Dec 20

Nathaniel Simmons (Nara-ken, 2007-2009) is currently a communication faculty member at Western Governors University and lives in Columbus, OH, USA. He teaches a variety of intercultural, interpersonal, and health communication courses. He has researched and published several scholarly articles regarding privacy management between foreign English teachers and Japanese co-workers in Japan.

I admit it.

I was “one of those” JETs who lucked out and ended up as an ALT knowing next to nothing about Japan.

No language skills.  Very little cultural knowledge.

Yes, I did my homework once I knew I was going to Japan, but even that was “too little, too late.”  The cultural books I read a month prior to departure ended up lying to me, as once I arrived everything I read was thrown out the window.  Nothing quite captured or described the nuanced life I was about to live in rural Nara-ken.

So how did someone like me survive for two years in rural Japan?  I hurriedly found a tutor who quickly became “my Japanese grandfather.”  Every Sunday morning we drank tea (once he learned I absolutely despise coffee and was making myself drink it as not to be rude) and ate mochi (yes, sweet delicious mochi!).  It was a great life outside of work.  But in work?

It was challenging.

I didn’t speak Japanese and my JTE’s English conversational ability was quite low.  In a town of roughly 8,000 people where I was the only foreigner, I lived in survival mode and I absolutely loved it.  However, because I didn’t speak Japanese, I was reliant on my coworkers (mainly my JTEs) for everything, including my access to health care.

I still remember that day quite vividly.  My JTE’s eyes widened as he looked at a piece of mail that I brought him because I didn’t understand the contents.  The only thing I could understand within the kanji-litterred, bright blue turquoise-esque envelope was the yen () sign.  “What bill do  I have to pay now?” I wondered.

Shimonzu (my Japanified last name), did you use your insurance in Osaka?” he asked after showing the envelope and its contents to various workers in the staff room.

I froze.  I did.  I didn’t want them to know – that’s why I traveled 2.5 hours one way to Osaka without them.

You see, I learned that it was “better” to take my health into my own hands rather than risk my co-workers knowing more about me than I wanted them to know.  Everyone already knew I once had a cold and chilblains (AKA first-level frostbite), but this was different.  To me, my health information should be private.  In other words, my co-workers, as wonderful as they were, need not know my body’s inner workings.  At the same time, I realized I was in a different culture – that was very caring.  I realized my co-workers weren’t “out to get me,” but I did feel embarrassed.

Embarrassed that my private health information was now very much public.  I received numerous stares the remainder of the day and heard my coworkers say my name as they shared the envelope’s contents with others.

I tried my best to pretend that they didn’t now know what I knew they did.

What was the big deal you ask?  Well, it’s private. ;)

Looking back now, I laugh about it, but at the time it made me more aware as to what I did share and did not share at work.  I definitely saw myself being “quieter” at work, which influenced my coworker relationships.

This experience, and others, encouraged me to further pursue my experience in communication.  One thing that I loved about Japan is that I felt as if I was walking the pages of my intercultural textbook.  I finally was able to put my education into practice.  With an interest in culture and health, I went back to grad school to pursue a Ph.D.  I wanted to learn more.  I wanted to make a difference.

Now, equipped with research skills I have interviewed about 50 foreign English teachers and 40 of their Japanese co-workers regarding how they manage privacy at work.  Now that I have completed my dissertation, graduated, and obtained a position as an Assistant Professor, I am seeking outlets, such as JETwit and others, to share my findings both within and outside of academia with hopes that they will create change for those who were in similar situations as me.  It’s my hope that my experiences as a JET and my presence in academia will help improve the ALT-JTE relationship.  This wasn’t my goal pre- or even during JET, but I cannot deny the ways in which my participation within the JET Programme shaped who I am now as a teacher and researcher.  I’m very thankful for it.

This blog post is an adaptation of the scholarly article: Simmons, N. (2014). My “big” blue health secret: My experience with privacy, or lack thereof, in Japan. Health Communication, 29(6), 634-636. Retrieved from


2 comments so far...

  • Barbara Said on December 22nd, 2014 at 4:00 am:

    Uh…you do know the health condition that instantly springs to mind, don’t you?

  • Nathaniel Simmons Said on December 22nd, 2014 at 10:48 am:

    Barbara, that’s part of the point. From hemorrhoids to common colds and even dental cleanings or ADHD, my participants perceived a wide variety of health conditions to be private. For some, from the outside looking in, they might think, “Why did they see that as private?” However, what is considered privacy and the ways in which we manage it vary. I’ll be sharing findings from my participants in the coming months. Please stay tuned! :)

Page Rank