Asian JET Alumni

Asian JET Alums Reminisce About Their Experiences

(Spring 2007 Issue)

While many of us remember our days on JET as a time where we stood out because of the way we looked, other JETs often had a very different experience.  Ultimately, of course, we all shared that commonality of the humor, awkwardness and new perspectives on Japan and on ourselves.


Lee-Sean Huang
Oita-ken, 2003-06

The best part and the worst part about being an Asian JET is looking Japanese and “blending in.”  Unlike non-Asian JETs, I was able to live my life more or less anonymously.  Nobody stared at me because of my exotic looks.  Nobody stopped me in the streets to practice their English.  Sometimes this was a relief, but other times, I resented the amount of instant attention that my JET colleagues received.  I wanted to be a celebrity too!

I lived alone in a traditional Japanese house in the “downtown” area of my city.  I got a lot of random people knocking on my door – the NHK guy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, door-to-door salesmen, and even a local politician campaigning for reelection.  Usually, I would engage them in Japanese conversation, just for kicks.  When I finally revealed that I wasn’t Japanese, most of them were really surprised.  They were also surprised to learn that I lived alone.  The salesmen (not salespeople, because they were always men), would always ask if my wife or my mother was home.  I guess it was hard for them to fathom that I could be a young single guy, living alone, and managing to cook and clean and do all that domestic stuff by myself.  One Jehovah’s Witness lady even started bringing me meals in Tupperware!


Lee Uehara
Chiba-ken, 1993-95

Unfortunately, the closest thing to being nisei in my house meant that I used chopsticks and ate sushi. I had to painfully learn the subtle difference in pronunciation between hashi – chopsticks and hashi – bridge, along with everyone else. Heck, I didn’t learn the wonders of rice cookers until my dad bought me one while in college.

So, fast forward to the day of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test during my first year on JET. More than a few folks guffawed when they heard that I was going for the 3rd level, remarking that I was taking the easy way out. I hadn’t even heard of the JLPT until I got to Japan even though I did take a simple Japanese class in college. Thus, I didn’t really get why people assumed I would take a higher level and I never gave it another thought. Well, until one of my first-ever visits to Sizzler! Whoo-hoo!

During the conversation among the six of us who regularly spent $50 on the Sunday buffets, a debate over how to interpret an expression came up.  Everyone turned and looked to me for the answer, even the know-it-all-and-expert-on-all-things-Japanese-including-how-to pick-up-women-with-catchy-lines guy. You know the guy I’m talking about.

“Why would you think that I know the answer?” I asked, puzzled, looking at  that guy.

“Because you’re fluent,” he responded.

“What on earth gave you that impression?” I asked, completely stunned and wondering how I managed to fool everyone without even being aware of it, including that guy.

“Well, you’re half-Japanese, that’s why!” came the response.

Now it all made sense to me – including the comments during the JLPT. Just because I have a Japanese last name and some dark brown hair, even Americans assumed I grew up speaking Japanese at home. Oy!

The funny thing is that later on my Japanese did get good. So good in fact, even the Pizza Hut phone order people were fooled into thinking I was a  Kanto-region Uehara. This decade, however, I’m back to square one. But, I still have my rice cooker.


Crystal Wong
Iwate-ken, 2002-04

One general theme and not so much of a story that defined my experience as an Asian in Iwate was how I would be out with my boyfriend at the time, who spoke much better Japanese than I did but looks-wise better fit the gaijin profile, and even though it would be him doing most of the speaking, many Japanese people would continue with their questions to me, as if I were a ventriloquist and he was my puppet. It happened not just with him but with other friends as well.

Another thing I remember well is the wave of shock that would pass over people’s faces when they realized I wasn’t Japanese, usually after I introduced myself or someone else “explained” me, i.e. with the roaming salespeople, bento delivery people, teachers, students, et. al that would come through the teachers’ room at school. After that, they’d be very interested, ask where my parents were from and then usually make some reference to shumai or ramen.

I liked telling students about my Chinese-American-ness too. I liked the “oohs and ahs” that ensued when I wrote my Chinese name on the board for them, and I felt like that helped them to feel more connected to me and understand that I could be both Chinese and American at the same time.

I hope in some way that meeting me helped them to realize that Americans come in a lot of different forms and from a lot of different places. I also liked telling people about how New York was full of people from everywhere, and how there were tons of Japanese people here too.

Hope this helps, if I can think of more specific incidents I’ll send them your way too.


Nancy Ikehara
Yokohama-shi CIR, 1994-97

Speaking purely from my own experience, the greatest disadvantage of looking like the masses is the assumption by society that you are Japanese, and thus familiar with the local traditions and customs.  The pressure to blend in can be daunting at times.  And even with all the exposure I’d been given to the Japanese language, arts and culture throughout childhood, I could not avoid making a few faux pas as an adult living, studying or working in Japan.

For instance, I’ll never forget the face of a retail clerk, aghast with horror, as she came running from out of nowhere to bid me to remove my shoes and place them OUTSIDE the carpeted dressing room.  To this lady, I must have been some bumpkin from out of town.  But I’d simply never thought to apply the custom of slipping off one’s shoes to a dressing room or any area outside the genkan.

On another occasion I was asked by a store clerk at a posh Ginza department store whether the gift item I’d just purchased required noshigami.  I had never heard of the term and resigned myself to asking what it was.  She looked at me quizzically and then lifted up to my face a piece of wrapping paper printed with a colorful cord tied into a decorative knot, commonly used to wrap formal, celebratory gifts.  Ah no, that won’t be necessary…but thanks.

Yet the irony is my story is no longer confined to one side of the Pacific.  I’ve recently returned to the U.S. after a 12-year stint in Japan (three as a JET participant).  I now do public relations work for the regional headheaquarters of a Tokyo-based multinational.

I was recently at our Atlanta plant, where plastic colorants are manufactured for automobile interiors for the likes of Toyoto, Honda, Nissan, et al.  While I was taking the plant tour, one of the guys on the floor casually asked with that oh-so-charming Southern drawl, “So, what’s your name?”  “Nancy,” I yelled back over the din of heavy machinery.  And to my surprise, he exclaimed, “Why, that’s an American name!”  Then it dawned on me that this gentleman must think that I’m a Nihonjin woman, given the large number of visitors from Japan who can be found on-premises on any given day.  I decided to dispel this myth ASAP and went into a rather lengthy sermon on how I was born and bred in L.A. and lived in Japan for the last 12 years.  To which he bantered back, “I would have never guessed you’d lived in Japan that long.  You speak nearly perfect English.”  Did he just say NEARLY perfect English?  Boy, all those years in Japan must have done a number on my ability to converse in my mother tongue!

Must admit, the incident made me feel a little like a fish out of water.  Here I am, back on my home turf, trying to convince my fellow American that I, too, am a citizen of this nation.  Made me realize how rare (and wonderful!) a bicultural upbringing is and how strong = preconceived notions of a group of people can be.  At the very least, it gives me some interesting stories to laugh and write about.


Iku Fujimatsu
Hiroshima-ken, 1999-01

“Have you met the new AET yet?” asked the woman walking past me to her colleague. “No, but I hear she’s here today,” he replied. They didn’t even notice me as I sat on the hall bench. I was not going to be a special gaijin in town that people turned to look at and students crowded around.

Before heading to Japan, I thought about adopting an Americanized or Western-sounding name. Was I more of a Jane or an Ashley? No, definitely not a Jane…and Ashley didn’t fit quite right…besides it would be difficult to pronounce with the “l”…Ah-shu-ree was not what I was looking for. Ultimately, I went with the name I was given.

There were both pros and cons to being a Japanese-American JET-particularly one who spoke the language. My students appreciated that I could understand them and accepted me as a somewhat “real” teacher. Other teachers told me that I was more adept at answering students’ questions since I understood where the students were confused and how to explain grammar to a Japanese speaker.

On the other hand, my students felt that they didn’t need to try to speak English to me-even in class. I wasn’t the gaijin wonder that my town was expecting. I had spent my summer vacations in Japan throughout my childhood so I looked and sounded like everyone else (albeit without the Hiroshima accent), but as a native New Yorker, I was too direct and too loud.

While my two years were full of the types of experiences that I share with all of my fellow JETs-experiences I cherish-perhaps most important to me was the opportunity to live in my parents’ homeland and learn about my other culture and its people. In the end, I was able happy to find a place where I blended in.

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