Jul 29

CLAIR Magazine “JET Plaza” Series: Laurel Stevens Lukaszewski (Kagoshima)

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


Laurel Stevens Lukaszewski (Kagoshima-ken, Minamitane-cho, 1990-92), is a professional artist who has shown her work throughout the US and in the UK. She is also the former executive director of the Japan-America Society of Washington, DC and is currently project director for the United-States Japan Bridging Foundation’s JETAA Initiative. Since 2002 she has been a member of the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s Board of Directors. Raised on both the east and west coasts of the US, Ms. Lukaszewski holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and a master’s degree in Asian Studies from Florida State University. She lives in the DC metro area with her husband and two rambunctious cats. To view her artwork, please visit www.laurellukaszewski.com


My JET experience taught me I could live in a world where I did not necessarily understand everything, but could still cope and thrive.

My JET experience taught me I could live in a world where I did not necessarily understand everything, but could still cope and thrive.

Enduring Connections

Twenty-four years ago I interviewed for the JET Programme in Atlanta, on my birthday. I felt this was a good omen, so I was not nervous even though this was my first professional interview. Despite spending the last two years of college studying all things Japanese, from language to religion, I had no personal connection with the country and had never been there. What was merely acting on a brief comment by a Japanese politics professor about an opportunity to teach in Japan led me down a path that has guided me over the past two decades.
I spent my two years on JET as the first Assistant English Teacher to be assigned to the town of Minamitane-cho, on Tanegashima, an island off of the southern tip of Kyushu in Kagoshima-ken. I taught at five junior high schools and visited eight elementary schools, usually the first foreigner any of the students had ever met. My role in class varied depending on the school, but every teacher I worked with was eager to include me in activities ranging from PTA BBQs to harvesting sugar cane with students.

During my first weeks I experienced two homestays before moving into my own apartment. In Kirishima, a beautiful mountain town overlooking the Sakurajima volcano, I stayed with a family with three school-age daughters. I did not know at the time that they would become my Japanese family, that their home would become mine whenever I returned to Japan, even decades later. Arriving in Minamitane-cho, I had a second homestay. And, once again, I had no idea that this young couple with three-year-old twins would end up being lifelong friends, attending my wedding, sending seasonal messages as the twins grew into young adults, and hosting my husband and me years later when we were stranded in Kagoshima by a typhoon.
One of the wonderful things about JET is it allows you to become part of the community. Whether anticipated or not, you become involved in the lives of your neighbors, teachers and students. When an art teacher learned my hobby was pottery, she invited me to visit her studio even though she did not speak English. Every week I would join another teacher and my neighbor and spend the evenings working with clay and chatting—an immersion experience in neighborhood news and gossip. When I returned to the US, it was these memories of Japan that endured. My experience taught me I could live in a world where I did not necessarily understand everything, but could still cope and thrive.

Upon my return I earned a Master’s degree in Asian Studies. Using skills I gained on JET, I moved across country and met others interested in US-Japan relations. Networking always seemed daunting, until I realized it was simply talking to people, sharing interests. Through these conversations I found myself working at the Japan-America Society in Seattle for three years. Then, thanks to another JET I met at a conference in Nevada, I was offered a position at the Society in Washington, DC. For six years I promoted US-Japan relations there, eventually becoming executive director. While I loved the work, I wanted to see what I could do with my art professionally if I committed time and energy to it. The leap into art was similar to the one I took when I sealed the envelope on my application for JET. I had no idea where it would lead or whether it would be successful. But it was, and in the nine years since I have often drawn inspiration from my days in Japan, whether through concept, imagery or technique. Additionally, I have remained involved with the JET Programme, reviewing applications, interviewing applicants, working as the review committee liaison, and being active in JETAA. I have also kept my connection to Japan alive through DC’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, where I have served on the board of directors since 2002.

This past summer, I learned of the US-Japan Bridging Foundation’s JETAA Initiative to strengthen the JETAA network and connect next generation leaders in the US-Japan relationship. I applied for the position, knowing I would need to continue my art practice simultaneously, but excited about being involved in the US-Japan relationship in a new way. While it can be a juggling act, having the opportunity to work in two areas I am passionate about makes it worthwhile. Since July 2013, I have met JET alumni from all of the 19 US JETAA chapters. I have been impressed with their interest and dedication in the program and for Japan. Whether they returned last year or two decades ago, there is deep understanding of the importance personal connections play in the world. Interestingly enough, I have rarely met a JET who considers him- or herself a “Japanophile.” Rather, their interest is more nuanced and thoughtful—a result, I think, of being part of a community on a daily basis.

There is a current conversation about the “return on JET-investment” and whether the program is worth it. For the friendships we have made along the way, this is a resounding yes, but JET is more than that. For Japan, there is a population of people who are not Japanese, but who know Japan, understand it personally. To give years of your life to a place is to have it become part of you. This is the return for Japan: to have people not from your country dearly care about it and the people who live there. This personal connection is reflected economically, as well. For many JETs, this was their first professional experience. It was the seed that led them to become teachers, diplomats, artists and leaders in international exchange. Every day, year after year, the JET experience echoes in the work that they do. Most JETs I have met want to return to Japan, to share it with their families. Some have done so many times. Others still dream of introducing their town and friends to their own family and sharing the stories and memories that brought them there. Such connections are not quantifiable, they are priceless.

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