only about a half-hour train journey away from downtown Namba. Try finding a place to live with those favorable specifications in Tokyo. I couldn’t.

The first time I stepped off the train at Kawachinagano Station on the Nankai Koya line, I instantly had a gut feeling that I was in the right place. My supervisor and a couple of other senior staff members from my division treated me to dinner at a conveyor belt sushi joint, made sure I had everything I needed at my apartment, and even helped me to acquire a bike. At the end of my bewildering first day at the office, the shy junior staff shuffled over to my desk in a tight formation and engaged me in conversation. Pretty soon, they were taking me out to massacre songs in two languages at karaoke and flail away in vain at lethal velocity baseballs at the batting center. Members of the international friendship association welcomed me into their homes and treated me like their long-lost son, only paler and frecklier.

Having never studied in Japan prior to JET, let alone translation and interpreting, being thrown into the deep end forced me to develop skills I still depend on today. It also dispelled all the preconceived notions about Japan and Japanese people that I’d accrued over the years from reading books and watching films back home, and gave me my first revelatory glimpses of what living and working in Japan was really like for flesh-and-blood Japanese people. As well as my colleagues in the cultural division and the international friendship association, my job brought me into contact with people from many and varied walks of life. Teachers and school children, sake brewers, calligraphers, firefighters and police officers, rice farmers, prefectural governors, World Cup organizers, and the diverse local foreign community. Coming from a wee island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf with a fluctuating population of only a few thousand, calling my time in Kawachinagano “eye opening” would do the place a gross disservice. “Mushroom-free consciousness expanding” is more like it.

Kawachinagano brought me in primarily to assist relations with its American sister city of Carmel (Indiana, not the one in California that Clint Eastwood was mayor of), but being a New Zealander I inevitably ended up acting as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for my country. Although I met plenty of worldly types like a video store attendant and semi-pro snowboarder who knew more about my country’s ski fields than I did, there was also a lovely little lady who asked me in all innocence: “Do you wear western-style clothes there?” The elementary students I introduced kiwis and Marmite to will be teenagers now – there’s a scary thought – and the high schoolers will be in tertiary education or working already. I wonder if I inspired any of them to take a greater interest in my homeland? On second thought, maybe letting them try Marmite wasn’t such a good idea…

Some of my fondest memories are of the days and nights I spent in a beautiful mountain village called Takihata. In summer, the city ran an exchange program for artists from the United States and Japan in which they stayed together at a former retreat for priests, and worked on sculptures and other collaborative projects. My workmates and I often drove up there to drop off supplies, help liaise with the community, lend the artists Led Zeppelin CDs, and other essential government business. I was often asked to interpret, but as the local residents were mostly elderly and spoke in the thick, rough-as-guts Kawachi dialect, I frequently felt like a lab chimp trying to ask a scientist for a banana. At least it made the garden variety Osaka dialect spoken in the office seem easy by comparison. Together with the artists and local artisans, we made charcoal in a traditional earthen kiln, used cranes to position large carved stone slabs, held a riverside concert with live painting, built a dwelling near a waterfall that was roofed with thatch we harvested ourselves from fields near the summit of Mt. Iwawaki… Unforgettable.

Ultimately, I spent three years working at the Kawachinagano City Office and KICCS, and made so many mistakes that I still rue to this day. Of course, the vast majority of my experiences were positive and enjoyable, but I still can’t help kicking myself for every little faux pas, even after a decade has passed. I felt so at home there and loved the place and the people so much, I wish I could have been a better person to express the gratitude I felt. But hey, I was 25-ish. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing (still don’t).

I initially had an extremely hard time adjusting to life outside the cosy confines of JET and Kawachinagano, and ended up moving around and flitting from job to job for a couple of years before landing a position as Public Affairs Officer for the New Zealand Embassy. I know very well that I wouldn’t have even got my foot in the door there if it hadn’t been for my JET experience (the crash-course I received in Japanese local government also made bureaucratic idiosyncrasies there a lot easier to tolerate!) One of my responsibilities was to prepare welcome events at the Ambassador’s residence for new JETs from New Zealand, and I always felt a bit envious of them as they were about to be shotgunned to all corners of the country. The experiences that lay ahead of them were already way behind me. I’ve been in Japan for 14 years now, but those first three in Kawachinagano were the most thrilling and character-building. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now, and thanks to JET, I’m now doing exactly what I always wanted to do.


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