Dec 27

From JET to NPR: An Interview (and Playlist) from Producer Robin Hilton

“The best you can do is be fearless and open. If you find yourself avoiding a possible career path because you’re afraid of something, stop. Take a deep breath and jump into it. You can’t expect to grow or get anywhere by playing it safe.” (Courtesy of Robin Hilton)

“The best you can do is be fearless and open. If you find yourself avoiding a possible career path because you’re afraid of something, stop. Take a deep breath and jump into it. You can’t expect to grow or get anywhere by playing it safe.” (Courtesy of Robin Hilton)


By Sheila Burt (Toyama-ken, 2010-2012) for JQ magazine. Sheila is a grant proposal writer at the Center for Bionic Medicine at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Read more of her reporting and writing at her blog.

Robin Hilton (Aichi-ken, 1996-99) is a radio producer and co-host of NPR’s music program All Songs Considered. In this JQ exclusive, Hilton shares his experiences on the JET Program in the late 1990s and his radio documentary Big in Japan, a comical and poignant reflection on his daily life as an English teacher in Japan.

Growing up in the small town of Abilene in central Kansas, Hilton never imagined living or working in Japan. But around the same time he graduated from the University of Kansas in 1992, Abilene initiated a sister city and exchange program with Minori, Japan (now Omitama) in Ibaraki-ken. At the encouragement of the program’s director, Hilton applied for a job teaching English more than 6,000 miles away from his hometown, as he was excited to begin a new endeavor outside of his comfort zone and experience a different culture. Yet Hilton would still have to wait a few years before his new adventure in Japan could begin.

“I didn’t get [the position],” Hilton recalls, “but it planted the seed in me, so a few years later I decided to try for the JET Program. I didn’t grow up with a deep fascination with or love of the country. But it ended up being one of the greatest things I’ve ever done with my life, and I certainly have that deep love for Japan now.”

For three years in the late 1990s, Hilton was an Assistant Language Teacher (the position was then called Assistant English Teacher) based out of Aichi-ken’s prefectural office in Nagoya. He lived in Okazaki-shi in southeastern Aichi-ken and taught at various middle schools in Toyota-shi.

“I was also a one-shot middle school AET, which meant I rarely visited the same school or even classroom twice,” he says. “I was still doing my self-introduction on the last class of my last day of being there for three years.”

As he learned Japanese, Hilton also worked informally as an interpreter when English-speaking visitors toured the schools in the area or visited the prefectural office.

While in Japan, Hilton befriended his supervisor, who loved music and played the violin, but gave it up for a more financially stable career in education. In his radio documentary, Hilton and his supervisor informally play music together and ponder life, as well as the intricacies of Japanese society—a rare occasion for his diligent supervisor who, like many Japanese, spent countless hours and nights working in the office. Before this recording, his supervisor hadn’t played the violin in more than 14 years, despite having studied music as a university student. As they became closer friends, Hilton often encouraged his supervisor to take a break from work and chat over coffee.

“I’d find ways to get my over-worked supervisor out of the office, to go sit at a coffee shop and just relax and talk about our lives,” Hilton says. “One afternoon, he leaned back in his chair and said, ‘This is human life.’ It really was.”

Before his position with JET, Hilton had worked as a radio reporter and brought his equipment to Japan with him. In his last few weeks in Japan, as he realized his time left in the country was fleeting, he began to record his students and interview friends and coworkers. These recordings became the basis for Big in Japan, which first aired in 2000 on Soundprint.

Big in Japan is an honest portrayal of teaching in English in Japan in the early 1990s—depicting, as some JETs still experience, Hilton’s doe-eyed enthusiasm when he first arrives, his eventual culture shock and confusion about his job responsibilities (or lack thereof), and also his admiration of Japanese people and culture. After appearing on Soundprint, the show has since been rebroadcast on Soundprint and NPR multiple times.

“My radio documentary about my time in Japan was a work of creative non-fiction,” Hilton says. “I took some liberties with the storytelling and recreated a lot of the things that happened, exaggerating some elements for the purpose of making a point or to simply entertain. But I felt like it was true to the spirit of my time there, what it felt like and what people on the outside thought of it.”

In addition to recording these interviews for his documentary during his last year in Japan, Hilton applied to and was accepted into a graduate program in early childhood education at the University of Georgia, but before he enrolled, a friend encouraged him to launch Small Good Thing Productions, a company for independent film, radio, and music. Although he had planned on becoming a teacher after JET, Hilton continued to work in radio and began his tenure with All Songs Considered in 2001. In addition to his work at NPR, Hilton is a multi-instrumentalist who has composed soundtracks for various productions.

“My time in Japan helped get me here indirectly,” he says. “You have to have patience, think quickly, adapt quickly, have a good sense of humor, be comfortable with change, flexible, etc. Working in Japan for three years is a pretty good indication you’ve got those qualities. It broadens your mind and your horizons. It also freed me up for other opportunities, like starting my own production company, which helped lead to this position I have now with NPR.”

Hilton has not been back to Japan since he left in 1999, but he remains in touch with friends he met while on the program and has seen some Japanese friends who have come to America. Transitioning back to life in America was challenging, as he describes at the end of his radio documentary, though many of the skills he learned in Japan helped him achieve some of his career goals, as well as broadened his outlook on life.

“I can only say that life rarely, if ever, turns out the way you expect it to,” he says. “The best you can do is be fearless and open. If you find yourself avoiding a possible career path because you’re afraid of something, stop. Take a deep breath and jump into it. You can’t expect to grow or get anywhere by playing it safe.”

Robin Hilton’s “Japan Mix” (music he listened to while on the JET Program)

1. “Down by the River” — Neil Young, from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

2. “Devil’s Haircut” — Beck, from Odelay

3. “A Change Would Do You Good” — Sheryl Crow, from Sheryl Crow (that first solo album was awesome)

4. “World Gone Wrong” — Bob Dylan, from World Gone Wrong

5. “In the Aeroplane over the Sea” — Neutral Milk Hotel, from In the Aeroplane over the Sea

6. “Divine Intervention” — Matthew Sweet, from Girlfriend

7. “You” — R.E.M., from Monster

8. “Guilty by Association” — Vic Chesnutt, from Is the Actor Happy?

9. “The Song We Were Singing” — Paul McCartney, from Flaming Pie

10. “Milk” — Chara, from Junior Sweet (one of the few Japanese pop artists I got into. A nice wistfulness to this song that felt right at the time.)

There was better music coming out, but all of those were in heavy rotation for various reasons when I was there from ’96 to ’99. Can’t believe how big Neutral Milk Hotel has gotten since then.

Listen to Hilton’s radio documentary, Big in Japan, here.

For more JQ magazine interviews, click here.

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