Jan 16

CLAIR magazine “JET Plaza” series: Philippe Arseneau (Miyagi)

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


Arseneau Philippe

“In my experience, four factors made a difference in this awkward transition from Japan to Canada, from classroom to career, especially with regards to landing and holding a rewarding job: building a professional network; showing initiative; getting involved; and tailoring one’s job to one’s background and interests.”

Philippe Arseneau (Miyagi-ken, 1991-94) is from the Canadian Province of Québec and grew up in Montréal, the world’s second largest French-speaking city. Drawn to Japanese martial arts in his early age, Philippe developed an academic interest for Japan’s economic prowess while studying Labor Relations at the University of Montréal in the late 1980s. Changing his line of study to Anthropology, he specialized on Asian cultures and graduated with a Master’s degree after writing a thesis on “The Emergence of Initiation Rituals in Large Japanese Firms”.  The JET Programme came as a fitting opportunity to deepen his understanding of Japan, and in the summer 1991 he was sent to Miyagi Prefecture where he taught English for the first year in the rural community of Tajiri, the second in Sendai, and the third in Natori. Soon after returning to Montréal, he worked as a sales representative for Japan Airlines until 2013. He now is a Japan lecturer at the University of Sherbrooke.

From Classroom to Career

Having graduated from the JET Programme nearly 20 years ago, I was asked earlier this year to deliver a keynote speech before representatives of the Canadian JETAA on the transition, difficult for some, from Japanese classroom to career at home. This paper is a concise version of it.

First, here is some background: I am a Montreal-born Canadian, raised in French, who learned English at school but more intensely through a series of summer jobs as a river guide in Ontario where I met my wife. And a couple of bilingual kids later, I am now pushing 50. I hold a MSc in Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on Japan. Admittedly not a market-oriented diploma. Weeks after submitting my final thesis in late spring 1991, I left to work as an ALT (AET back then) in Miyagi Prefecture where I would stay three years. A new Emperor had been anointed two years earlier. The economic bubble was starting to deflate. Japan banks were still the wealthiest on earth, the nation’s gigantic trade surplus fueled anger abroad and had caused an image problem for years, to which the JET Programme was allegedly meant to provide a partial solution by exposing western graduates to its culture in the hopes they would eventually go home to spread the gospel of a new and open Japan.

Like most ALTs, I taught English, but occasionally French. I also edited a JET prefectural newsletter called “The Miyagi Drum”. Nurturing post-graduates dreams, I spout on a new Japan cultural thesis and applied for doctoral studies at various universities around the world, expecting a grant or some kind of academic interest. Unfortunately, I never got to see the project through because of a career choice. And that brings me to the main topic of this article: professional life after JET. No doubt, the JET Programme can contribute to shaping one’s career as it did mine, though it offers less to those whose professional ambition lies outside the business of education– which was back then and perhaps still today the case with most ALTs. For want of providing highly transferable work skills, the JET experience managed at least to arouse curiosity among potential Canadian employers, but did not clinch me a job in and of itself. In my experience, four factors made a difference in this awkward transition from Japan to Canada, from classroom to career, especially with regards to landing and holding a rewarding job: building a professional network; showing initiative; getting involved; and tailoring one’s job to one’s background and interests.

Before expounding on each of these factors, I have a confession to make. My first job back home was that of a sandwich-man pushing fast-food coupons at the door of a local mall. Needless to say, after this stint, any inflated notion of my worth and self-importance that might have carried over from my public function in Japan had been rubbed down clean. I can say today, it was for the better. And it was not a complete waste either because, through the magic of CV editing, I could claim to have worked as a “marketing agent for a major corporate real estate company.” Now that is out-of-the-way, let us look at the four-step action plan laid out previously. The first professional and most vital move I did once back home was to reconnect, “to build a professional network.” Naturally, I joined JETAA, listed myself as a returnee at the Consulate, soon became a member of a local business association called “Quebec-Japan Business Forum” and attended many Japanese-Canadian cultural and academic events. Nothing ground-breaking here but the time-honored assumption that I would get a job because of who I knew as much as what I knew.

Still, it did not generate job opportunities fast enough, so I “showed initiative” by starting a home-based Japanese Culture & Language School which I advertised in old fashion ways around the trendy Plateau neighborhood where I lived in Montréal. To my surprise, it worked and my wife and I got a modest income from it. It slowed down the financial hemorrhage we suffered from since our return but just barely. Nothing solid came of this right away, but seeds had been planted and would eventually bear fruit.

What made the difference is “getting involved.” It is while on the Board of the local JETAA that I started hearing of odd jobs and openings related to Japan. A JET candidate was soon to leave his position as a clerk with Japan Airlines in Montreal. My Japan experience and interest, credentials from my new professional and cultural networks, and the initiative I had shown, all played in my favor. And yes, while in Japan and during a homecoming journey that took me around the world, I had toured over 30 countries and could boast a pretty strong travelling background. Once I landed this job, the toughest part at first was to reconcile my self-esteem with this lowly position of administrative assistant. It was better than being a sandwich-man, for sure. And try as I might, I could not have found anything better in the labor context of the time. In 1995, the Canadian economy was idle at best. Yet, work demanded of me soon felt like an insult to my intelligence, something my education and ambition had not prepared me for. Three things kept me going: I would hold on to this job until I find a better one; if nothing else, I could hope to fill my aging boss’s position in a few years; and I had always the possibility of entertaining other professional interests. I sent CVs around hoping to teach Japan cultural history at college level. A couple of years later, out of the blue, I got a bite. The University of Sherbrooke was interested in my Japanese conferences for their senior education program. Being offered occasional lectures and not a full-time job, I convinced my boss to let me go every once in a while on account that I would be doing incidental sales representation for JAL, and that I needed it for my intellectual sanity. Being a decent and smart man, he agreed. The point is, I had partially managed to tailor my job to my background and interests. And that was only the beginning. I was soon dispatched and requested afterwards to give countless presentations on Japan at travel agencies, trade shows, and on the web.

In the end, I worked 18 years for JAL and the last 10 as Sales Director, escorted several tour groups to Japan, lectured for the past 15 years at the University of Sherbrooke, have been a JNTO hired speaker on several occasions, have trained local companies aiming to do business with Japan, and recently gave a series of conference at the Quebec Museum of Civilisation in the context of a splendid Samurai exhibit. I was also elected President of the Quebec-Japan Business Forum, a volunteer and rather demanding position that gave me back more connections, credentials and exposure than I could ever have hoped for. All in all, it is fair to say that my “classroom to career” transition– albeit slow going at first, has been fulfilling, but it would not have been quite the same had I not built a professional network, shown initiative, gotten involved and managed to tailor my job to my liking.

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