Aug 22

Life After JET: The Write Stuff by Ashley Thompson

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

The JET Programme has led to many opportunities and careers, sometimes rather unexpectedly. This is the first in 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 article comes to us courtesy of Ashley Thompson, who was a former JET in Shizuoka-ken (2008-10). Since leaving JET she has built up a writing career which includes being an editor of Surviving in Japan, a popular blog for expats in Japan; and as a Community Manager for Nihongo Master,  an online Japanese language learning site.  Many thanks to Ashley for her time and support!

I never expected that going to Japan with JET would launch my writing career or bring about the opportunities it has. And fainting at school was the catalyst. It happened on a cool October day, just over a year after I arrived in Japan. A student had come to the door of the staff room to ask me something, and after standing up from seat my vision started fading and my head was cloudy. I lowered myself to the floor before I lost consciousness. I was rushed to the nurse’s room on a stretcher and sent home for a few days.

The first day back at school I developed a fever and was promptly sent home. The light-headedness returned stronger at that point, followed by motion sickness and constant nausea. I was forced to take a longer sick leave, month after month, as I visited various doctors in an attempt to get a diagnosis. They either found nothing or told me it was “all in my head”. I knew they were wrong, but in Japan a doctor’s word is like God’s.

One doctor finally suggested there was a problem with my inner ear after testing my (poor) balance with a machine, both with eyes open and shut. But the medicine he prescribed didn’t work, and he was upset when I returned with no improvement.

It wasn’t until we visited the U.S. for a Christmas trip (we bought our flight tickets before I became ill) that I was diagnosed with labrynthitis – an inflammation of the deep inner ear caused by a virus–by my doctor in the States. She told me it can take weeks or months to heal completely, but at that point I didn’t care; I was thankful to finally have a diagnosis.

After returning to Japan and meeting with my school again, my husband and I decided it would be best for me to resign from JET in March 2010, as I had been sick for so long and we didn’t know when I would heal completely. My school had been wonderfully accommodating, but I had inconvenienced them for too long. I didn’t want to prolong the situation, so I quit in time for them to hire a new ALT to come with the spring JETs. I didn’t completely recover until late April.

While ill and unable to do much, I started writing seriously again–I had put it on hold other than some personal blogging before I left for Japan. During this time, I thought about starting a blog on how to live in Japan. I was always trying to figure out how to do things. I was frustrated at how little people knew, even my Japanese co-workers. Things like finding baking powder, or finding a farmer’s market, and whether or not Japanese toothpaste actually contains fluoride/fluorine (for the record, most of it does).

Everyone had told me the typical myths before: “Japan doesn’t have good deodorant/toothpaste/pads/other products”; “you can’t find vitamins in Japan”; and “you should have all your products shipped here”. It bothered me that people were so insistent about these things even though they never offered evidence to support their beliefs, other than maybe a personal story or two. It didn’t sit well with me, so I wanted to search for the truth, whether they were right or not, despite not being fluent in Japanese. So Surviving in Japan was born February 2010.

I spent the first few months doing research, creating content and joining Japan-related content voting sites that were popular at the time. I researched blogging, copywriting, and social media marketing. I became active on Twitter and followed and interacted with influential people and connected with others living in Japan.

Once I put my research into practice, my blog visits went up. I kept trying to produce the most useful, comprehensive content, asking nothing in return. I wrote about things that I couldn’t find on any other English-language Japan blog, and I started seeing my posts show up in search results, often on the first or second page.

My blog received a spotlight in October 2010 when the tech editor of The Japan Times asked me to do an interview for their Blogroll. Blog traffic increased, I got more interviews, and I continued to do research and provide useful content. In February 2011 I was asked to write the Lifelines column for The Japan Times, which I did for two years until my family moved back to the U.S.

While blogging for Surviving in Japan and writing for The Japan Times, I was approached by the editor of Metropolis Magazine to write on a freelance basis. Several other publications in Japan and elsewhere asked me to write one-time articles, and a major publishing company paid me to revise and update half of their Japan travel guidebook.

While not directly related, using Twitter led to a freelance job working as a virtual assistant for, which I did until I gave birth to my daughter in August 2011. This summer, Nihongo Master, a Japanese learning site, approached me to work with them because of my experience writing about Japan and connections with Expat Women.

It might seem like luck, but I got noticed because I consistently provided value to others. I started Surviving in Japan out of a desire to find answers for myself and to help others along the way. I never imagined just how helpful it would become to other expats living in Japan. And I never would have done any of this had I not gone to Japan with JET. Even though my JET career was cut short, I created something for myself in the midst of adversity and have been able to help other JETs and expats living in Japan as a result. Not only that, but I believe my work has helped dispel myths, reduce ignorance and help others understand Japan.

So if you’re a current or recently returned JET, take advantage of the time you have in Japan. Perhaps use the time and experience to think about what you love doing and how you might want to help make a difference in the lives of others around you. Then create a brand, whether it’s yourself or something you start. Use the plethora of free tools to network and market your brand. Do so by providing value to others in ways that only you can. You might be surprised by what happens next. I was.

– Ashley Thompson

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