Apr 12
Members of the JET Alumni Association of New York Japan-a-Mania 1-18-2014 (Courtesy of Monica Yuki)

Members of the JET Alumni Association of New York volunteering in the annual Japan-a-Mania community event with Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, January 2014. (Courtesy of Monica Yuki)


By Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) for JQ magazine. Eden is JETAA New South Wales‘s webmaster, meaning he is the voice on all the online and social media for the Sydney-based chapter like Twitter, Instagram (both @jetaansw) and Facebook. Outside of JETAA, he doesn’t exist, and is merely a concept of a shadow of a dream of an enigma, wrapped in mystery and served with a side of salad. 


The following is a shamelessly biased opinion: Being a member of JETAA is fantastic. One gets to help organise and be involved in events and projects that reach the general public here in Sydney (like the Japan Festival), hang out with a great group of like-minded people that know all the best Japanese places to eat, drink and be merry, and who are rarely inhibited in any karaoke session. There is ample opportunity to new people constantly, both inside and outside that chapter’s home city’s J-community, so in a way, the JET experience never truly ends.

That’s a personal assessment of what it’s like being a member of JETAA, the alumni association for former JETs. JETAA chapters exist all over the world from where the JET Programme has drawn its recruits. They give former JETs a way to connect with their local J-community and like-minded peers, and are essentially a non-profit social organisation with a Japanese cultural bent. And because JET is made up of a diverse group of people from all walks of life, JETAA chapters have great potential as a resource with links in government, business, education, academia and social networks.

But it can’t be denied that many chapters struggle with visibility or relevancy, in attracting members to events or to join their committees. The last point is especially important, as new members help to keep the organisation dynamic and active. And while the reasons for this are different for every situation, some similar and salient points can be discerned, notably from online forum comments (like LinkedIn). While a comprehensive discussion can probably fill a volume or ten, this article will nevertheless discuss these points.

So what does JETAA have to deal with?

Hide and Seek: Visibility of JETAA Chapters

“I strongly feel that JETAA Int’l needs to devise a way to reach out to alumni like me who have nowhere to turn.” –Stephen E. Smith, Thailand, Fukuoka-ken ALT, 1995-98

“…it’s more important to capture them when people return to their home countries and that the organisation delivers something of value to everyone. If that is not done, you have (pretty much) lost them forever.” –Huw Waters, JETAA UK, Saitama-ken CIR, 1997-00

Awareness of JETAA’s existence is surprisingly low, even among returning JETs. Reaching out to alumni after their JET tenure is a common problem that many JETAA chapters face. During JETAA Oceania’s previous National Conference, this provoked animated debate. One of those present was Ben Trumbull (Kochi-ken CIR, 2005-07), president of JETAA New South Wales, who said, “Getting in touch with JET returnees is an important part of what we at JETAA do, and arguably the reason for the existence of JETAA. But knowing exactly who is coming back is a bit of a lottery. As a result, there are quite a few that we miss out on every year.”

While it is difficult to get a hold of JETs when they return, chapters can still make inroads into the consciousness of future members. For example, both JETAA New York and JETAA New South Wales concentrate efforts early to embed the idea of JETAA into the returnees.

Monica Yuki (Saitama-ken ALT, 2002-04), president of JETAA NY, says, “We have found that the heavy involvement and connections that we make before they leave for the JET Programme have led to them seeking JETAA NY out when they return. On top of being presenters at the Pre-departure Seminars hosted by the Consulate and CLAIR, we host a variety of social events that give the new JETs more opportunities to meet each other and alumni.”

For JETAA NSW, by heavily promoting our particularly active online presence and contact details, and encouraging early opt-in into the association, it is calculated to create a positive, constant (but low-key) reminder in the consciousness of JET participants with the hope that it will increase the likelihood that new faces will choose to engage of their own volition (more on the role of the Internet later).

Getting There Is Half the Trouble: Chapter Accessibility

“For me it’s a matter of time and obligation. When I’m done at work, I don’t really want to do anything else that feels even slightly giri. The other factor for me is convenience: I will attend things that aren’t a pain to get to, but so many of our local events are far away or in strange places, I don’t want to have to struggle to find [them].” –Emily K. Frank, USA, Hokkaido ALT, 1993-96

“‘Family Life’ and Location are the biggest two factors for me in the US Texas-Oklahoma chapter….Trekking across town for a two-hour event, then trekking back isn’t as much fun in Houston as it was in Yokohama or Tokyo. Or maybe I am just getting old.” –Chad R. Gaulding, USA, Kanagawa-ken ALT, 1994-97

“I only found out about [JETAA] YEARS after I had returned. I did get to one event and found the group very cold to “outsiders,” especially “daisempai” who remained in Japan for a number of years after JET.” –Kathleen M. Moran, Canada, Aichi-ken ALT, 1990-92

“I find out about events within my vicinity too late, and there are more events way outside of my area. I’d like to be more involved, though.” —Kevin Yu, USA, Nara-ken ALT, 2005-10

By far the most common obstacle to participation for many is the location of the events and how far they have to travel. Chapters are primarily located in major cities, and often centralised in locations where food and recreation businesses are most commonly found. It poses a problem for alumni who live further out, particularly those who have raised a family, plus other commitments both social and practical, that makes the long trek “across town” untenable.

Chapters have explored various strategies with success, which will be illustrated below. Ryan D. Hart (Chiba-ken ALT, 1998-99), a board member of JETAA USA, encourages proactive self-actualisation, in the form sub-chapters or new ones altogether: “I think location is big in getting involved,” he says. “The more active chapters are centered around locations of the Japanese consulates, but there is always room to grow. JETAA has grown from a few interested alumni, so if you don’t have a chapter or activities happening near you, organize other like-minded individuals who would like to get something going and reach out on message boards for support in getting started…JETAA is a great connector for other Japan-related organizations, and you are already a member having participated in the programme.”

But Matt Nelson (Hiroshima-ken ALT, 2008-11), who works closely with JETAA UK, offers cautionary words: “If you are a JETAA board member/organiser, be wary of the fact that you might be working within a tight group of people familiar with each, and perhaps that can create lack of transparency or barriers to involvement from outsiders. If you only ask for help/involvement from JETAAers or others when you think necessary, it might be too late. Your ideas might be geared towards you and the committee members, who probably share a similar background, interests, desires from JETAA, and personality (outgoing, takes initiative, etc.)…

“Put another way, if you sell something to customers you think is awesome, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they don’t buy it because it’s not what they wanted or they didn’t know about it.”

Considering that JET participants, in theory, are recruited for their enthusiasm or ability to be genki as a coping and survival skill when living in Japan, it is surprising that outsiders perceive barriers to participation. Clearly, chapters have to also work hard on their attitude, as demonstrated by Monica (JETAA NY): “We make it a point that when a new person joins an event or the group that we introduce them to other members. We help them find people that work in the same field, live in the same neighborhood, participated on JET in the same prefecture, and so on. This helps new members feel more connected to the community and hopefully encourages them to attend other events because they will know more people.”

From the above, it can be seen that flexibility and transparency is key, requiring vigilance and self-awareness to counteract negative perceptions of exclusivity and inaccessibility.

A New Chapter on Life: Getting Them Involved

“It is one thing to participate online, but it’s a far larger and rewarding experience to be able to be involved in something that has physical weight. Incentive is also a massive problem. You may be very hard pressed to find people who even CAN work for free, let alone want to, when so many are financially struggling.” —Michael Sundman, USA, Mie-ken ALT, 2009-11

Intricately linked to the previous topic is the issue of relevancy. While the social club aspect is undeniably an important part of what JETAA does, providing a more directed, practical and tangible benefit is where JETAA can truly make an important impact and attract potential chapter members. As Huw Waters (JETAA UK) described the situation upon his return to the UK several years ago, “When I returned, there was little the organisation could offer for me other than drinks networking with returnees—[I] wasn’t interested.” Now, however, he notes that “the organisation has definitely changed, and what Sarah Parsons (Gunma-ken ALT, 1995-98, also the president of JETAA UK) is trying to do in the UK educating about careers after JET is superb. I will give my time to the organisation now and help returnees on that front.” Chapters that recognise this have mobilised to organise very impressive events that show just how much pulling power and recognition the reputation and brand name of the JET Programme has. JETAA UK, for example, has career seminars and networking events that would be the envy of any chapter.

Chapters should be receptive to ideas put forth by their community, allowing for unique projects that don’t necessarily fit into the usual offering of that particular chapter. Referring again to Monica (JETAANY): “I let alumni know that if there is something they already like doing and are looking for more people to do it with, then let’s make it into a JET event. We can set up a PayPal link, make a Facebook event page, and advertise it to the members in the newsletter. We have done this several times for events like a trip to an oyster-eating festival, museum exhibits/tours, several hikes, a pumpkin picking fall festival, and a harbor cruise.”

From the various examples given so far from different chapters’ experiences, it should be evident that a diversified offering is the key to a chapter’s success. Matt Nelson (UK) offers a succinctly put summary: “I think JETAA chapters should try to: 1) Network and advertise like crazy; 2) Offer a variety of activities to suit as many as possible (nights out, family-friendly picnics, concerts, movies, field trips, career-oriented educational opportunities, guest speakers, etc.), as exemplified by the success in response to JETAA UK’s activities, and; 3) Link some activities as ongoing to establish continued personal investment (like career development initiatives, book club, language circle).”

So far, the subject of keeping current committee members staying around, enthusiastic and motivated hasn’t been directly addressed. This possibly warrants its own article, but for now it’s worth mentioning. As a voluntary association, this aspect will always present a challenge to incentivising members to become more directly involved, giving up their time and energy. So why do existing members continue to devote themselves? The answer to this question may ultimately help in refining strategies in attracting and keeping members.

JETAA provides a unique intangible benefit, because, as Monica (JETAA NY) says, it creates “a great community where alumni can come together and share their love of Japan and blend it with their post-JET life here in the States. There comes a time when family and friends have heard all the stores about ‘that one time at this izakaya’ or ‘when I fell in the rice paddy.’ But JETs will always listen to these stories because we each have so many of our own to share. The chapter creates a place where people can share their memories, insights and unique treasures they found in Japan.”

For others, putting in the effort reaps direct tangible benefits for the organisers, as Sarah (JETAA UK) explains: “My main motivation is for my own business contacts, and also to network to meet like-minded people.” Any benefit, then, if not compensatory in the form of salaried remuneration, helps in retention of personnel, and inspires passion for what JETAA does. And passion in turn fuels motivation, for without it, nothing, even a paid job, can be carried out properly. Inspiring that passion, and coupling it with a future benefit, either tangible (future business opportunities) or intangible (swapping well-worn JET stories), should be a key consideration in any effort to drive recruitment.

Other Things to Consider

Social media: The other rich network to tap, the Internet, is becoming a vital and inexpensive way for chapters to publicise and stay in touch with members, particularly inactive or isolated ones. At the very least, it means having a Facebook page or group (the distinction between the two is not exactly clear, save that only Facebook pages can be linked to a corresponding Twitter account). As mentioned before, having an active Facebook group helps create the impression that the chapter is active and dynamic, and if pitched in the right way, will draw out previously absent members.

Sites for chapters can range from simple “brochure” sites like JETAA Germany that simply has links and contact details, to WordPress or Typepad blog-like arrangements like JETAA France, to comprehensive resource sites like JETwit, JETAA UK  and JETAA NY. For JETAA NSW, current and past JETs are invited to submit articles which then act as a valuable resource, used to direct enquiries from potential, current and past JETs. JETAA NSW also uses online tools like MailChimp for its newsletter mailing, which provides in-depth, useful stats that helps analyse its reach and impact. These examples show the potential that the online environment has for JETAA chapters, even the smallest and least resourced.

Collaboration: One thing JETAA chapters could do more of is to talk to each other. Anyone who has ever attended a JETAA national or regional conference would know how invigorating and conducive the environment is to motivating individuals (there even used to be a global conference of JETAA chapters before funding cuts ended it). For example, the Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET), which is similar to JETAA but caters to current JETs based in Japan, would be an invaluable collaborative partner, particularly in raising the profile of JETAA. As Kay Makishi (Fukuoka-ken CIR, 2011-present), chair of AJET, says, “I’m focused…on engaging and providing opportunities for current JETs, and am trying to work on more collaboration between alumni and current JETs. One way alumni can directly help is to participate in our AJET Professional Development Conference Calls.”

Sister city programmes are also a potential avenue for chapters to get involved. This was the topic of JETAA Oceania’s 2013 national conference. Ben (JETAA NSW) talks about combining several opportunities in one: “JETAA NSW is unique in that we are not too far from another chapter, JETAA Canberra, which is located in a major urban centre (the capital of Australia) in the middle of a largely rural country area. We’ve already begun organising trips to country towns to take advantage of Japanese festivals, like in Cowra, that take place due to Australian-Japanese sister city relationships that exist [Australia has one of the most extensive Japanese-Australian sister city relationships in the world, with many in rural areas].

“By working closer with JETAA Canberra, we hope to not only expand on what we can offer to our combined membership groups, but also reach out to rural and isolated alumni that would have found it too difficult to get to Sydney.”

Inspiration Gallery: Success Stories from JETAA

This section contains some successful events, programmes and initiatives from various JETAA chapters. The range of size and type of event shows just how much JETAA can offer.

Something for everyone: Barbara Rothengass Cristinziani (Kagoshima-ken ALT, 2003-06), president of JETAA Texoma, says, “In the US Texas-Oklahoma chapter, we began to offer more family-friendly events. For example, we held a tsunami relief fundraiser and got buy-in and sponsorship from a local restaurant/pub. We advertised it as family-friendly with games and prizes, but also extended the hours to make it equally appealing to the pub crowd. This worked well and drew some alumni out of the woodwork.”

Career support: As Sarah (JETAA UK), says, “There are so many older ex-JETS with lots of post-JET experience who want to engage professionally and possibly expand their Japan-related networks or use their Japan experiences to further economic links. It’s not just about meeting up with each other but linking in with the local Japan-related business community (I did a Welcome Back Reception in Nottingham with talks from the local Japan-related business/academic community). We are also giving professional JETs the chance to mentor recently returned JETs….We have had an overwhelming response to our upcoming careers seminar, where we have some leading Japanese businesses talking about using Japan skills in the workplace…So there is certainly interest—it just needs to be harnessed in a professional manner for those interested in this area of engagement.”

The art project: In 2013, JETAA NSW and the Japanese Consulate of Sydney collaborated to help realise a JETAA member’s dream of launching an uchiwa design competition in the lead-up to Sydney’s Japan Festival, in which the winning design was printed on a thousand uchiwa and handed out to the public on a hot summer’s day. In addition, for the same festival, JETAA NSW also collaborated with Japan Club of Sydney and provided a further 300 blank uchiwa for children attending the festival to allow them to doodle, draw and decorate with their own original design. In both instances, the response from the public was overwhelmingly positive—in the latter case, not only were some children returning several times the activity, but it also attracted a much broader age group than anticipated. Additionally, it helped advertise and raise the profile of JETAA NSW publicly.

Maintaining a connection: Kay (AJET) explains the AJET Professional Development Conference Calls: “This is a new initiative…featuring various guest speakers in their mid-careers offering advice on how they went from JET to their positions now.” Positions in these calls are extremely sought after, with fierce competition for available spots. For their call with Ann Sado last October, she says, “We offered 30 available spots and they filled up within three days. In fact, we accepted 15 more JETs for a total of 45 participants suggesting that JETs are keen on connecting with alumni and learning about various options after JET.”

Community partnerships: Monica (JETAA NY) describes Japan-a-Mania, an annual event geared towards local children: “Every year JETAA NY partners with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization to teach the children of New York about Japan. We organize a variety of booths including origami, a chopstick challenge, try on a yukata, write your name in Japanese, make onigiri, and Japanese dance and music. We invite other organizations to partner with us to host this event. We know this is a benefit to the community and the children really look forward to it.”

Closing Thoughts: What Is Success?

“JETAA is an organization that is an open membership. People will get involved when it is convenient for them. We are not required to be active to be ‘a member.’ I was able to develop close relationships when I was first ‘active’ with JETAA. I am still able to develop business relationships today based on my JET experience. This simple string of comments proves that people are still active with JETAA.” –Chad R. Gaulding, USA, Kanagawa ALT, 1994-97

How does a chapter measure success? It is best to consider the maxim “every situation is different,” which, far from being a tired old excuse for the way things are, actually helps to set and manage expectations. Chapters are wildly different in terms of their scope, resource, size and problems they have to face, with cultural, language and environmental factors to consider. It should be stressed that, while the examples given in the previous section are fantastic and hopefully will inspire further chapter reading, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. One should also recognise the fact that there are chapters without the resources or environment of a JETAA NY or a JETAA UK and chapters should seek to find what works for them and develop from there.

An event can attract a few, or a lot. Does one judge a successful outcome on numbers, or subsequent results and impact? Does future feedback play an important part in the assessment? Does one count only active (i.e., people who turn up in person) participation, or online participation, which is harder to see and measure? Monica (JETAA NY) puts value on enticing absent members: “To me, a successful event is when we find a new JET alum, bring one back out of the woodwork, or when an alum gets a personal benefit out of attending. None of us get paid to do this, so a successful event is knowing that all the hard work in planning the event has brought the membership together and strengthened our community.”

Managing one’s expectations is advisable. But as another old adage says, “you never know if you never try,” and it’s been proven that members are willing to attend or participate if the conditions are favorable to them. And certainly, it cannot be done without a supportive JETAA community behind the idea or project.

This article is not the first on this topic, and it won’t be the last—nor should it. If you have any ideas or feedback that you’d like to share, leave a comment below or reach out to your local chapter representative—the future of JETAA literally depends on you.

For recent JQ magazine articles, click here.

2 comments so far...

  • jetwit Said on April 12th, 2014 at 10:56 am:

    Eden, great job at tackling a challenging issue and gathering thoughtful and wide-ranging perspectives and experiences.

  • Laurel Lukaszewski Said on April 15th, 2014 at 3:09 pm:


    This is a great synopsis of the current challenges and successes JETAA chapters face worldwide—your findings are very similar to those the United-States Japan Bridging Foundation’s JETAA Initiative found in a survey of US JET alumni this past fall. In the US, to address some of these issues, USJBF is working to establish a national JETAA organization to act as an independent, centralized presence for JETAA to support local chapters and individual alumni across the country. Strengthening the network of JETAA chapters and alumni will provide resources for local chapters, creating a platform to better communicate with each other on a regular basis, and provide outside organizations with a point of contact to access JET alumni nationwide. It will also aim to provide resources for JET alumni residing in communities that are not in close proximity to one of the 19 US JETAA chapters. We believe that this professionalization of the JETAA network will not only be a resource for newly returned JETs, but will encourage the first generation of JET alumni, who are well into their professional careers, to reengage with the community.

    We are presently completing the end of a very successful first year of information gathering and feasibility study, thanks to the support of a grant received from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, and are moving into stage two of the Initiative, where, working with JETAA USA, we will be defining the specific goals of the organization, its vision and its role in the broader US-Japan community.

    Laurel Lukaszewski
    Project Director, JETAA Initiative, USJBF
    Kagoshima-ken 1990-1992

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