Feb 9

CLAIR Magazine “JET Plaza” series: Dr. Adam Komisarof (Saitama)

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


Adam Komisarof (Saitama-ken, 1990-92), PhD, is a professor in Reitaku University’s Department of Economics and Business Administration.  In 2012-13, he served as a senior associate member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, and conducted research as a visiting academic at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies.  As a bilingual intercultural trainer (Japanese and English), he has conducted workshops for thousands of participants in Japan, the United States, Southeast Asia, and Europe.  Dr. Komisarof has over 40 publications and has authored two books, On the Front Lines of Forging a Global Society: Japanese and American Coworkers in Japan (2011) and At Home Abroad: Westerners’ Views of Themselves in Japan (2012).

Dr. Adam Komisarof

“Overall, my life in Japan has been very satisfying, and if the JET Programme had not given me such a positive first experience here, I doubt that I ever would have settled in Japan and led the life I have. JET has opened my eyes to a new cultural, linguistic, and personal reality for which I am deeply grateful.”


A Life Trajectory Shaped by the JET Programme

My experience in the JET Programme made me who I am today—both as a professional and a human being. When I graduated from Brown University in 1990 and readied myself to journey to Japan, I never imagined that I would be still living here in my middle age, raising a family, and working as an academic who researches and teaches about how culture affects human experience, thought, and behavior. Yet here I am. Currently, I am a professor at Reitaku University, where I teach intercultural communication, English, and acculturation psychology. In my free time, I am also a corporate intercultural communication trainer and consultant. And with the exception of one year of my sabbatical at the University of Oxford, I have lived in Japan continuously since 1998 (in addition to two years on JET from 1990-1992).

So how did I get here? While at Brown, I studied education, so after graduation, I had two goals: to teach English and to do so in a culture that was completely different from my own. I spent the next two years working daily in the same high school in Saitama, a place which I called my “educational laboratory.” The English teachers encouraged me to design our lessons while giving advice and feedback. Consequently, I grew immensely as a teacher during those two years, as I could experiment with many educational philosophies and methods. I also developed close relationships with other teachers since they included me in many social events where we engaged in the revered Japanese custom of “nomunication.”

I felt my experience on JET fell short in just one area. Perhaps naively, I wanted to have the responsibilities and rights similar to those of other full-time teachers. Being a trained educator, I hoped to join faculty and departmental meetings and be involved in the deeper machinations of the school, but to no avail. Just as my title indicated, I was an “assistant” English teacher, so my access to certain realms within the school was limited. Also, at times I felt treated differently based on my not being Japanese—that is, like a guest but not a member, and that was discouraging. I wanted people to relax and accept me without my nationality being a barrier in our communication.

After I completed the JET Programme, I backpacked around Asia and the Middle East for six months before returning to the U.S. to teach Japanese language and culture in a private school near Seattle. One weekend, I attended a lecture at the University of Washington by Milton Bennett about a field called “intercultural communication.” During those 90 minutes, I realized satori! In other words, Dr. Bennett taught me a new language of concepts to describe many of the cultural differences which I had noticed in Japan and also how to handle those differences so I could minimize misunderstandings and conflict. I was hooked, so I decided to get my master’s degree in the field.

While studying with Dr. Bennett, I revisited my JET experience. In my graduation thesis, I asked, “What kinds of behaviors and attitudes are Japanese teachers expected to demonstrate in order to become accepted members of their school faculties?” And when JET participants encountered these social norms, did they feel more accepted by their Japanese coworkers, or did they feel ostracized? This line of inquiry shaped the start of my academic career as I published three peer-reviewed academic papers about the JET Programme and how to socially and professionally integrate JET participants into their schools. My research interest in the JET Programme remains: in my most recent book, At Home Abroad: The Contemporary Western Experience in Japan, I argued that the JET Programme has been a pivotal force in Japan’s domestic internationalization, as an entire generation (or two!) of Japanese children has grown up interacting with non-Japanese in their schools and their neighborhoods, thus normalizing the everyday presence of non-Japanese in Japanese society and its institutions.

The JET Programme also ignited my lifelong interest in the Japanese language.  When I first came to Japan, ironically, I wanted to understand the culture but not learn the language. I did not have a good experience studying French in high school (though I love it now), as teachers focused on the minutiae of grammar, which I never seemed to master. But soon after I arrived in Japan, I grasped the joy of communication in a foreign language: I was amazed when Japanese people nodded their heads in understanding as strings of completely foreign words came out of my mouth. Thanks to these galvanizing experiences, I am able today to read books for my research and teach a weekly lecture course at my university in intercultural communication in Japanese.

My advice to JET participants is to throw yourself completely into the job.  Some things you will like, and others you won’t, but through this experience, you will discover what kind of work you enjoy and what you do not. This will prepare you for your next step in life and finding a career that fully suits you. For example, I confirmed on JET that I would like to teach, but it was not until after I worked at elementary, junior high, and high schools that I finally settled upon universities as my ideal.

Without a doubt, JET helped make me who I am. In addition to shaping my professional interests, I learned to give to others (my students), to work with diverse people, and the importance of diplomacy: in Japan, I am representing not just myself, but also my country to my students, fellow teachers, and community. Their ideas about Americans are influenced by our daily interactions, so I try to remember this whenever I step outside. Overall, my life in Japan has been very satisfying, and if the JET Programme had not given me such a positive first experience here, I doubt that I ever would have settled in Japan and led the life I have. JET has opened my eyes to a new cultural, linguistic, and personal reality for which I am deeply grateful.



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