Feb 17

CLAIR Magazine “JET Plaza” series: Jody Maria-Ann Dixon (Yamanashi)

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 current JET participant Jody Dixon. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.


“Internationalization is a reciprocal process. So, whilst the language is seemingly daunting, it holds the key to a side of Japan you are yet to see. Learn the language, and you’ll be amazed at the things it will teach you.”

Originally from Jamaica, Jody Maria-Ann Dixon (Yamanashi-ken, 2009- present) came to Japan for the first time on the JET Programme. The melting pot of cultures and experiences she had daily during her previous job as a Guest Services Manager and Environmental Project Manager at a resort, coupled with her previous academic pursuits (BSc Geography and Geology at the University of the West Indies) were a huge influence on her decision to join the Programme.  She has been living and teaching in Fuefuki, Yamanashi, for the past five years and reckons that this experience has engendered a spirit of loyalty; deepened her respect for people and their cultures; and has helped her immensely in making decisions towards her lifelong career goals, which will be centred on international education. 

Language and Reciprocity

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela.

“Hello, Konnichiwa!” After four and a half years of walking down my senior high school’s corridors shoulder to shoulder with my Japanese Teachers of English, and hearing this familiar greeting, I am still tremendously appreciative of my students’ use of both English and Japanese interchangeably. Whether they believe that I still don’t understand Japanese (due to my minimal use at school), and they are making an effort to be accommodating; or it is simply an encoded reflex upon catching sight of me, it doesn’t diminish the warmth that the vocalization of a single, friendly,  English word evokes.

Upon accepting my placement on the JET Programme, I was honestly blasé about the idea of learning the Japanese language.  In my mind, I presumed two things: if it wasn’t a requirement for acceptance, it wasn’t a requirement for “survival,” and; with immersion, the acquisition of Japanese language skills would come easily and naturally. It was indeed sad, the hubris of this English monolingual. Consequently, I arrived in Tokyo in the summer of 2009, and shortly after being welcomed by the beaming faces of fellow foreigners with brightly decorated English placards, I was bombarded with signs, questions, choices and challenges, entirely in Japanese.  Though I was to be a resident in this country – for what I didn’t know then, was going to be at least five years – for a moment, (that I didn’t allow to last too long), I was nothing more than a struggling “tourist,” being constantly aided by jovial and obliging individuals using a mixture of a smidgen of English, light speed Japanese, gestures noteworthy of a winning game of charades and a series of begrudging sighs.

No one, especially at the grand old age of 23, wants to feel helpless and illiterate. Whilst I relished being the novel neighbourhood foreigner, and welcomed the polite gestures and formal invitations extended to me, I constantly felt that there was something missing. Though there were always words being exchanged, I was failing horribly at meaningful communication. For a while, I felt cheated. My shortcoming of non-existent Japanese language skills had me teetering on the periphery of all the things life in Japan encompassed. If I wanted to regain my privacy; make connections and friends outside of my Japanese workplace; or indulge in and understand the folklore and traditions, etc. I had to make an effort to acquire some level of Japanese proficiency. I knew I was here to teach English, and perhaps about life in Jamaica if they’d agree, but I also understood very early, that in order to do so effectively, I would have to commit myself unreservedly to learning.

With curiosity as my guide, so my studying began. I didn’t drill myself; I had no exam-related goals, I really just wanted to be an active participant in Japanese life. My tasks and errands became easier, my job became more fun and meaningful, and individuals seemed friendlier. Imagine that, especially if you think they’re friendly now. Sounds cliché? Seriously, think of how excited you get, or how relieved and light-hearted you feel when you realize that a Japanese person or other foreigner can relate to you in your native language, even if you’re a fluent Japanese speaker. I know I especially feel this way when I visit hospitals.  Even just for a minute, take the time to consider, that this is very same effect that a greeting or positive Japanese comment from you may have on your peers, and friends. I know by now, that my students have caught on to the façade of my non-existent Japanese speaking skills. Nonetheless, they are always relieved by my active response to their hushed Japanese comments or not so silent cries of ‘muri’ when assigned a task.

My Japanese co-worker and friend recently admitted that it is easier for her to speak to me in English, than it is to speak to me in Japanese. That being said, it’s clear I’m no savant.  She however, apologized before making this statement, after which, she explained. “Though I speak English fluently, there is bound to be some misunderstanding due to the difference in culture, or because I am unaware of the context, so sometimes it is still necessary to use Japanese to explain myself thoroughly. However, we suffer from a similar situation. Do you remember when you nervously asked me if it was okay to say ‘dou itashimashite’ when responding to the principal? You make an effort to speak in Japanese, and to understand the Japanese language and culture, and it makes me extremely happy that you try, even when you make mistakes.” I was surprised that she used the word “happy” to express the effect this had on her. She continued, “Many English speakers assume that everyone everywhere speaks English, so the majority never make the effort.  So, I am not afraid of communicating with you in English or Japanese.  I can always speak freely and comfortably with you.”

At that moment – though the tone of the conversation was anything but funny – we both laughed, as we simultaneously recalled the ‘dou itashimashite’ scenario. I was never given the chance to use the more formal response she had helped me prepare, because upon concluding a meeting with my principal – with whom I had never spoken to in English – to practice his English speech for an upcoming ceremony, he cradled both my hands in his and graciously said, “Thank you.”

When Mandela made the remark alluded to, though during the Apartheid era, he unknowingly provided then, a proverbial expression that currently underscores the importance of language as a communication tool. Though stated many moons ago, the tenet that it advocates, is analogous to those mentioned in the philosophy of the JET Programme. Internationalization is a reciprocal process. So, whilst the language is seemingly daunting (I still suffer from kanji nightmares), it holds the key to a side of Japan you are yet to see. Learn the language, and you’ll be amazed at the things it will teach you.





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