Jan 23

CLAIR Magazine “JET Plaza” series: Penelope Fox (Saga)

Each month, current and former JET participants are featured in the “JET Plaza” section of the CLAIR Forum magazine. The October 2013 edition includes an article by current JET participant Penelope Fox. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.


Penelope Fox

“Aside from the wonderful opportunity to live and teach in a country I love, I thank the JET Programme and all its participants I have had contact with for making me think more about the world I live in and how I can make a difference.”

Originally from Sydney, Australia, Penelope Fox (Saga-ken, Shiroishi-cho, 2009-14) developed an interest for Japan at the age of four while accompanying her father on a business trip there. She started studying Japanese in elementary school and, after graduating from university, embarked on a career in Human Resources while dreaming of going to live in Japan one day. Several years and a graduate degree in Education later, she joined the JET Programme and was sent to rural Saga. She has been teaching elementary school children for almost five years and, actively involved in AJET at the local and national level, has been an invaluable member of the JET community since then.

A change of perspective via the JET Programme

Like many people coming on the JET Programme, I was super excited to come to Japan and embrace its culture and language head-on. In fact, for me personally, the JET Programme represented the realisation of a long-term dream: to live in Japan for an extended period and combine my love of teaching, children and Japanese language, and experience ‘real’ Japanese life in the countryside.

While I tried to come to Japan with very few expectations, I would have to say that the JET Programme has been everything I hoped it would be and more: my schools (I have worked at a total of 15 different kindergartens, elementary schools and junior high schools over the past four years) have all be fantastic, each in their own way; my co-workers have generally been very welcoming and accepting of me; my supervisors have been kind; and my communities have embraced having a foreigner in their midst.

For my first placement, I worked in a small ‘city’ of 20,000 people surrounded by mountains. Coming from a dry, mostly flat continent like Australia, the beauty and vividness of the greenery I could constantly see around me that first summer never ceased to amaze me. Having requested a ‘rural’ placement on JET, I was thrilled. At first, my focus was on my work and understanding what it meant to be an ALT. In fact, I believe it took me almost two years to feel like I was really able to contribute to my full potential in classes and at school. As time went by, I cemented personal and professional relationships, and came to love my quiet country life in Japan; perhaps even more so than that first ‘honeymoon’ phase.

At the end of my third year, unable to secure a new contract with a cost-cutting BOE, yet not wanting to return home yet, I was lucky enough to be granted a transfer to a neighbouring city in the same prefecture. Though my surroundings have since changed to a flat landscape and the constant smell of onions and renkon (the two specialties of the area), plus a suite of new schools, the people around me again have made the difference in making me feel at home. My neighbours and co-workers epitomise what I believe to be one of Japan’s core strengths– the friendliness of the people. Again I am reminded how lucky I am to have this experience that has exceeded all my expectations.

But what I did not really expect coming on JET, was that my whole perspective on life would be changed. In fact, it was only really when I began to think about this article that I realised how different I am now compared to when I arrived four years ago. Looking back, I think it all started when a JET friend of mine decided to start a volunteer activity called Circle Time– an initiative based on the concept of reading circles where a group of us would read English picture books to young toddlers (and their families) in Saga; initially at the city library. I enthusiastically volunteered for this activity when I could, and enjoyed both the activity itself and the concept of spreading internationalisation in the community.

Later, I read about other groups (of JET participants) in Japan who initiated visits to orphanages in their local communities. I had already been part of a Charity Christmas Party Project that donated money to an orphanage in Saga, and I wanted to ‘spread the love’ around to other disadvantaged children. I canvassed local support from people in Saga and approached two orphanages with the idea of undertaking regular visits to play with the children. Now in its second year, the orphanage visits have been a huge success with my team of volunteers, the orphanage staff, and of course the kids themselves.

After one of the first visits, one of the girls told a Japanese friend of mine about her experience. She said that she had come to the orphanage around one year ago, and that our visit (during which we did some craft activities and played various games) was the first time she had really been able to smile and be happy since she had arrived there. As if spending time with these children wasn’t fun enough already, hearing this feedback made me feel as though my entire plan was so incredibly worthwhile.

After the Tohoku Disaster of March 2011, I also wanted to do something more than simply give money to help the rebuilding efforts. Unfortunately though, I already had plans for the next vacation period and later was unable to generate the funds I needed to get all the way from Kyushu to the affected areas, realising that my money would actually be better off directly donated for the time being. But I will get to Tohoku before I leave Japan. I will seek out more volunteering opportunities, now and in the future.

Why didn’t this type of work occur to me before coming on JET? Did I lead such a sheltered life that people in need didn’t really feature on my agenda? Or did I simply not know what opportunities existed in my local community back home and how to get involved? I am not sure of the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that I plan to find out, and do something about it. Aside from the wonderful opportunity to live and teach in a country I love, I thank the JET Programme and all its participants I have had contact with for making me think more about the world I live in and how I can make a difference. Whether it be travelling the world (something else I am passionate about), or at home in my local community, I will find or make opportunities to contribute in a volunteer capacity; something I would never have done before. That is what JET has really meant to me: a change of perspective. I can not wait for my fifth and final year to begin, and whatever may come next!

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