Advice on applying to The JET Programme, preparing to come to Japan, and maximizing your experience as a JET Participant.


Video: ups and downs – How I Joined a Japanese Choir

It’s been many months and summer is almost here. Cherry blossoms have bloomed and fallen. During the holidays and into the spring, a few bumps along the way led to headaches and delays. Beneath all that however were the trips, festivals, and most importantly the people there to push you through those times. In Nagasaki, one such group does that through the magic of music.

A special thanks to The Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club. I love you all and couldn’t have done this without you!

Sorry for the delay. Had to borrow a friend’s computer to do this! Thanks so much Matt!

Hold Me Down – Foreign Fields
いざ起て戦人よ – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club
ふるさと – Sung by the Nagasaki Foreign Settlement Glee Club


For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8 (most used in this video)

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CC 2015

Check out my previous episode on traveling to Yakushima and Tanegashima, and taking video of the stars above Japan.

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 11.47.26 PM

Video: under the stars – Filming the Night Skies of Japan

A trip to the islands of Yakushima and Tanegashima at the beginning of fall provided an opportunity to visit one of the most picturesque landscapes Japan has to offer. My favourite photos however whether back home in Canada or in Japan, are taken simply by pointing my camera up into the night sky.

My longest video thus far with over 1500 km driven for footage around Kyushu and about 2 months to film everything, hope you enjoy!

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6

Rokinon 12mm F2.0 (most used in this video)

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Nagasaki and my summer adventures.

accidently hitting the windsheild wipers

The Windshield Wipers: An Update on Work, Travels, and Life in Japan


How time flies!

I kept telling myself to make a post, to actually sit down for a while and write about my experiences so far, but I kept putting it off saying I’m too busy or too tired or simply not in the mood to write. Well, before my list of things to update gets any longer I’m writing a post.

As the title implies, I drive in my new town and I’ve finally gotten it into my subconscious that the turn signal is now on the right hand side of the steering wheel. I find this a rather important update as it makes me feel like I’m really getting settled in. During the last few months I think I’ve been in a sort of dream or stupor in which I realize I am in Japan and yet at the same time I do not feel like I’m in Japan. Whether that’s a result of having frequently imagined being back here, or that this small town I live in is more similar to my hometown than to Tokyo, for whatever reason I hadn’t felt very awake and settled until I noticed I didn’t hit the windshield wipers accidentally when functioning on autopilot. However with this renewed alertness to my surroundings comes waves of homesickness. Anyone living in a foreign country understands those times that creep up on you out of nowhere – you’re going along all fine and then something is said or seen or you’re just a bit too tired, and BOOM you’re on your ass wondering why the hell you left the comforts of home, almost regretting the decision to leave all the knowns behind for the unknown. Having lived in Japan before, homesickness hasn’t been as intense and some Japanese customs have been easy to re-adopt, but I’ve still had my moments since I’m not just a carefree college student anymore but a working, (usually) responsible adult. I manage to pull out of these ruts, however, by reminding myself why I made this decision, why I came back to Japan. I have goals that I felt I could only accomplish here – like improving my Japanese language ability since I’m a firm believer in immersion learning for foreign languages – so I can’t let myself mope around all day. Plus, work can be pretty fun as an ALT and there’s a lot of really cool places to see in this country.

As an ALT that works on the municipal level in the JET Program, my job is actually quite easy although it does test my abilities to think quickly at times. So far I haven’t had to worry about anything like lesson planning, I just have to listen carefully to my Japanese teachers of English (JTE) during class so I know my cue to speak (most lessons seem to happen without any discussion or prep between my JTE’s and I). It’s surprisingly not a disastrous way to do class, but then again I’m pretty much a human tape recorder when you boil it all down. That’s not wholly a bad thing though because I am human, not a recorded voice; I’m a living, breathing foreigner in my students’ lives. Some of these kids live in the mountains, so a blonde, white person like me is rare and they get pretty excited about that at times. Especially if I say “What?!” or “Why?!” because of some silly Japanese TV show (for those that know what I’m talking about…”why Japanese people, why?!”) – they see it’s real, not just on TV, and then start acting like little weirdos. As long as we don’t anger the JTE’s, it’s all pretty fun. Some of my junior high second year (8th grade) baseball boys are the most amusing – a couple of them compete with each other to see who can get better grades or repeat correctly after me the fastest. These boys make it hard to not grin through the whole class! Other students who seem to despise English class make me a bit sad, but hey there’s always going to be kids who are not appreciative of compulsory foreign language education. For my more shy but interested in English students, I started an English letter box project where they can write to me without worrying about grades, I’ll write back, and if they write me a certain number of letters I’ll give them a prize. I started this project about a week and a half ago during which one student has written me a couple of times, and even though she makes mistakes she’s definitely trying and I’m feeling pretty proud.  Oh my god when did I turn into a teacher?! 😉

Outside of my teacher transformation, I’ve been trying to check out the local areas as well as nearby prefectures. I haven’t been able to make any big trips just yet but soon! Until then, trips within the prefecture and to nearby prefectures offer plenty to see. Over the last few months I’ve visited Ishikawa prefecture’s capital Kanazawa, went on a business trip to the northern part of the prefecture known as the Noto, drove with friends to places like Mizushima neary Tsuruga in Fukui prefecture and the UNESCO World Heritage site Shirakawa-go, and took a day-trip by train with a fellow Komatsu JET to see Kyoto. These excursions have definitely added to the last few months flying by quickly and added to the colorfulness of my second experience in Japan. My various excursions to Kanazawa have ranged from adventures through history with Kenrokuen (one of Japan’s top 3 gardens), Kanazawa Castle, and the samurai district Nagamachi, to simply hanging out with other JET’s at the river side near the end of summer or at a craft beer festival followed by live music at a little cafe. The trip to Mizushima during Silver Week was, despite the kind of long drive, relaxing and refreshing filled with nice weather and crystal clear sea water. The business trip up into the Noto (even though the meaning was elusive to all involved) walking around the little town of Wajima, carrying a kiriko, making lacquer chopsticks, and then traveling to the nearby super countryside town of Shunran no Sato to stay the night was a very interesting and fun experience (and free!). Following the unusual business trip with a day trip to Kyoto may not have been the best way to recover the lack of sleep, but travelling a couple of hours by train to climb part way up Fushimi Inari mountain and check out some ancient temples was definitely worth the physical exertion! Shirakawa-go was my most recent excursion, but the road to it filled with all the lovely oranges, yellows, and reds of fall was perhaps the more spectacular part of that trip. Little by little I’m feeding my travel bug with the nearby delicacies! Now I’m trying to sit still a bit, save some money, and figure out how to spend Christmas and maybe New Year’s in Tokyo.

All in all, I take not hitting my windshield wipers on accident as a sign of getting truly settled in my new life with all the silliness of my job and the joys of travelling this beautiful country. Let’s see if I can manage to make more blog posts on my future adventures! With winter coming I should I have plenty of time hiding under the kotatsu, right? ;-D


4 ways to make your JET app stand out (ALT)

If you want to get onto the JET programme then congrats! You are reading this article, which means you are doing the research you need! The JET programme receives several thousand applications every year, so you not only want to make your application good, you want to make it stand out. Here are four tips to help you look like the best JET programme candidate.

1) Why Japan?

I have offered to help some current applicants, and I was surprised that some missed out on this key question: “Why Japan?” You may have a fantastic resume of teaching and/or international experience, maybe even background in TEFL, but miss out on specifying why you want to teach in Japan. Why not teach English in China? South Korea? Or even Europe? Why Japan specifically?

This does not just mean a rich background in Japanese studies – in fact, there are many current JETs that had little to no experience with Japan before coming here. My advice is to answer Why Japan?, or even Why JET?, in your personal statement. Even for those applicants who do have university courses and activities they can list on the “Japan-Related Studies” section of the application, the reality is many people, especially JET applicants, probably have some experience with Japanese culture they can add to their application. To make your application stand out, tell them your story: say what sparked your interest and how you are eager to experience Japanese culture first-hand.

2) Remember, you are applying to be a TEACHER.

For many JETs, the JET programme is their first time teaching, ever (including me!). Some of us joke that in the programme there are two kinds of people: people who have loads of experience with Japanese culture (but no teaching) or people with loads of teaching experience (but no background in Japanese culture). Now imagine the person who has experience with both!

For those of you who have little background in education, I encourage you to list any teaching experience, or even experience working with children and teens, you can think of. You are, after all, not applying to live in Japan, you are applying to teach. There is a place in the application where you can list teaching experience, and it is not limited to teaching in a classroom: ever been a camp counselor? Led a lecture at Sunday School? Assisted your professor and/or high school teacher? Think outside of the box! Any teaching-related experience is good experience! And DO mention it in your personal statement – again, I cannot emphasize it enough, this is a teaching job, so prepare your application accordingly.

3) What can you bring to Japan? …What can you bring back?

Consider this: What is the purpose of the JET programme, and how can you fulfill that purpose?

The answer to this question is (and has been) highly debated, but for your application drop the debate and focus on these two objectives and how you can help the programme meet those objectives (then you can pick it back up again once you are here in an izakaya with your fellow ALTs).

Objective 1: Internationalization of Japan

Allow me to remind you of the JET Programme’s mission statement:

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program seeks to enhance internationalization in Japan by promoting mutual understanding between the people of Japan and those of other nations. The Program aims to enhance foreign language education and promote international exchange at the local level through the fostering of ties between Japanese youth and foreign youth alike. – The JET Program USA

TL:DR The JET Programme wants to introduce Japanese to foreigners.

Believe it or not, but many rural Japanese may have never met a foreigner before – or if they have, it has more likely than not been an English teacher. Japan is known to be a highly homogeneous and relatively closed society, and many argue that this is hurting Japan’s competitiveness in the ever-globalizing economy. As such, an effort of the JET program is not only to help students learn English from a natural speaker, but to help introduce them to a foreign culture.

In your application, tell them how you can help them meet this objective. Why are you the best candidate to introduce your students to your language and culture? And maybe not just your students, but the community you will be placed in? Consider your that you are applying to be not only a teacher, but a representative of your culture – an agent of grassroots globalization.

Objective 2: “Japanization” of your culture.

The JET programme is not only helping the Japanese internationalize, but it helps to improve Japan’s image around the world. The JET programme as a great example of public diplomacy at work; not only do the Japanese learn more about other cultures, but you have thousands of ALTs going back home each year to spread the love of Japan. Thus, Japan’s image improves.

Though the effectiveness of this is debatable, many JET alumni have indeed gone on to play a role in Japan relations in their home countries. You may have noticed in the “Teaching Experience” section in the application, there is a space for you to talk about your future profession; this is no doubt in relation to this objective. The JET Programme wants to know if you might go on to promote Japan’s interests in an influential way.

I know it’s a bit early to think about what you might be doing after JET but this is your opportunity to show that you are not only a temporary English teacher, but a long term investment. And your answer doesn’t have to be “I want to go into Japan-US relations!” (or Japan-whatever country you are from). If you aren’t a politics person, expand your mind and think of how the JET programme supporters are considering the possibilities: an ALT in Akita-ken who is business-oriented might like komachi rice enough to try to introduce it to people back home, thus making a local business international. A candidate who is interested in teaching will bring their experiences to young people back home, cultivating a good attitude toward Japan in their home country. You can find a way promote Japan’s interests in pretty much every career, so think outside the box and tell them how.

4) International Experience: Abroad AND At Home!

Finally, having international experience helps you stand out for multiple reasons, the least of which being that it proves that you can help the programme meet the two objectives I listed in Tip #3. The other side of the coin is that if you have international experience you are more likely to be able to mentally handle living and working in a foreign country. Showing that you have done it before is a pretty good way to reassure them!

So yes, in the “Intercultural/International Experience” section of the application, DO put that brief week-long trip to Italy. Even if it doesn’t seem entirely related to living in Japan for a year, it actually is! If you have never traveled abroad, that’s perfectly okay! But, like the previous tips, I encourage you to find other things to fill in the “international experience” section of the application if you want your app to really stand out. Any experience with other cultures shows that you can help the programme meet their objectives, and it shows you have an understanding of cultural differences which will better help you deal with culture shock.

I hope these four tips help you and that I will see you at the next Tokyo Orientation! Feel free to comment or contact me, or anyone else with the JET Coaster if you have any questions regarding your application. Also, check out our The JET programme application – paper application post about the first step of your app: the paper application. And finally, stay updated with The JET Coaster as we will be writing more application advice!

Good luck on your application, and がんばって!

Featured image by Tom Ventura, with edits. 

gunkan poke cover-01

Gunkan-jima sushi

Slow Poke


 45 minutes and a little waiting


¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ ¥ 

Serving Size

2 adults or a platter for sharing


  • Very easy
  • Can be made ahead of time
  • Something to talk about


Sushi traditionalists are a funny breed, their myopic assertions akin to Kirk Cameron style “intelligent design” baloney. Sushi as we know it today was not dreamt by Jiro directly onto overpriced plates, but is inextricably entwined with, not only, the traditions of Japan, but also its modernization and the progress of a changing nation. Sashimi, along with pressed and rolled sushi versions, has roots deeper in antiquity, but many are surprised to learn that what is seen as the epitome of the “wabisabi” pared back aesthetic of simple refinement was popularized not so very long ago.


Silver week saw my better half and I on a road trip that culminated in an amazing meal in the fishing hub of Abashiri. For years, a good friend of ours was head chef at arguably the best restaurant in the port town. Just last month, though, he opened the doors to his own sushi bar, which we were excited to eat at. As is often our preference, we left the menu, and the paired drinks, up to the whim of the expert and the catch of the day. Sitting back at the bar, we waited to see what might appear on an “omakase” tasting menu prepared by a very forward thinking mind. Rare hay-smoked pork, raw “wagyu” beef and even “aburi” blowtorched aged edam cheese all made appearances, as well as the best chicken-fried steak I have ever eaten under the pseudonym “beef-katsu”. There was also, of course, amazing seafood, but that almost goes without saying.


We couldn’t help but be impressed, though it did fleetingly occur to me that were a chef outside Japan to serve some of the same menu items, critics might receive it very differently. The fish was fresh off the boats (or as aged as they should be for best eating) and the meats were all very local adding the true authenticity one feels when food has a link to place and time (a point mentioned in my last piece). Much of what Sushi Bar The End is serving definitely falls under the umbrella of “sousaku” (creative) sushi, but that is not to say that it shouldn’t be seen as linked to more established styles. In harnessing the best of what the landscape of the Okhotsk region has to offer and serving it simply, yet prepared to perfection, the food can’t help but shine.



All shapes and colours of sushi exist, however what has become elevated to the pinnacle of refinement was once a fast-food fix. In midst of the rapid 19th Century modernization of Tokyo (formerly known as Edo), many foods were popularized by street vendors serving workers in and around the burgeoning metropolis. The name Edomae, literally translates to “in front of Edo” in reference to the fact that the key ingredients were being sourced directly from Tokyo bay itself. Edomae sushi, like the city, later got a name change and is now known by the more general term “nigiri sushi” with fish draped delicately over seasoned rice.


Using your imagination with regard to the fact that the era in question was pre-portable refrigeration, food hygiene considerations and practices translated into the product itself. To this end, many toppings were simmered, such as shrimp, shellfish and sea eel. Where the raw texture was desired, as with tuna, the preservative nature of soy was brought into play where fish was submerged in the sauce in the “zuke” (pickle) style. Efforts in the area of food safety also helped develop other techniques such as using speciality wood cutting boards, wasabi root, pickled ginger and vinegar, all of which have sterilizing properties. Of course, along with minimizing risk, these techniques helped bring about the flavour profile so many around the world enjoy today.


For this very reason, the nowadays ubiquitous salmon traditionally didn’t figure into sushi or sashimi. Cooked or cured it was present in Japanese cuisine, but concerns about fresh water parasites saw it avoided raw. The Ainu of Hokkaido were lucky enough that their environment allowed easy freezing, which in modern times has become the norm for many fish intended to be eaten uncooked.


Along with sushi, there were other speciality foods in this era. Of specific interest to me was Edomae tempura which incorporates a heavier than normal batter, along with being fried in sesame oil. The strong flavour of sesame oil and its low smoking point make it a unique choice for frying (note: extra-virgin olive oil and sesame oil have smoking/flash points, after which they may catch fire, below the average deep-frying temperature of 180°C, whereas the likes of rice bran oil can be safely heated up to 260°C).



Nearly 300km south of Tokyo is the tiny island of Hachijo. Fascinatingly, while mainland sushi continued to evolve, the speciality of the island has remained strikingly similar to the edomae style. There are small differences, of course, like hot mustard and chilli being used in place of wasabi due to its scarcity so far from the mainland. Like its predecessor, “Shima-sushi” (island sushi) uses fish soaked in soy. The colour change from process also lends it another name “bekko sushi” due to the tortoiseshell colour of the fish after marination.


Clear across the Pacific, in Hawaii, is a dish with a very similar flavour composition. Poke (poké) is a traditional Hawaiian dish made with raw marinated fish. Served on rice, it is very similar to a chirashi (bowl) sushi, but where the ingredients have been combined with sauce and left for their flavours to slowly combine. This may bring ceviche to mind, however, due to the low acidity of the dish, the fish proteins do not denature in the same way. It sits somewhere on the continuum between the two dishes. Fast food sushi slowed down to relaxed island pace.


Many modern versions of poke incorporate soy, chilli, ginger and garlic, along with the iconic Maui onion that is so very sweet and low in tear-inducing sulphur, due to being grown in Hawaii’s fertile volcanic soil. At times other vegetables and other flavourings are also added, but that is a good base. It seems to be one of those dishes where everyone has a secret ingredient, so nailing down a paradigm is tough.


Japanese flavours in Hawaii are actually not at all surprising. There is a long history of emigration from Japan to Hawaii. In the 1920s “local Japanese” made up over 40 per cent of the population and in the lead up to World War II Japanese, while decreased slightly, still accounted for around 30 per cent. Poke is served over a bowl of rice or as salad, and is wetter than your average “neta” sushi topping. Thankfully, there is a modern style of sushi that is perfect to combine the two.


Gunkan Island 

The Ginza Kyubey sushi restaurant is one of Tokyo’s most famous. Kyubey was amongst the first restaurants in Japan to receive a Michelin star, though since expanding into somewhat of a high-end chain, it seems to have been left off the list. If you were ever a JET or have been to the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, you may even recognize the name as being one of the restaurants in the hotel. With the original store opening in 1935 just a stroll from Tsukiji fish market, Kyubey’s main claim to fame is being credited, in 1941, with the invention of gunkan “battleship” style sushi. This is where nori is wrapped sideways around nigiri rice to form a bowl that is used to hold softer than usual toppings such as roe, milt, sea urchin, oyster, whitebait or raw yolks.


For most who have heard the term “gunkan” the association is usually with the famous deserted island just off the coast of Nagasaki, Gunkanjima, though officially it is named Hashima. At the height of coal mining, this tiny walled island was the most densely populated place on the earth with more than 5000 residents living in less than 1km2. If you search for images you may recognize it from the James Bond movie Skyfall as Javier Bardem’s base of operations.


The term gunkan itself refers to a warship. It is not my intention at all to imply some kind of conspiracy theory, or odd nationalist creation myth surrounding this sushi, but I did find it incredibly interesting that another event from late 1941 was the bombing of Pearl Harbour. If I offend anyone by bringing up such themes in a piece of food writing, I apologize. It does though strike me that Hawaiian poke, as a form of “island sushi” would be a perfect topping for a gunkan roll, together forming Gunkanjima Sushi. If my bringing these two topics together is in any way poor taste, I hope that my recipe is good enough to make up for it.


Towards Home 

In the spirit of edomae sushi it would make sense to use a widely-available fish and one that is used in both Japan and Hawaii. The most common fish used for poke in Hawaii is yellowfin tuna, though the status of “ahi tuna” (kihada in Japanese) as a depleted fish stock makes me think twice about using it. Bluefin tuna (maguro) or “big eye” (mebachi) also would be contentious choices for very similar reasons. So I settled on the plentiful Skipjack. This smaller variety in the tuna family (also known as bonito, or katsuo in Japanese) is abundant and used across cultures in all manner of foods.


Please, do not be put off just because you are “not a fan of katsuobushi”. As a fermented, smoked and dried product, its flavour is enhanced and altered significantly. The raw fish is, by contrast, quite delicate and meaty. In Hawaii it is known as “aku” and is sometimes used in poke or as is my preference, seared and served in the “tataki” as a rare sliced steak. If you are still not swayed, perhaps noting that 70 per cent of U.S. canned tuna is in fact “katsuo” might convince you that it’s worth a go. In the end, the choice of fish is up to you. Poke even sometimes incorporates salmon, though I will not, because, as discussed, it is not quite era appropriate.


With Maui onions unavailable to me (and perhaps much of Japan) I am going to take a leaf out of my last recipe and use the sweet and salted vinegar that we will later use to flavour our rice to create a quick pickle to sweeten the onions. This will also impart some onion flavour back into the “brine” we will add to our rice. It’s a win/win situation, using the vinegar to flavour the onion and vice versa. That said, because of the heightened acidity this adds, I have chosen to omit soy, opting rather for the “softer” soy alternative miso. Alongside this, some sesame paste for my own spin on combining these two classic dishes. What results is like a sesame satay, of sorts. To enhance this and as a nod to edomae tempura, I will sear my tuna using sesame oil. The oil, taken above its usual recommended frying temperature, will add a slight smokiness to our dish.

Gunkanjima Sushi

Step 1: Sushi brined onions

  • 1 large red onion (or white if you prefer)
  • ½ cup premixed sushi vinegar

Thinly slice onion and in a small pot, bring to boil with vinegar. Transfer to a clean lidded plastic container, leave to cool, then refrigerate. If you have any leftover after making the poke, they go well with cheese on crackers or in sandwiches.

in the pot

in the pot

Step 2: Poke sauce

  • 2 tbsp sambal oelek (if unavailable replace with ½ tsp of grated crushed garlic and ginger mixed through sweet chilli sauce.)
  • 1 tbsp white miso paste
  • 1 tbsp “nerigoma” sesame paste
  • 2 tbsp mirin
  • 1 tsp “yamawasabi” or horseradish (can be omitted or replaced with a small portion of regular wasabi or “karashi” hot mustard, or even extra chilli)

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and refrigerate until needed. For a more traditional poke replace miso and sesame paste with soy sauce. Use the sauce sparingly when serving, but do not fear if you have some leftovers, as by mixing in a spoon of two of coconut cream powder, you end up with a sesame satay sauce perfect for saucing chicken skewers (as pictured below).





Step 3: Katsuo-tataki

  • 1 x 200g fillet katsuo (aku) skipjack tuna
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Brush sesame oil on all sides of the tuna. In an extremely hot preheated pan, sear all sides of the tuna fillet (each side for not more than 5-10 seconds). Have your extractor fan turned on ahead of time, as the oil will smoke. Remove from the pan and leave to rest. For best results for cutting, refrigerate beforehand. Once cool, cube into 1cm chunks. Mix with enough poke sauce to coat and refrigerate again if you’re not going to serve and eat immediately. If pre-prepared tataki is available, by all means feel free to use it.


Just a quick sear. Underdone is better than over.

Step 4: Sushi Rice

  • 2 cups Japanese sushi rice
  • 4 tbsp onion brining vinegar (above)
  • 8 gunkan sushi nori strips
  • Black and brown sesame seeds

Rinse rice in cool water to wash away excess starch. There are tutorials on making the “perfect” sushi rice, which, if you wish, you are welcome to follow. I cooked mine in a rice cooker as per normal. When done, remove from pot onto a wide plate or bowl and add vinegar. With an electric fan pointed at the plate/bowl mix rice until cool, shiny and the vinegar is evenly distributed. With lightly wetted hands, grab about a regular cereal spoon of rice and form into a squat cylinder. I found placing the rice flat, and then wrapping 3cm high strips of nori sideways around my rice to be the easiest construction method. To finish, squeeze the sides to make an oval and to ensure the nori sticks well. Top with as much poke as can sensibly be fitted in your mouth for one giant mouthful or two sensible ones if you are the type who finds it acceptable to bite sushi in half. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds or even chopped chives and togarashi chilli threads to garnish.


an electric fan makes this cooling a lot easier


Of course, this dish does not have to be served as sushi. As a bowl of poke, it will be a satisfying meal, or, as a bento, a great protein-packed lunch. As an amuse-bouche or if you’re watching your carbs, it could be served by itself on spoons (pictured) or with just fresh baby salad greens.


With talk of seasonality and so on, a chilled dish like sushi may seem like an odd recipe for me to be posting in the latter half of October, as the nights are cooling and nature’s hue set afire. The mountains here in Hokkaido are already beginning to be peppered with snow. I post this recipe now with it in mind that the anniversary of Pearl Harbor is December 7th. It is not a nationally observed holiday anywhere that I know of, though an official day of remembrance is observed in the United States.


If you are the type of person whom likes to match food to special occasions, that would be perfect. It could also be a talking point at for a U.S. style Thanksgiving, or served as a treat Japanese Labour Thanksgiving, both of which fall within a fortnight beforehand.


served as more tradition Bowl Poke

served as more tradition Bowl Poke

Served as an "amuse bouche" on soup spoons

Served as an “amuse bouche” on soup spoons

Leftover sauce used to make sesame satay chicken the next day

Leftover sauce used to make sesame satay chicken the next day

Chicken-friend steak "beef katsu" at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Chicken-friend steak “beef katsu” at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Rare smoked pork at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Rare smoked pork at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Raw local saroma wagyu beef at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Raw local saroma wagyu beef at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Whitebait gunkan maki at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Whitebait gunkan maki at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

aburi aged edam cheese at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

Aburi aged edam cheese at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri

even some salmon, oh so buttery

Even some salmon, “oh so buttery” at Sushi Bar The End, Abashiri















Sushi Bar The End 縁戸 on Facebook

Photo of Akabane district from outside Hibiya Park.

Sept P2: Breaking Routine

Routine or something like it.

Structures are everywhere. They make up most of our lives and inform us of how things work, even if we don’t immediately recognize their influence. It’s a part of our hidden reality. Those background mechanisms that help grind our lives onward toward oblivion. And Oh! how comforting they can be. Routine, for example, is an integral part of the structure that makes life bearable. It’s comforting, and familiar, and we often hate to have our little routines thrown off, and I would be a big fat liar liar pants on fire to say that I don’t enjoy my own little routines even if I make it a habit of regularly breaking them.

And so, to move on, my life in Japan has finally settled into a sort of rhythm. Monday to Friday I wake up early and am at school by 8 am. I’ll either stay there or else will take a taxi to another school where I will spend my day. I split my time between 6 schools in this way, and teach English to somewhere in the upper reaches of four or five

Garlic Rice, Salt and Pepper Fried Veggies, and Chicken for dinner.

Garlic Rice, Salt and Pepper Fried Veggies, and Chicken for dinner.

hundred students. Needless to say that despite the hundreds of self-introductions I’ve heard over the last month, or probably because of the hundreds, I hardly remember any of my students’ names except for those few that really stick out to me. After work I head back home where I either plan my dinner and sit around reading, writing, or watching Netflix while waiting for a more appropriate dinner time to come round when I’ll set about cooking, or else I go out shopping for groceries or to wander the are looking for something neat and interesting to do.

Often I’ll spend time with other ALTs and we’ll go out for dinner and drinks, drinks, or drinks and karaoke. That’s basically how I spend my days now, and this lifestyle is not unpleasant. There’s danger in routine, though: routine invites a person to become complacent about their life and surroundings. They become relaxed, and casual, and rather than keeping their eyes open and paying attention to what’s happening in their life they’ll plow through a day forgetting that living means something more than routinely surviving. That’s boring.


At Tokyo Game Show. I was excited.

At Tokyo Game Show. I was excited.

Last weekend was a long weekend for Japan, a rare holiday that comes around once every few years called Silver Week. I don’t know what the holiday is for or why it happens, but it gave us all the opportunity to break from the day to day. One ALT I know went back home to England to visit; another went travelling around Gunma prefecture; I decided to go to Tokyo. Up until now I have only every been to Tokyo twice. The first time was to pass through on my way to Narita airport where I would be flying out the next day for Canada. The second time was when I returned to Japan and spent my first few days back in orientation at a hotel in Shinjuku. This time around I wanted to visit Tokyo. Life

The clock tower at Tokyo U. Was very cool to check out.

The clock tower at Tokyo U. Was very cool to check out.

in the country is very relaxing and rather carefree, but anybody coming from the city would probably begin to miss the excitement a city holds like I was–moving from big to small breaks and vice versa suspends the equilibrium a person found in their life, and allows them to suspend reality for a second: high energy becomes low, fast becomes slow, and responsibility seems to drop to the side for a bit.

Routine, as I said, is good, but for myself I’ve made it a routine to shake my life up a bit and travel works to do that. What people don’t realize though is that travel hardly changes routine–instead it

Went drinking under the train tracks in Akabane.

Went drinking under the train tracks in Akabane.

removes a person entirely from routine. Their day to day gets left behind, put on hold, and for a few days or weeks and they can enjoy something entirely different. When they return home they simply pick up right where they left off. Individual situations don’t change when someone travels, the person changes (and even then only sometimes). My trip to Tokyo allowed me to do just that. I removed myself from my situation. I cleaned my house and left behind any other responsibilities I might have forgotten about in favour of exploration, and it was worth it. It was a needed reprieve. I’ve been in Japan for almost two months, and, me being me, I’ve already started to become bored with routine. My advise to anybody who’s reading this is to try and do the same: shake up your life, do something different; explore the world around you a little bit more. There’s value in that.

P.S. I hope you like what I’m writing. If you do please share this page, and if you’d like to comment feel free. I always enjoy hearing from people. Cheers!


More than being genki: how to be a great ALT

One misconception about teaching in Japan is that if you’re super genki or energetic, you’ll automatically be an excellent teacher. In fact, many JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) expect ALTs to be genki all the time. Nothing is wrong with genkiness per se but just being the foreign clown in the classroom will not help your students learn English. You are not here just to entertain but to teach. After one year as an ALT, here are some tips I’ve developed on how to be a good assistant teacher.



Learn more than survival phrases so that you can actually have conversations with your JTEs and other colleagues. This will help you to build more lasting relationships in the work environment. Initiate small talk. Share your culture and experiences. Also if you learn Japanese, you will understand the differences between Japanese and English and understand why students and teachers make certain errors.


You are here to teach English. You are not on an extended vacation. Even if you’ve never taught before, don’t make that an excuse for poor lesson planning and execution. Just because you’re a native speaker does not automatically make you a great English teacher. Linguistics professor Robert Phillipson calls this the “native speaker fallacy.” There are many resources online. Use them.


between teaching English to native speakers and teaching English to ESL students. Don’t assume that your Japanese students will automatically understand complex grammatical rules. Break it down in the simplest way possible.


Not all Japanese students are well behaved. Many will sleep in class, talk loudly and not speak or utter a word in English. In fact, not all Japanese students want to learn English. Many of them don’t care about English because they don’t see how it relates to their daily lives. Focus on the students who are really interested and motivated to learn English.


Accordingly, you should respect the other JTEs as your superiors. You are here to help them, not run your own show. Once you humble yourself and stick to your role, you won’t feel frustrated. In my case, being an ALT meant team teaching, making lesson plans and activities, marking assignments and exam scripts, making and assessing speaking tests, coaching students for speech contests and managing the ESS (English Speaking Society).


Some may want you to take a backseat. Some may want you to be the head teacher. Adjust yourself accordingly.


Remember that they too are constrained in their roles by the curriculum, examinations, club activities and other pressures. Use the textbook to guide your activities. Make sure that your team teaching classes supplement the classes the JTE teaches by himself or herself.


Many of my JTEs were receptive to my ideas because I presented them in a firm yet polite way. I also clearly justified my position so that they were more likely to be persuaded to adopt my suggestions.


If you don’t know, don’t lie and say something stupid. Do some research first and then get back to them.


In my high school, my timetable would change so frequently that it became something nice to look at. Listen to the announcements during the daily morning meeting to know whether the teaching day will follow a normal or special schedule. Ask the teachers what they want you to do and plan your lessons in advance.


especially if you are using technology in your lesson. Many mishaps may occur like computer updates, power outages and speakers that don’t work. Always have a plan B or a low tech version of your activities.


Japanese students are a lot more reticent than learners in other countries. For your self-introduction, help them get out of their shells by rearranging the classroom into small groups. This drastically changes the work atmosphere to a more collaborative one so that students are more likely to speak out. Also, don’t give a speech. Instead, make the students guess key things about yourself like your favourite food etc.


Speak slowly and give students time to answer. Encourage students to discuss it with a partner. Japanese students have a tendency to consult with their peers before they answer in front of a class of 41 students.


Don’t use too much slang and don’t ramble as you’ll just confuse the students. Speak clearly and slowly so they can catch every word.


through viral videos, posters, signs, brochures, social media posts, movies, music, emails etc. Also show them that it’s not always possible to literally translate Japanese to English. Instead, teach them to develop an English mindset. Teach them that they need to think in English to speak and write understandable English.


Explain that the textbook does not provide all the answers about the English language. Explain that there is a variety of World Englishes. Explain that the language is always constantly evolving. Show that there’s not always a right or wrong way of speaking or writing English. Explain that just because someone speaks English with a different accent does not mean that he or she is speaking incorrectly.


Allow them to speak freely during warm up activities or introduce them to free writing. This gives them an opportunity to practise their English free of judgement and correction. Explain that’s it’s okay to make mistakes when producing language, that even native speakers do so on a regular basis! Free teachers and students from the misconception that English is muzukashii or difficult to learn.


Are you relating well to your JTEs? Does your relationship with the JTE in the classroom help the students understand English better? Are your lesson plans mirroring or extending the English taught by your JTEs in their other English classes? What activities need more explaining? Do you need to provide more examples? Constantly assess whether you’ve pitched your lesson at the appropriate level so that it’s not too hard and too easy for your students. Record your observations in a teaching journal after every class.


School life in Japan is more than lessons and examinations. There are so many school activities and events to participate in: sports day, school festivals, cleaning time, club activities. Be genuinely interested and get in there!


Accordingly, adjust your expectations and treat it as a learning experience.

Untitled design-2

How to Stay Healthy in Japan

Half of you (especially if you’ve never lived in Japan before) looked at the title for this post thinking, “What on earth is she going to talk about? It’s a cinch!” while I’m sure the other half of you clicked on this thinking, “Finally someone’s talking about this!” Now that you’ve clicked and are reading, let me first give an overview of what I mean.

Before I came to Japan my first time, I believed the stereotype that Japan is extremely healthy and that I will lose several pounds by not even trying during my 9 month exchange student period. With this expectation in mind, before leaving the States, I loaded up on Snickerdoodle cookies (which I still don’t entirely regret because they’re delicious) and otherwise went about my normal week walking to class every day around my 1,933 acre campus, eating healthy food until the weekends, and taking Zumba classes at the gym every night.

Boy was I hit with a slap in the face when, after just a few weeks into my stay in Japan, I realized I had to try to make sure I didn’t gain weight and be almost even more careful of what I was doing than in America. I was being fed extremely processed white bread for breakfast and was served heaping portions of mainly white rice or noodles for lunch/dinner. My afternoon snacks of fruit were forcibly replaced by packaged cakes and candies by my host family since fruit is more expensive here. I walked 20 minutes to the station, 10 minutes to the college campus, and back, and that was all the movement I was able to get in a day.

“Japan is healthy” isn’t necessarily a lie. “I lost so much weight in Japan!” is also very true for many people. But it’s a very subjective reality. What I came to realize is that on the spectrum of healthy and unhealthy, America has two vastly different extremes, with whole wheat/whole grain everything and salad bars on the one end, and deep fried Oreos on the other.

Good luck finishing this giant bowl of ramen on your own if you're not a pubescent boy. I (and my 20-something male friend) tried.

Good luck finishing this giant bowl of ramen on your own if you’re not a pubescent boy. I (and my 20-something male friend) tried.

Japan has a much more limited scope that fits somewhere in the middle. Portions do not tend to be as huge as in the US, but I have been on the receiving end of many massive bowls of ramen and plates of omuraisu that I really wished I could take home half of. Fish is the staple meat, along with other easily accessible protein substitutes like tofu and natto (for some good recipes for all the haters, try something from here), although consumption of red meat is also on the rise. Japan does have quite a variety of fried foods (karaage, tempura, tonkatsu), but at least the portions don’t tend to be quite as large in the States. Vegetables do tend to be integrated into cooked meals more than they tend to be in the US, but on the other hand, carbohydrates tend to be the focus of most Japanese cuisine (rice, noodles, etc.) and no meal is set without them. Bakeries are also everywhere, and melon-pan gets me every time. The key word here in almost all of these statements is “tend.”

Basically, refer to this diagram if I lost you here.

Japan.US food health

The US-Japan food spectrum. (The same can apply for exercise.)

Therefore, whether Japan is “healthy” completely depends on what your lifestyle and diet were like at home. For example, I’ve heard countless Japanese (and otherwise) exchange students at my home university complain about how much weight they gained after coming to the US. Upon probing, I found that in the majority of the cases, these were the people who ate fast food nearly every day (rather than cook for themselves and therefore control what they ate) or ate in the fast-food-esque lines at the cafeteria instead of the healthier alternatives, and never used the gym membership that they paid for as a part of their tuition. Everyone always marvels at American restaurant portion sizes but never portions a part of it out into a to-go bag, which is in any case a rarity in Japan. While it tends to be easier to make bad eating (etc.) decisions in the US than in Japan (again, because of the spectrum and the “tend”), that they gained weight was, essentially, their own choice.

I’m not saying that I’m the perfect epitome of a healthy American lifestyle. I do enjoy my deep fried Oreo, but the chance to eat them only comes around once or twice a year. My philosophy is cook healthy at home, eat whatever I want at restaurants once or twice a weekend. At such restaurants, most of the time I take some amount home, loving to get both a lunch and dinner for the price of one. I stick spinach and a good variety of vegetables in nearly everything I cook. I hate running and using exercise machines, but also hate sitting in class/at work for the majority of my day, and found walking around to class instead of taking the campus bus and Zumba and other dance-exercise classes to scratch my lazy leg itch.

Lotteria actually sells these types of burgers quite regularly.

If you ask Japanese people how they maintain their weight, you’ll get a lot of various answers. They walk or bike everywhere. They eat white rice, not bread, the thought being that if you eat bread, you need to heap on the butter and jam, but you can eat rice just as it is. (As I don’t eat either necessarily as a staple, and do not see white rice as “healthy,” I especially have qualms with this personally.) They eat more fish and vegetables. Fad diets (like the banana diet) are popular and “work” for some people. Standard portions are smaller. They drink green tea almost every day (as have I since high school).

As you can tell, all of these reasons don’t really explain it to me very well. I tend to be even more healthy than what they sugggest above and am still not as stick-thin as the standard woman here. I acknowledge that thinness or thickness is to an extent a result of lifestyle, but to another extent, after watching tiny girls inhale giant bowls of ramen and then plates of gyoza (pot stickers) and then eat a piece of cake, I have come to the conclusion that part of it is just a very good metabolism as well. Therefore, I consider myself mostly on the healthy side of the food spectrum, right before you hit the Japan line in the diagram above, although I do acknowledge that I may be something of a minority. Minority as I may be, I know there are so many people who struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle like me in Japan.

Now, how do you accomplish this?


This is a tough one, but at least now with the internet and the increasing internationalization of the country, it’s becoming easier and easier.

Rule #1: Stop eating melon-pan. Like I said above, the Japanese exchange students coming to America gained weight mostly because they didn’t have enough self-discipline. This goes the same way in reverse. This time around, I returned to Japan and bought all (exaggeration, but not by far) the kashi-pan (pastries) at the convenience stores and bakeries because it had been so long since I had any, and they are so good. Before I knew it, what I had originally planned to be a treat after a long while had turned into a habit. Break your bad habits early. Sure matcha kit kats are amazing, but if you buy them, put them in a place (corner of a cabinet, drawer, etc.) that’s not somewhere you look immediately, because the phrase is true to an extent: out of sight, out of mind. Eat your sweet, sweet cryptonite every now and then, but make sure it’s not regular enough to form a dependence or a habit.

Additionally, watch out for the convenience store food. This is essentially one form of Japanese fast food (Western places like McDonald’s are everywhere, but they tend to be higher prices for smaller portions than the American versions) in that it is cheap and pretty delicious, but can be horribly unhealthy. Just like how you can order a McSalad, you can buy a salad at the convenience store. Or you could order nikuman, corn dogs, spaghetti and meatballs, omuraisu in a demi-glaze sauce, katsu don, okonomiyaki, etc. I have grabbed the most delicious-looking item in the fridge section only to look at the health information and see that it is over 1000 calories by itself. Conbini food is cheap and pretty good quality, but just watch out. As with normal fast food, watch out for eating too much at places like Yoshinoya or Coco Ichiban (Japanese fast food restaurants).

Buy this guy at Lawson for 500 yen, intake 900 calories.

Rule #2: Find the healthy substitutes. While I was in Nagoya, I managed to find whole wheat spaghetti in the import stores, and one bag of brown rice in the giant rice section of the regular grocery stores. After arriving in Utsunomiya, I found the spaghetti in only one of several import stores, and zero brown rice in my local supermarket (although the rice section was much smaller than the other supermarkets I had been to in Nagoya). Import stores were trying to make me pay an exuberant price for a tiny bag of multi-grain rice (no brown rice was in stock), which was ridiculous, also considering Japan does produce and sell brown rice; it’s just not as common (for only the extremely health conscious mothers or vegetarians, as I was told). For this (and many other foods from back home you can’t find too often, such as oatmeal or almond butter), is your friend. If you just look it up, you can find giant bags of brown rice for reasonable prices PLUS free shipping (sorry for missing you the first time you tried to deliver my giant, heavy package to my 3rd floor apartment, delivery man). I just bought 5 kg of Akita rice for a bit over 1,600 yen, and that will last me quite a while. If it won’t many Amazon orders actually offer you a discount if you purchase a delivery plan for your rice (and other products). For example, if you schedule to automatically re-order the same bag of rice ever 1-6 months, you can get about 100 yen off each time.

As for whole grain bread, while you will definitely not have the same amount of choices as you probably would back home, if you look hard enough, you can find about one or two choices of whole grain bread in the island that is Japanese white processed bread. The one I find most frequently is this one:

They also offer a rye bread with more or less the same health information. While these still may be on the unhealthy side compared to what you eat back home, they’re definitely the better option in Japan unless you can find other imported varieties of bread.

Also, if you don’t want to pay the price for the comfort of home and health, find some substitutes with Japanese ingredients! I’ve found varieties of “ramen” in supermarkets with noodles made from konyaku, which is full of fiber and fun. Instead of buying overpriced wheat spaghetti, substitute your Western noodles with soba (buckwheat noodles). Get creative with your cooking, and the world opens up to you. Your Japanese coworkers will also be majorly impressed.

Low-calorie, low-carb konyaku noodles

Speaking of noodles, if you need something quick, get one of these many healthier (low calorie) alternatives for cup noodles!


When searching online or at the market, here are some words to look out for:

低糖質 (tei toushitsu) or 糖質オフ (toushitsu ofu): “low-sugar/carb” or “reduced sugar/carb”

低カロリー (tei carorii) or カロリーオフ (carorii ofu): “low-calorie” or “reduced calorie”

低脂肪 (tei shibou) or 脂肪オフ (shibou ofu): “low-fat” or “reduced fat”

全粒 (zenryuu): whole grain

玄米 (genmai): brown rice (as opposed to “white rice” or 白米 [hakumai], which is standard and probably won’t be labeled specifically)



This is surprisingly one of the most difficult things. Walking 30-60 minutes a day total does nothing for me, but apparently works for the rest of the population. I’m used to doing that plus 45 minutes of intense exercise every day. However, this is by far not popular in Japan. Gyms are not a regular thing for most people, and tend to be few and incredibly expensive. Where I live, if I want to join a Zumba class, I have to ride my bike or take a bus for at least 45 minutes just to get to a gym and then pay 500 yen each time–no thank you. Therefore, unless you are incredibly lucky with a nice public gym near your house, you may need to get creative.

Rule #1: Exercise at home. This is easier said than done, as many people live in apartments, and due to the high humidity, carpet is something of a rarity across the country. As for me, I live on the top floor of an apartment complex with wooden floors, and just enough space for me to do an exercise video in my living room if I shuffle some furniture around.

How do I accomplish getting a good workout without making my downstairs neighbors try to attack me? Here are my tips:

  • Buy a good (thick) yoga/pilates mat or floor rugs. While these won’t completely muffle the sound of you jumping around upstairs, they are significantly better for your downstairs neighbors than you jumping around on hardwood floors. You can buy some cheap ones again on Amazon or maybe check some stores in your area, like Don Quixote.
  • Use YouTube. If you’re into Zumba like me, just look up your favorite song + Zumba (or “dance fitness,” or the like), and odds are something will come up. Make your own playlists, and make your own class! I’ve also really gotten into Doonya (Bollywood fitness) and hula fitness lessons. The same goes for yoga, kickboxing, etc. Recently I found this activity called Buti Yoga, which combines yoga with dance exercise, which is relatively quiet for your neighbors but still a good workout. Basically, the internet is your friend.
  • Don’t exercise at odd hours. As I said, odds are a normal yoga mat or floor rug will not muffle everything you do, so make sure you don’t exercise when people are most likely sleeping, etc. Use your own discretion here.

Rule #2: Fit exercise naturally into your life. I, like many other people, am busy, and don’t always have the time or energy to do a 30-45 minute exercise routine after or before work. Therefore, it is important to naturally fit more movement into your day. Buy a under-the-desk pedal like this and do some desk exercises. If you’re nervous about what your coworkers think of you, maybe try something else. Bike to work instead of taking the bus if you’re far. If you’re close, walk to work instead of biking. If you walk to work normally…maybe run around for a while.

Run, fat white people, run up the stairs! While there are some racial issues with this poster in my office, it does have a point.

Run, fat white people, run up the stairs! While there are some racial issues with this poster in my office, it does have a point.

I work on the 7th floor of an office building and have been taking the stairs as often as I can (if you work out a system, it’s not as tough or crazy as it sounds). The main hall has spaced-out “grand” staircases with platforms to walk to the next staircase in between until the 3rd floor, which makes a good warm up (in addition to the 20 minutes I walk to work), then from there, I take the normal stairwell up the next 4 flights. From there, I walk around for about a minute to let my heart rate go down. If you still think I’m crazy, take the elevator up halfway, and go up the stairs from there. Do whatever works!

Basically, take a look at your surroundings, and think of a system to get that heart pounding (because of fitness reasons, and not because that car almost hit you running around)!

"I'm not fat!" "And I'm not skinny!" Body differences!

“I’m not fat!”
“And I’m not skinny!”
Body differences!

To end here, while not everyone can afford to do everything I suggest here, these are just some potential tips to get you started. Hopefully this sheds some light on the realities of both American and Japanese stereotypes, and can help out those like me struggling to stay healthy and sane in the land of the rising sun. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment, as I am always looking for new ways to stay fit in Japan!


Featured original image credit here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 5.45.03 AM

Video: summer lights – The Highlights of Summer in Japan

Summer is over and school is starting again. Here are a few of the highlights experienced during the last 2 months.

This video definitely took a bit longer to make than I hoped. School starting up and just generally being busy has made it especially difficult to find time to simply sit down and edit. Hopefully it’s entertaining and stay tuned for the next episode which I assure you will be filled with a few surprises 😉

For camera nerds:

Sony a6000

Sony 50mm F1.8

Sony 16-50mm F3.5-5.6 (most used in this video)

Rokinon 12mm F2.0

Premiere Pro CS6

Check out my previous episode on Omura and first moving in.

alts are not teachers part 3

ALTs Are Not Teachers Part 3: What Is a Teacher?

(Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 (Current))

I’d like to discuss six different conceptions of ‘teacher’ that appear either within the article “ALTs Are Not Teachers” itself, or the discussion it generated. I will give an example statement where each different conception is employed as well. These conceptions are:

  1. Teacher by job title
  2. Teacher by function
  3. Teacher by classroom autonomy
  4. Teacher by comparison
  5. Teacher by qualification
  6. Teacher by ideal

1. What Is A Teacher? A Job Title

ALTs are objectively, unequivocally not teachers by title. This is simply to state that there is a difference in the word “Assistant Language Teacher” and “Teacher” or “English Teacher.” The JET Programme, for example, does not award the term “Teacher” or “English Teacher” to any of its participants, nor does it promote people within the program for doing a good job. If you are with JET or a similar program, you are not a teacher by title, irrespective of the variance of your situation, or what you are called in a classroom environment. You are an ALT.

Are ALTs a subset of ‘teacher’ as one commenter suggested? Maybe.  But I think it’s important to also examine the title in Japanese. As one commenter writes of his former JET experience:

…the official Japanese title (which is the title that counts, not the English translation) for ALTs was 外国語指導助手 {gaikokugo shidō joshu}, or word-for-word, “foreign language guidance assistant”. Note the lack of the word “teacher” (the “T” in “ALT”) in there.

That omission is intentional, for at least one reason: The teachers unions guard the qualifications and titles for the full-time public workers that are licensed teachers, as they mean something. Just like how you can’t call officially call yourself an “engineer”, “lawyer”, or “doctor” in some countries, depending on the type of position and the type of certifications and licensing required.

Incidentally, the official name of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program in Japanese is 外国語青年招致事業 {gaikokugo seinen shōchi jigyō} or literally, “foreign language youth invitation program”. Note again the lack of the word “teaching” in the official Japanese name.

This point is telling; it sheds important light on how ALTs (at least within The JET Programme) are regarded by the Japanese government (which may or may not translate into how one is regarded at their school as an ALT).

Concept example:

“The good part about not being a ‘teacher’ is that it really isn’t your responsibility to teach them English!”


2. What Is A Teacher? A Person Who Teaches

ALTs unquestionably perform the function of ‘teaching’, whether this means planning their own classes, teaching a grammar point, or even modelling native English pronunciation. These are all, unequivocally, moments of teaching. All ALTs are teachers in the sense that they all perform the function of ‘teaching’ in some capacity. It’s explicitly part of the job of being an ALT to teach. To me, this is an obvious statement, but it’s also one that it not an issue as it is undeniable.

Concept example:

“…though ALTs are indeed teachers in some sense, it is more productive to drop the idea that ‘ALT = teacher’ than to have it linger around.”


3. What is a Teacher? A Person With Classroom Autonomy

Some consider themselves teachers by the amount of autonomy that they have. I think this is where the ‘ESID’ objection shows its head most prominently. It is quite common for elementary schools, for example, to give an ALT complete autonomy over their lessons. This can happen at junior high school or high school as well on a situational basis.

But does that mean that you’re a teacher on Monday when you’re the ‘main show’ at elementary school but then not a teacher on Tuesday when you just repeat words at junior high school? Was I a teacher in my second year as an ALT because I had my own class but ‘fell out’ of being a teacher the second that changed? What about if you have complete control over lessons with one teacher at high school but zero with another at the very same school? Does your status of ‘teacher’ change on a case-by-case, or even hourly basis? That argument can be made, but it’s on that I find unintuitive. Rather, I would say that you are always an ALT, and sometimes you happen to get more ‘teaching time’ than others. And if you’re given classroom autonomy all of the time, every day, then you are an ALT with an especially good teaching situation.

There is actually a hidden side that ESID objectors must also hold, necessarily, based on their premise: if an ALT being a ‘teacher’ is decided on a situational basis, it must follow that some ALTs are not teachers. If one ALT merely ‘supports’ their JTEs while another one has full classroom autonomy, is the latter ‘more of a teacher’ than the former? If you are a teacher by virtue of the fact that ‘every situation is different’ and you have a special degree of classroom autonomy, it must follow that there are situations where you can point to an ALT and say ‘you don’t have that much control, and thus you are not a teacher’. If the term ‘teacher’ is awarded on a situational basis, regardless of job title, what is the underlying criteria being used to decide who is and who is not a teacher?

Concept example:

“Unless you’re [an ALT at] elementary [school], nobody told my elementary schools about the ‘assistant’ part.”


4. What Is A Teacher? One Who Has Equal Expectations As Their Colleagues

I would wager that most ALTs are not teachers in comparison to what is expected of their Japanese counterparts. Here are a few things that many Japanese Teachers of English are expected to do:

  • Create and mark tests
  • Visit students’ homes and hold parent meetings at school
  • Correspond with parents about their daughter/son’s specific school situation
  • Run club activities (generally form junior high school up), often after school, weekends, and/or summer vacation
  • Attend and participate fully in staff meetings school-wide, grade-wide, and department-wide
  • Regularly attend training seminars and demonstration lessons city and prefecture-wide
  • Discipline students
  • Rotate being responsible for staying in the office when no one is there
  • Answering the office phone when needed
  • Dropping into subjects other than their own to merely support and have a presence in certain classes
  • Space the material in the textbook out to be partitioned throughout the year
  • Go on and supervise field trips
  • Supervise an area of the school for cleaning time
  • Be present outdoors every single time their class practices for sports day
  • Attend every assembly and discipline students accordingly

Do some ALTs do some of these thing? Yes, for sure. But I have never met an ALT who does everything that a Japanese teacher is expected to do. Not even close. Even in my second year as an ALT when I had my own classes and was planning of my own lessons, my responsibilities paled in comparison to my Japanese colleagues.

Is there some person somewhere in Japan that has the title “ALT” that is expected to do everything that Japanese teachers are expected to do? I would seriously doubt it, but I don’t put it outside of the realm of possibility. And if such a case does exist, I would go so far to say as the title Assistant Language Teacher is a great misrepresentation of their actual job.

Concept example:

“I would argue that ALTs are underqualified to be the main teachers of English in Japan”


5. What Is A Teacher? Someone Who Is Qualified To Be One

With The JET Programme, zero teaching qualifications are necessary to be an ALT. Some ALTs, incidentally, are qualified to be teachers in their home countries or carry some teaching qualifications (such as TESL or a specialization in ESL), but this is explicitly not a requirement with JET. It should be noted that JETs account for less than a 1/3 of the ALT population in Japan, though, as a response written to the original article notes (though it does not mention how much out of the other 2/3’s require any qualifications). I would wager that most ALTs do not have any formal qualifications to be a teacher, though some do. I am open and happy to be proven wrong, though.

The article mentioned above also states:

“Teaching abilities, like any job, come with experience, so to give up on teaching, as is recommended [in “ALTs Are Not Teachers“], on first arrival impedes personal and professional growth within the ALT role.”

I completely agree, and it should be noted that I do not advocate ‘giving up on teaching’ at all, whether it be on a personal or professional basis. ALTs should always aspire to improve themselves whether it is through their individual activities or by getting more teaching certifications. JET, though not requiring any teaching qualifications to be a part of, has recently begun to offer grants to its participants who want to take TEFL, for example, in recognition of the importance of this as well.

Whichever company or program you’re with as an ALT, please do not give up on being a ‘teacher’ even if you started without a teaching degree or qualifications.

Concept example:

“You, as an ALT, were not required to have any teaching qualifications whatsoever to be hired for your job…”


6. What Is A Teacher? An Ideal

This, perhaps, is where most of the knee-jerk reactions to the original article come from. While my intent with “ALTs Are Not Teachers” was to make more of a technical point (i.e. ALTs are not teachers by title, qualification, or comparison and shouldn’t be expect the corresponding responsibilities to be conferred upon them), the word ‘teacher’ is one that is emotionally-charged, and one that many internally identify with based on the effort they put into their work and the connection they have with their students. There is something lofty in the word ‘teacher’ that seems to transcend technical definitions and translates into something more like ‘she or he who inspires others to do better’.

I want to be clear that I am not at all denying that ALTs can inspire their students or have an effect on them. I think quite the opposite, and that, as ALTs, we are often not bound to the same traditional roles that Japanese teachers often fall into which allows us to connect with students in deeper ways. We can be reach this ideal version of ‘being a teacher’ by continually putting our best effort forward, educating ourselves to become better at the function of teaching, and inspiring students to explore the world. This is something I believe thoroughly, and it’s why I never once hinted that being an ALT is somehow shameful or limiting. This is simply not the case.

Concept example:

“A good teacher is one who connects and inspires, and does so much more than just convey information.”


“ALTs Are Not Teachers”, Reconceived

In light of the six concepts of “teacher” above, I would re-articulate the statement “ALTs are Not Teachers” as:

  • ALTs are unequivocally not teachers in title (especially in the original Japanese title)
  • ALTs are teachers, functionally, in that they perform the action of teaching on a routine basis
  • ALTs are sometimes given a great deal of classroom autonomy which may make them a de facto teacher for that class, but an still an ALT overall
  • ALTs are rarely teachers in comparison of what is expected of their Japanese counterparts
  • ALTs are not required to have teaching qualifications with JET (though they do with other companies); some ALTs possess teaching qualifications incidentally
  • ALTs can be teachers in the ideal sense of the term, and can be just as, and more effective at inspiring their students than any ‘fully qualified teacher’


But Why Does It Matter, Anyway?


Would a teacher by any other name not be as inspiring?

The elucidation of the word ‘teacher’ is perhaps necessitated by a title as abrasive as “ALTs Are Not Teachers”. It really isn’t something you can just say and expect everyone to understand your meaning, which is something I was mistaken about.  Indeed, the very statement sounds like a challenge to prove it wrong.

Still, the title is something I stand by. It’s something that had to be said, and it is something I sure as hell never heard or realized until I was well into The JET Programme. It’s a perspective that could have saved me from a lot of confusion, bitterness, and disappointment. And it’s something that can save you from repeating the same dark experience.

When I came to Japan as an ALT, all I saw that was last letter. Teacher! I was going to be a teacher! And in my second year, I felt like one (in terms of classroom autonomy). I had my own classes. I had no overhead. I planned my own curriculum. I even had my own Assistant Language Teacher. And yet, as happy as I was then, that experience is something that made me feel that much worse when it was all taken away.

Why this undercurrent of shame for being an ‘ALT’? What is wrong with being called an ALT?  Why do some have so much of their self-worth on the line in the word ‘teacher’? Why do some feel that all of their effort and hardwork can be undone by a passing stranger that merely points to their actual job title?

You are an ALT. ALTs can be required to run their own class, plan the curriculum, make tests & evaluate their students. ALTs can also be great teachers. They can have way more of an effect on their students than fully qualified Japanese teachers. Being an ALT is not a limiting belief, it is simply what you were hired as.

It basically comes down to looking at being an ALT through one of two lenses:

  1. You are a ‘teacher’, and the ‘ALT’ part is more of misnomer
  2. You are an ALT, and can still be a great ‘teacher’

The truth of your own situation may lie closer to one of these than the other, or you might feel like the first on some days and the second on others. The difference is that in the former, you could feel a sense of entitlement for being given complete classroom autonomy, and with the latter you go into work without this expectation. If you are given your own class, responsibilities to plan the curriculum, and generally much more to do than a regular ‘assistant’, then great! Keep it, do it, own it. But if you go into being an ALT expecting all of this, you may be sorely disappointed and quickly become bitter about Japan. If you are not given any of these responsibilities, then become better and better and work your way into becoming a cornerstone of your school’s English program.

Do not expect to be anything close to a ‘teacher’ if you are starting an ALT, but be thankful if it happens to be so. And whatever your situation, always do you best to be more effective in your capacity to affect your students positively. At the end of the day, you’re still a person left with an amazing opportunity to teach something unique, make a tangible difference in someone’s life, and inspire those around you. And for that, it doesn’t matter what title you hold.