Notes on Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Rashomon, the hallmark 1950 Kurosawa film, relates the same incident from 4 different perspectives. These perspectives are inconsistent with one another. Underground is perhaps a non-fiction edition of this genre.

In the wake of the media fallout of the 1995 gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system, which left 12 dead and thousands in need of medical treatment, the popular novelist Haruki Murakami noticed one perspective was oddly missing: the victims. At the time, sensationalist press focused entirely on the perpetrators: the Japanese new religion/cult Aum Shinrikyo.

In Underground, Murakami collects the testimony of about 30 survivors (and victims’ family) from 6 different trains on three different lines. Thus details about Aum are brisk and sparse. You just get to hear what it was like to be caught unawares in the midst of invisible sarin on the subway for your Monday morning commute.

The accounts often overlap, but the details get fuzzy, even contradictory. That’s the nature of testimony, but it’s also due to the hazing effects of sarin. Murakami is aware of this, but does his best to recount their stories as each individual experienced and/or remember them. So apart from the preface, couple-page descriptions of each perpetrator and sarin planting, afterword, and editorial decisions, Murakami’s voice is also sparse. With one other exception. Multi-paragraph character sketch epigraphs for each interviewee. (Maybe as a novelist he couldn’t help himself?) Although he makes occasionally interesting observations, these descriptions tend to be obtrusive, redundant, and clash with his aim to let the subjects speak for themselves, so I started skipping them. (They were helpful for skimming though.)

What emerges over the course of these accounts is a snapshot of Tokyo, 1995. More Tokyo, than ’95. A survey of the 9 to 5 (or later) daily grind of a country whose culture loves to work (or pretends to). I.e., post-industrial consumer capitalist yada-yada culture. The thing the Aum members say they joined Aum to get away from.

But the survey is conducted through human faces. You get an idea of who those strangers on the subway actually are. What kind of work they do. What early hour they get up for their commute. Hopes, forgotten dreams, disappointments. Mini-biographies of a few dozen random Tokyoites.

I mentioned routines. Some are meticulous. Some people leave at the exact same time every morning, get the exact same train, the same car, the same seat. This is where coincidence emerges. Coincidences, good and bad, always show up for events like this.

For some reason someone missed their usual train, and ended up gassed.

Or, for some reason they went to a different part of the train, and in retrospect, didn’t get the gas as bad as they would if they were in their usual spot.

Or they happened to do just the right thing to minimize the sarin damage, like took off their suitcoat or washed their face. Many didn’t even realize they were gassed until their symptoms got worse after making to work and hearing about the attack on TV. It’s almost comic as that scene plays out over and over. The stubborn resilience to get to work (and stay there) even if they are dying.

One survivor was sleeping, and it turns out this mitigated exposure because her eyes were closed and her breathing was steady.

It was one survivor’s birthday.

A few even knew or suspected it was sarin, because they happened to know about sarin, so they were able to respond accordingly.

There was an ex-subway worker, whose knowledge of the subway came in handy.

One survivor actually went to high school in Kyoto with the perpetrator who dropped the sarin bag on his train.

On the perpetrators’ side, despite an otherwise smooth execution, the attack could have been much worse had it not been for the low-grade of the sarin, and several bags failing to puncture.

There’s both reading-into these coincidences, and perplexity at the lack of meaning in such events. Then the usual existential eye-opening and reevaluating what matters most when you have a near miss.

The motif that accompanies coincidence is chaos. The result of total unpreparedness at the individual and institutional level. From the subway workers, to the first responders, to the hospitals, and the victims themselves. There are a few heroes, but many passersby, politely minding their own business, in Japanese fashion.

Another example of such indifference is how many try to completely ignore the sarin, even as they are getting gassed by it, as if, everything’s fine here.

“. . . lots of passengers got off, but there was no reaction whatsoever to my turning around to open the windows. No one said a thing, everyone was so quiet. No response, no communication. I lived in America for a year, and believe me if the same thing had happened in America there would have been a real scene. With everyone shouting ‘what’s going on here?’ and coming together to find the cause. Later the police asked me ‘Didn’t people start to panic?’ I thought back on it: ‘Everyone was so silent. No one uttered a word.’” – Ikuko Nakayama, survivor

If you’ve ever ridden a train in Japan, you know it’s akin to sitting in church. Not even a gas attack could disturb such crippling reverence. Less emphasis on the individual is often a strength of Japanese society, but such is the danger of group think.

“Ultimately, from now on I think the individual in Japanese society has to become a lot stronger. Even Aum, after bringing together such brilliant minds, what do they do but plunge straight into mass terrorism? That’s just how weak the individual is.” – Mitsuo Arima, survivor


Then we hear about the aftermath for each victim. Most recover, but still feel varying degrees of side-effects, some quite extreme. (I’m skimming over a lot of pain and tragedy here. A review is no replacement for reading the book, obviously.) Many modestly downplay the severity of their symptoms.

In a final analysis, how do they feel about Aum/the gas attack now? If they had been a passerby, would they have helped out, or minded their own business? If they had been in Aum and ordered to carry out the attack, would they have?

An array of responses and mixed emotions from bitter anger (give them all the death penalty, the trial is a farce) or stoic indifference (this is just something that happened to me, I don’t really think about Aum). Often, the angrier are among the less affected. Some feel surprised by their lack of anger. Or they feel something ‘beyond anger.’ Or there was initial anger, but it dissipated. Or the other way around, because of shock and in light of new information about Aum. Almost all feel frustration and upset by the media coverage.

As the subtitle suggests, the book offers insight into the Japanese psyche.

“We will get nowhere as long as the Japanese continue to disown the Aum ‘phenomenon’ as something completely other, an alien presence viewed through binoculars on the far shore. Unpleasant though the concept might seem, it is important we incorporate ‘them’, to some extent, within that construct called ‘us’, or at least Japanese society. Certainly that is how the event was viewed from abroad.” – Murakami

Precisely. But as a foreigner from the ‘outside’ looking in, it’s important not to fall into the same trap. To write off the gas attack as a footnote in Weird Japan. Just as this incident occurred within Japanese society, it also occurred within human society. The former is the point of the book, the latter is the point of this review.

But how does Japan view terror attacks abroad? With a similar distance, I think.

 “Of course, Tokyo is known as a safe city. The gas attack hasn’t changed my opinion of Japan; there’s no country in the world as safe as Japan. Wonderful! If all the world were like Japan, there’d be very little trouble.” – Michael Kennedy, (Irish) survivor

Some worry about this over-confidence in Japan’s safety record from terror attacks, foreign or domestic, as in this Japan Times article from a couple months ago, especially in regard to the 2020 Olympics. The gas attack wasn’t the only major terror incident perpetrated by or involving Japanese nationals post WWII. (Look up: Lod Airport Massacre, Japanese Red Army, Narita Airport bombing.) ISIS is no friend to Japan or its journalists.

(And as it turns out, sarin is the same chemical weapon Assad is accused of using on his own people in Syria.)

More than twenty years later, and terrorism of all sorts, including media terrorism, is still a thing. As troubling and misunderstood as ever, the war on this vague ideology has gotten us nowhere. Taking Murakami’s thesis to its logical conclusion, we need to stop viewing terrorism as something wholly other. It’s an internal threat no wall can protect us from. Beyond that, the answers aren’t so clear. But we must incorporate ‘them’, to some extent, within that construct called ‘us.’

This doesn’t mean condoning or resigning or self-deprecating or blind forgiveness or that there isn’t blame or condemnation in order. Nor does it deny doomsday religion provokes a serious problem for secular society. But,

“It’s all too easy to say, ‘Aum was evil.” Nor does saying, “This had nothing to do with ‘evil’ or ‘insanity’’ prove anything either.” – Murakami

Good luck riding the world of ‘evil-doers.’ Such thinking does little to understand or address the actual problem. Otherizing the problem is no help.


After Part 1 was published, Murakami realized that although the media hype was focused on the trials and personality cult of Aum, yet another side of the story was still missing. Ordinary, mid-rank Aum followers. So Part 2 consists of interviews with current and former Aum members. Fewer interviewees, but more in depth. As none were actually involved in the gas attack, the focus shifts away from that event to their personal journeys through Aum. Instead of an enigmatic view of the gas attack, you get an enigmatic view of Asahara (the cult leader) and Aum itself.

The problem or danger with Underground is the repetition and numbing to tragedy after reading a few dozen more or less parallel accounts back to back. (And the English translation only includes half the accounts published in Japanese.) Although Murakami was trying to provide a counter-narrative by shifting attention away from Aum in Part 1, the counterbalance of Part 2 really makes Underground work.

As he put human faces on the victims, so too he puts human faces on the cultists. What leads them to join the cult in the first place? Why did they stay? For they too were victims, undergoing physical torture and psychological abuse.

None of those interviewed knew about the gas attack before it happened. During the interviews they try to reconcile the real value they got (and still get) from Aum, varying degrees of disillusionment and denial, and logical rationale for maintaining some degree of belief in Aum.

Commenting on the fact so many Aum followers, including the perpetrators, were highly educated,

“The sad fact is that language and logic cut off from reality have a far greater power than the language and logic of reality.” – Murakami

(1995 was also the year the Unabomber published his manifesto.)

This quote impels the need for counter-narratives to challenge our internal consistencies. As such, Underground is not the right book to get an objective understanding of Aum, the cult leader Asahara, or the events of the gas attack itself. Instead you get something more valuable, more on target. Not a subjective view, but a palette of subjectivity. Like Roshomon, it’s not about which perspective is the most correct, it’s about the conglomeration, the contradictory whole.


Japanese False Cognates as Mnemonics

When two words in different languages coincidentally have similar sound and meaning, they are called false cognates. They’re ‘false’ because they don’t actually share a common etymology (at least within traceable linguistic history). True cognates, conversely, do share a common etymological origin. There aren’t really any true cognates in Japanese-English until recent history with actual loan-words and wasei-eigo.

Nonetheless, not unlike similar traits arising independently in evolution, false cognates do happen and these happy accidents can serve as great mnemonics. Then with a little creativity, false-near-cognates can broaden the trick.

Here’s a list of false-cognates or false-near-cognates I’ve come across and found to be helpful little language boosters. Again, since these are false cognates, this list excludes foreign katakana loan words. がんばてね


なまえ(namae) = name. My namae is this is gonna be やさしeasy-peasy!

すべり(suberi) – sounds like slippery. It means slipping or sliding.

つなぐ(tsunagu) – sounds like snug. It means to tie or connect together.

おい(oi) – an exclamation to get someone’s attention. Means the exact same thing in English. It’s even spelt the same.

そう(sō) – thus or in such a way. It pretty closely matches one sense of the English ‘so.’

もう(mō) – means also or more. It sounds like a lazy pronunciation of ‘more.’

え(e) – sounds just like ‘eh.’ Used at the beginning of a sentence, means ‘eh?’ or ‘huh?’ Be careful of tone, since it can also mean ‘yeah.’ Variation: ええ

ね(ne) – attached at the end of a sentence to soften a claim, check for agreement, or express agreement. Similar sound and usage to the Canadian ‘eh?’ (but I think it’s slightly more assertive).

よ(yo) – another sentence final particle used for emphasis or exclamation. It can be similar to the 90’s slang, yo.

お手洗い(otearai) – coincidentally sounds a lot like toirei, the Japanese romanization of toilet. It means toilet, restroom, or literally hand-washing.

かぎ(kagi) – means key. Apart from just sounding close, ぎ’s cousin isき(ki) and they both look like keys. And if you say it fast, kagi sounds like car-key.

骨(hone) – it sounds like bone. It means bone.

起こる(okoru) – to happen. Sounds like ‘occur.’

国(kuni) – means country. If you drop the ‘tr’ in country, you get coun’y.

きゅうり(kyuri) = cucumber. kyucumber.

ただいま(tadaima) – said when you return home. I like to hear it as, “Ta-da, I’m-a [home].”

売買(baibai) – no, it doesn’t mean “bye-bye” (that’s バイバイ). The kanji literally mean sell and buy, so this compound means trade. I like to remember it as “Buy!Buy!”

輪(rin) – this kanji means ring or circle. The kunyomi reading is ‘wa,’ but the onyomi is pronounced ‘rin,’ which sounds like you just dropped the ‘g’ from ring. Since it’s onyomi, it mostly only shows up as ‘rin’ in kanji compounds like 輪番(rotation), 輪形(ring-shaped),  車輪(wheel), and even 一輪車(unicycle). By itself, the rin reading is also the counter for wheels and flowers.


Then there are words that are kind of alike, or at least sound close enough (to me) to be helpful:

窓(mado) – means ‘window.’

寺(tera) – means ‘temple.’

すぐ(sugu) – means ‘soon.’

軍(gun) – means ‘army, troops, force, etc.’ i.e., English guns.

意味(imi) – means ‘meaning.’ Sounds like ‘meanie’ (as in miny moe) which sounds like ‘meaning.’

飛び出して(Tobi-dashite) – 飛び means to fly. 出す means to put out. Together means flying out or rushing out. So it can also mean ‘dash out.’ A long way of saying dashite sounds a lot like ‘dash.’

市(shi) – means city. Sounds like the first syllable of ‘city’ (with a Japanese accent). Welcome to the city part of town.

理(ri) – means reason. As used in: 理由(riyu) – reason (pretext, motive); 理性(risei) – reason (faculty).

箱 (hako) – means box. When used in compounds, it is sometimes pronounced bako as in ゴミ箱(gomi-bako) – garbage box.


Some kana even strike me as false cognates audio-visually:

の looks like a stylized n, and that rounded shape is easy to associate with o

ん looks like an n with a long top

た also looks a bit like ta


Then, if you bend your head a little…

か could be a k with a detached arm

う looks like a sideways u

よ looks like a y whose tail has been bent around in a loop

そ looks like a backwards s


All well and good. But a word of caution. False Friends, like false cognates, are similar sounding words in different languages, but with radically different or even opposite meanings. So cross-language homonyms are double-edged swords. But if you’re careful they can also be used as mnemonics:

イギリス(igirisu) – England. Not only does this not sound like its namesake, it actually sounds like another country entirely: Greece [which is pronounced Girisha]

間近(majika) – means close or near. Sounds like magical or Magikarp. So make a silly mnemonic like ‘the magic is close’ or whilst playing Pokémon Go, ‘Magikarp is nearby.’

夏休み中 (natsu-yasumi-chu) – a phrase I hear a lot at school around summer time, literally means ‘during summer vacation.’ But I swear when Japanese people say it, it sounds like “nice to meet you.”

ありそうな (arisōna) – means probably. But this phrase always jumps out at me because I’m from Arizona.

おはよう(ohayō) – good morning! Sounds like another U.S. state: Ohio. Ohayō, Ohio!

apartment hunting guide

Apartment Hunting in Japan: 40+ Lesser Known Tips

Apartment hunting can be an exciting and/or daunting task, no matter your location. While there are many factors that overlap whether you are in Japan or your home country, there are many differences to be aware of as well. There are many articles out there giving instructions and tips on how to find an apartment in general, but I have yet to stumble upon any thorough English-language guides regarding going beyond the bare basics. Reading the American sources only made me depressed—things such as “Check the thermostat, oven, carpet, and garbage disposal” (all almost nonexistent in Japan) and “What appliances are included in the unit?” (apartments here are often completely unfurnished, down to the washing machine and stove), and “How much counter space do you want?” (equivalent to an endangered animal if you’re not in a family-size apartment) only served to make me homesick and ready to give up on Japan.

Therefore, I have compiled this guide to finding the best apartment for you in Japan, based on materials and information from various Japanese sources (listed at the end) and from talking to realtors directly. While this is not necessarily the most comprehensive guide, it includes the most important tips and checkpoints that are mostly (but not all) Japan-specific (to me as a Midwest American) and not (often) listed in any of the English-language resources I have listed as examples at the bottom. (I recommend you read the basics first in the resources listed below, and then refer back to here for a deeper look at the process.)

Note: in this article, I’m using “apartment” to refer to both アパート (apaato) and マンション (manshon). However, here is a quick, general distinction:

Apaato: short (3 floors or less) and usually made out of lightweight steel or metal

Manshon: taller (3 or more floors) and usually made from concrete, giving better protection against noise and fires

Original photo credit: Wikicommons

Original photo credit: Wikicommons

Much of this may also apply to houses and condos as well.

First Steps: Looking Online & Gathering Information

  1. Search Japanese sites directly. Housing listings on sites such as GaijinPot that are aimed for foreigners have the benefit of being in English, but listings are relatively few and often not the best.
  2. Different housing information websites (such as Suumo, Chintai, and Home’s) will have some overlap. This means that some apartments will repeat across companies, and some will be different, so it is worth checking out at least a few.
  3. For every listing online, the realtors/housing information companies will often have at least 3 more listings. (I’m just spewing out a random number, but the point is, the information in-house is more than what’s online.) Do some research online, but also do not forget to visit one in person.
  4. If you decide the place is at least 80% to your liking, go check it out, especially if it is likely to be competed over. (The early bird gets the worm, and you can’t tell everything from the internet and photos.)
  5. Sign up for email alerts for apartments that fit your conditions. Most websites will have a button for you to set this up, so you can be first in line to check out new rooms as they open up. (Look for something like この条件の新着メールを受け取る.)Homes email
  6. Start your search with the most conditions and filters, and gradually ease up on them. Lucky you if you find your perfect apartment; however, most of us will need to prioritize and consider what we are willing to negotiate.
  7. Get a feel for floor space as well as how many rooms there are. A 2DK may be more cramped than an open one-room apartment. Don’t judge the amount of space just by the L’s and D’s and K’s.
  8. Check that the land was not previously a wetland by looking at old maps. Converted wetlands have weaker stability and are more prone to earthquake damage.
  9. Check if the apartment is child, instrument, and/or pet-friendly. Walls in many apartments (especially wooden ones and apaato) tend to be thinner; wooden floors carry noise, and tatami can be easily damaged, so many landlords may turn you down for these factors.
  10. Suumo recently announced that they will post information for LGBT-friendly residences.
  11. Newly built apartments are often listed before they’re actually complete. If it is 90% to your liking based on the images and information provided, apply for it as soon as you can so you can get first in line for the most coveted of buildings. Applying is not the same as signing the deal—you will still need to visit the apartment and then, if it tickles your fancy, sign the contract then; you can always pull out, but this just gives you dibs.

Next Steps: Visiting the Apartment

  1. Take thorough notes and pictures to record your impressions and jog your memory. Make sure you don’t have any lingering questions or doubts due to forgetfulness when you think back on the apartments you’ve checked days or even hours later.
  2. Does your apartment have a veranda (with a roof) or a balcony (without a roof)? This will affect hanging laundry out to dry on potentially rainy days, etc. This is especially important for the top floor. If it is close to other buildings, your room may be easier to break into as well.
  3. How does your apartment smell? Check both inside and the outside—if you have a heavy smoker for a neighbor, the smell may seep into your room or drying clothes.
  4. Do you have an interphone for your room and security cameras in the building and elevator (if applicable)?
  5. How much storage space do you have? Do the closets have bars to hang clothes, or will you need to install one yourself?
  6. What floor is your apartment on? The first floor is often the least coveted as humidity and bugs tend to gather in lower floors, and it is more prone to theft (watch out for your laundry) and noise/lack of privacy from outside. However, you would not need to worry about treading lightly on your wooden floors lest you wake a downstairs neighbor (and cockroaches tend to find their way in anyways).
  7. What direction do the windows, rooms, and veranda face? With a bedroom with east-facing windows, you may wake up to the brilliant, 4 am sunlight in the summer unless you have heavy-duty curtains. Verandas and balconies are best facing the south to pick up the maximum amount of sunlight. However, even south-facing windows and balconies will be moot if overshadowed by a tall, neighboring building.

    About 3:00 am in July, eh? Photo credit to Times Higher Education

  8. If looking for a corner room, make sure that the benefits are sincere. A corner room may still be close to other buildings, affecting noise and privacy.
  9. What kind of gas does the apartment have—LP gas (orange hose) or toshi (natural) gas (beige hose)—or is it all electric? While there are pros and cons to both, natural gas tends to be somewhat cheaper, and all electric even cheaper.
  10. How well insulated is your apartment in terms of noise (遮音 shaon) and heat (断熱 dannetsu)?  Check with the windows open and closed and both during the daytime and night if possible.
  11. How well protected is it from earthquakes (耐震 taishin) and fires (耐火 taika)?
  12. Take a marble, bead, superball or something of the sort and put it on the ground. If it moves, your apartment is tilted, which may be a red flag for an unstable foundation or loose build.
  13. Does the size of your refrigerator and washing machine fit the spaces provided? Measure all dimensions beforehand.
  14. Check where the washing machine will go. Some apartments will have them outside on the veranda/balcony, some will have them inside. Placing them outside will save space and making hanging laundry more convenient, but may be uncomfortable in the cold winter months.
  15. Is the apartment close to a river or park? A river may be viewed positively as providing calming nature to some, and negatively as close to smells and bugs and disasters (flooding, etc.) to others. A park may be viewed similarly—as either close to nature or as close to bugs and noise.
  16. Ask if the key has been changed. Unless there has been some incident or reason to believe in any risk, the next tenant will inherit the former tenant’s key. Some apartments will have an upfront fee for lock changing as well.

    Adding conditions on Suumo

    Adding conditions on Suumo

  17. Does your post box have a key? What happens if a package is delivered and you’re not home?
  18. Will some renovations be necessary to allow internet? While many larger apartments may already be internet-friendly, some smaller, very old, or new apartments may need some construction (which would take about 2-3 weeks) for you to set up internet. You may want to directly ask if you can use the internet in the apartment from day one of moving in.
  19. Check the number and location of air conditioning & heating units. Japan uses individual machines attached to the walls for air and heating, unlike America and many other countries with central heating. They can be expensive to buy individually, costing about 50,000 each. Imagine being in each room of your apartment in the middle of winter and summer, and visualize which rooms/areas of the rooms will have access to the unit.
  20. How close is the nearest supermarket, station/bus stop, hospital, 100 yen store, convenience store, drugstore, and police box?
  21. Visit the apartment (or at least the area) both during the daytime and at night, on a weekday and weekend, to get a better feel for security, noise, and neighbors.
  22. Check the humidity in the apartment. You may even want to bring a humidity checker with you. Is there any mold or condensation on the walls, ceiling, windows, etc.?
  23. Are there any rain leaks in the ceiling? You will be able to tell by any marks or yellowing on the ceiling.
  24. Does the landlord live in the same complex? This may affect how quickly they can respond to any problems, such as a water outage, broken AC, or mold infestation (and check if things like these are the landlord’s responsibility).
  25. Check the common spaces such as post boxes and garbage collection areas. Many apartments have a monthly charge for public space maintenance (共益費 kyouekihi or 管理費 kanrihi) on top of normal rent and utilities, and you’ll want to make sure this money is being used effectively. It is recommended to directly ask what it is being used for as well—vague responses that cannot be proven are sketchy.
  26. Is the apartment equipped with fire alarms?
  27. Directly ask if any accidents or unfortunate events have happened in the apartment before (事故や事件のあった部屋ではないですか Jiko ya jiken no atta heya dewa nai desu ka?) While some people may openly target 事故物件 (jiko bukken, or apartments in which something unfortunate, such as a death or injury has occurred) because they can be sold for extremely cheap, make sure you aren’t tricked, or otherwise know what you’re getting into. For example, there may be a major difference between whether the previous tenant died of a heart attack versus asbestos versus a violent stalker. They are legally bound to divulge this information if asked, but may try to hide it otherwise.
  28. Check if the apartment has been cleaned or not. Thoroughly inspect the floorings, closets, entrance, doors, windows, walls, ceiling, and bathroom. Not only will this tell you what kind of person manages the apartment (are there any weird smells, holes, mold, or gunk anywhere?), but it can also potentially save you some money. Some apartments will ask for “cleaning fees” before the tenant moves out or before a new tenant moves in—sometimes both—so negotiate well and don’t be duped.

    A listing on Home's

    A listing on Home’s

 Final Steps: Negotiating

  1. Ask why the previous tenant left. You don’t want to be surprised by crazy neighbors or an uncomfortable room after signing the contract.
  2. Ask directly what the middleman fees (仲介手数料 chuukai tesuuryou) and the contract renewal fees (更新料 koushinryou) are. The middleman fees refer to the cut that the realtor gets for introducing you to the apartment, which tend to be about 0.5-1 months’ rent. Renewal fees are usually paid directly to the landlord and tend to be about one month’s rent. Note the uncertain language here—payment could be 2 month’s rent, and it’s possible that the realtor will demand renewal payment as well. Don’t leave room for unpleasant surprises. Remember that the same listings may appear on different housing information websites, so if you feel the middleman fees are too high, try another company with the same listing.
  3. Key money (礼金 reikin), basically free money to the landlord to “thank” them for letting you live here, is technically illegal. However, is so ingrained to Japanese society that it is still very much common and almost impossible to negotiate out of without a catch. However, many more Japanese people are being put off by key money, and some apartments have done away with the custom.
  4. Ask what the deposit (敷金 shikikin) covers, and make sure you know exactly what the conditions are for you to get it back. Some landlords will use it for the “cleaning fees” when you move out, etc.
  5. You may have more negotiating leverage if you move in after April. April is the beginning of the new fiscal year in Japan, so most turnover in apartments happens around then—therefore, the competition is up, and drops dramatically after.
  6. Get every single price and negotiation in writing. A landlord or realtor’s oral word is essentially worthless. Make sure you check the paper documents as well to ensure there are no mistakes, which are not as uncommon as you may think.
  7. This should be obvious, but even if they are in Japanese, read and understand all materials before you sign anything! Whether or not you need a guarantor, you are strongly recommended to bring along a Japanese friend or coworker to help you if you are not comfortable doing all of this in Japanese.


English References & Guides


Japanese Sources



Some Engrish Poetry

After a certain amount of 時間, one desensitizes to the stylized rando-engrish t-shatsus, and googuru translated signs (let alone the perplexity of wasei-eigo). But there’s poetry here. Refreshing perspective on our cliche ridden tongue, which occasionally makes a bit of sense. Here’s just a personal collection.


Nothing else!



DC/Marvel crossover: Night-Spider & Bat-Pumpkin



Airport Security Checkpoint Let-down



This sign cannot be understood. However, this sign can be understood if read closely.



Creative Silence goes Good on a pillow.



Sounds what a so good!



Mind the gap level difference of this point. Get on my level.



I can not sustand it.



During captioning 中

Nothing out of this world.

Expect nothing out of this world.



Translation seems legit actually


An excellent combination

An excellent combination.


Sounds appetizing till you say it aloud.

Sounds appetizing till you say it aloud.



The Japanese doesn’t say anything about preventing car crashes.


Such as my favorite.


How to Become a CIR: Apply Like a Boss

If you’re reading this, I assume you’re frustrated and/or desperate—and maybe a small percent of you simply curious. “I tried to find advice for applying to be a CIR, but almost all the information out there was for ALTs! Help!”

Ah yes, now we must wallow and worry in isolation in our problems of (lack of) representation. Looking at the internet, who would have guessed that at any given time there were hundreds of us from all over the world—including many with very strong or native English skills that could have at least written something of a piece of advice for the later generations, eh? That’s not to say there’s absolutely nothing related to CIRs on the Google, but you may have to do a bit of digging after the first few links. And even so, it’s not quite the pot of gold that ALTs may find, but more of a donation box.

If you’re applying for a CIR, then you should have connected the dots already as to one of the reasons why (I assume) this is the case—because while ALTs have more a uniform job description, CIRs are even more ESID (Every Situation Is Different–if you haven’t heard this yet, you will). As an ALT, you can be certain that you will be teaching English (or are among the minority teaching a different language)—forgive me ALTs for saying this, but the main ESID thing in your job description that you can’t predict will be what level(s) of English you’ll teach, and whether the emphasis of your job will be on the A (assistant) or T (teacher) part of ALT. The CIR position, however, is a mixed bag of uncertainty (as I’ve stated in a previous post)—you may be essentially an ALT with a CIR nametag or a desk translator, never leaving the office until work time is over. Most people, I reckon, fall in between these two extremes. In my case, the Tochigi English-region CIR is also automatically designated “head PA” on top of all other responsibilities. This makes it difficult to make a blanket statement of what aspects of  the job you should promote yourself to. Therefore, rule number one is try to make yourself seem as diverse as possible—don’t spend the entirety of your Statement of Purpose talking about how you have (only) a ton of translation experience, or 98% language teaching experience. There are no hard guarantees with this job, even if you do so and get hired.

In any case, I’ve narrowed it down to 3 broad categories you should sell yourself on, if you really get stuck:

  • Language ability
  • Enthusiasm for cross-culture relations
  • Communication ability
  1. Language ability

This can be a slippery slope, and may be dangerous to over-sell yourself here. What I mean by this is, CIRs are unique to ALTs in that they have a language prerequisite; therefore, if you’re applying for the CIR position, it’s taken for granted that you should have fantastic Japanese skills. However, no matter how special you are on your college campus Japanese classes, you are not special here, as hard as it may be for you to hear—everyone else applying for the position is also expected to have these same level of skills as you do, or even more. Therefore, having great Japanese skills in and of itself does nothing to make you particularly stand out of the CIR crowd, although you also need to make sure the people reading your application believe you enough to give you an interview. My point is, while you need to prove your language abilities enough to persuade the hiring staff, you also need to make sure you put more of a focus on other aspects—language ability, after all, is just scratching the surface of the job. It will not end with being able to speak Japanese—that is just the beginning, and you will be required to use it in order to perform in other aspects as a CIR. Yes, you will need Japanese, but you will need Japanese to do something.

Don’t be this guy.

I want to take the time to highlight this article, if you haven’t read it already. Of course as a CIR, you will need strong language abilities and an interest in Japan—if you have a relevant story, take a small paragraph to highlight that in your Statement of Purpose, but only if it will help you show how you can use that interest to thrive in the JET environment. While it’s important to prove why your Japanese is better than Other Applicant X’s, don’t give a timeline of how you studied Japanese unless it is directly related to the job or if you did something outstanding—remember that, as I’ve said, that’s supposed to be taken for granted for CIR positions. You will also have a separate Japanese language portion of the interview if accepted.

Your language ability can be proved in numerous ways. You can talk about passing the N1 or N2 if you have done so (if you’ve already passed N1, I’d spend more time emphasizing other qualities that make you stand out, since this is an internationally accepted standard you’ve just proven yourself to be at)—however, contrary to some misunderstandings, you don’t need to have taken and passed the N1 or N2 to be considered for or get the job (I myself still have never ever taken the JLPT). This being said, remember that this paper part is only the very beginning of just getting into JET as a CIR, and the next stage would be an interview. If you passed N1 by a stroke of luck and really could barely pass N2 in reality, I’m warning you now to not get cocky and over-confident—the girl who has never even once taken the JLPT may blow you out of the competition at the interview stage.download

Other ways you could prove your language skills are talking about classes you took in university, or better yet, during your study abroad experiences (assuming you have something), or how you used Japanese to achieve something in your personal life, or perhaps better yet a volunteer or job position, etc. Basically for all of this, make sure you show you accomplished something, whether that’s achieving an award, passing the JLPT, or showing that you improved something in a concrete way in a job or volunteer experience, etc.

If you make it to the interview, there will be a Japanese language portion, which will make you prove how much you know—basically, you’re fighting to get into that stage with your paper application, just like with any job. It’s like how the age-old saying about trampolines goes—it’s not the size that matters, it’s ultimately how you use it. Jane Pasta might have taken all the Japanese classes offered at her university and passed the highest level of Japanese class during her study abroad term and passed the N1 with a nicely high score, but Johnny Whiteboy actually used his Japanese to save a kid stuck in a well, despite not even knowing how to use が早いか properly. Of course you need N2-N1-equivalent level, but if you are all book-smarts and have no practical skills, you’re facing the law of diminishing returns. JET wants to know if you’re going to give a spectacular one-(wo)man 90 minute presentation on your country to a group of middle schoolers, or if you’re going to buckle under the pressure when interpreting between the mayor and the Lithuanian ambassador.

And even though this explanation is already several paragraphs long, I suggest you keep it to 1-2 paragraphs minimum in your Statement. Focus on the other aspects unique to the job as a CIR (versus any other job in Japan requiring Japanese).

  1. Enthusiasm for cross-culture relations

No matter what you do in practice, the title of your position will always stay the same—you will be, in some way, shape, or form, coordinating international relations (plural). Odds are your prefecture won’t be stuck in one binational vacuum, especially if you have the English skills to be reading this post. I’ve done work not only between my state and country and Tochigi and Japan, but also done interpretations between representatives from Hungary, various African countries, Britain, Belgium, and more. I feel like this should go without saying, but make sure you don’t give the impression that you would loathe working with other countries and only care about Japan. While Japan-related previous experience is obviously the most suitable to bring up in this job, this is the reason why any kind of exposure to different cultures makes you a stronger candidate, whether you were teaching English to a mass of ESL students from all over the world every Saturday as part of your university’s volunteer initiative or made a pact with your friends to try out a different cuisine every month (some of these may come off as better than others, but anything can make you a stronger candidate if you spin it right). Anything related to you sharing your culture (even if it’s East coast meets West coast internal culture sharing experience) or language or customs of any sort has the potential to look good. No one wants a “Japan is #1 and all other countries, especially the neighboring countries suck” attitude in the local government—that’s more of the national government’s territory (yeah, I went there—not targeting you, CLAIR, you’re cool).

(Err, well actually, CLAIR, isn’t it high time you broke off your ties with the APA hotel chain, as I’ve suggested in my feedback sheets? It’s the Kaihin-Makuhari area–legitimately filled with non-blatantly-racist/colonialist/etc. hotel chains to host the CIR Mid-Year Conference at. Seriously? Come on.)

Bottom line: What can you do to broaden Japan’s connections with the world? If you can connect this to helping your own country with their connections as well, that’s a bonus (a bit more on this sort of thing later).

  1. Communication ability

This could go under language, but there is still so much more to this than being able to speak, read, write, and listen to Japanese. As stated above, even if it’s in English or Mandarin or whatever language you’re being hired to be international for, you will be required to communicate with people of different backgrounds, beginning with nationalities. Furthermore, I’ve had to do engaging presentations for elementary school students all the way to retired folks continuing their education. If you’re applying to be a CIR because you don’t really like kids and therefore the ALT position isn’t quite for you (*cough*), definitely don’t say anything that would hint at that, or anything like that at all to begin with. As an automatically designated PA, I need to know how to help our JETs cope with communication problems with their schools and what to do when they’re being sucked into the black hole that is culture shock.  I feel like most of what I have to say here is already stated in some way in the two above sections, so let me go now straight to the next huge point:

Spin it.

Warning: This is not your typical job structure.

This is not the position or employer that you learn about in Job Hunting 101, whether you took this in Japan or your home country. While the JET jobs share commonalities with your average Joe job (make sure you are professional, emphasize your strengths, etc.), there are some core differences. Mainly that this is not a career track position. Most career counselors will tell you not to say or even hint that you plan on leaving and changing jobs, even if you only see this job as a temporary thing; however, with JET, it’s set from the get-go that you’re not here (at least as a JET) forever. No one is under the illusion, whether it’s the hiring committee or the participants themselves, that they will have this same job even after their 5 years is up (although, fine print, there are some cases of contracting organizations deciding to directly hire their JETs after their terms, but this isn’t the standard course of events and shouldn’t be expected or assumed).

The whole point of this job is cultural exchange—the expectations that you will be bringing something useful back from Japan when you return home (or wherever you go next) that will help Japan or JET’s mission. The underlying purpose of JET is to be a first step or next step in your career (which is why they have age restrictions), and so when you become the prime minister or a fancy international lawyer, that you will look back fondly on your time in Japan and do cool, powerful things to help Japan. Therefore don’t be afraid to emphasize (although keep slightly shorter) what you want to gain from JET for your future career and why it’s important for you and Japan/the world to get this job—after all JET is by definition the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, a give-and-take experience. This can also show that you’re eager to learn and develop, which is always a plus. On the flip side, do not go as far as saying “I only plan on being here X years”—keep those details vague, just as you would with any other job; you still don’t want to come off as hard-headed or, you know, a selfish ass.

Take everything I write here with a grain of salt, though—after all, I have never been on the hiring committee and assume I never will be. I’m writing all of this based on my experiences and from my perspective. There are always those wild card people who seem to be the worst fit and somehow make it through, and vice versa. However, especially with such a small number of job vacancies (just a couple hundred at most–if all CIRs band together and quit together for some odd reason). When I came in, I’d guess that about 50 new CIRs were hired total. All decisions have reasons, and it’s harder for the wild cards to slip in through the cracks with the CIR position. So good luck, do awesome things, and go be your own spin team.


TL;DR – Be specific, but be vague as well. I wrote this whole thing out for you; go read it, you skimmers.

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Tama Genryu Matsuri: A Water, Fire, and Taste Festival


Welcome to Kosuge Village, Yamanashi Prefecture, my home for the past nine months. The nearest convenience store and train station are 35 minutes away by car via a winding mountain road. Its land area is about that of Manhattan Island. It borders the western tip of the largest metropolitan area in the world. On a normal day, the population is 720. Today, May 4th, it is estimated to be 10,000.

At the height of Golden Week, one of Japan’s biggest vacation periods, the crowds are here for Tama Genryu Matsuri (Tama River Headwaters Festival), the village’s biggest festival. It’s a celebration of this important watershed region that is a major source of Tokyo’s drinking water.

The figurehead: Japan’s largest o-matsuyaki (お松焼き), a 10 plus meter tall wood pyramid draped in pine leaves and topped with bamboo branches. There is a triad actually: two smaller pyramids flank each side of the larger pyramid. As the name omatsuyaki (literally ‘pine-burning’) suggests, these artificial pine trees were constructed for the purpose of burning. A month ago they were just wooden frames resembling something out of The Wicker Man or Silent Hill. A couple weeks ago, those frames were covered in pine leaves and bound by chain mesh, giving it more of a cone shape.IMG_1602

The temporary monuments stand on the bank of Kosuge River – a major tributary of the Tama River. Cars and fishers line the river during the day, and kids dip their toes in to cool off. Nothing blocks the structures, so festival goers are free to touch them and take pictures.IMG_1604

Meanwhile, across the road from the river a ballfield has been converted to a fairground. An outdoor stage has performances scheduled throughout the day. Picnic tarps and people canvas the area in front. Striped canopy stalls lining the perimeters sell the standard Japanese festival food: takoyaki (fried octopus), taiyaki (red-bean-filled fish-shaped waffle cake), and kakigōri (shaved ice). But Kosuge’s specialties and crafts are especially for sale: whole wasabi roots and derivative products, soba noodles made from locally grown buckwheat, grilled river trout on skewers, and nihon-shu (Japanese sake) served in a small wooden box. It’s 11am and some are already well on their way to inebriation.

It’s hot today. And clear. The weather forecast called for rain, leading to worries of a limited turnout and cancelled fireworks. I was assured, however, the omatsuyaki burning would go on regardless.


Omatsuyaki is a tradition of gathering New Year’s pine-bamboo decorations (matsukazari and kadomatsu) into a pile around the second week of January (the lunar new year), and retiring them in a bonfire. This would essentially be like ceremonially retiring your Christmas tree by burning it a week after Christmas, except the decorations are thought to temporarily house gods and ancestors during the Holidays. Burning the decorations releases them back to the spirit world. Elsewhere in Japan, omatsuyaki is better known as “dondoyaki” – an onomatopoeia for the crackling of the burning branches.


Photo courtesy of NPO Kosuge

I missed my community’s New Year’s omatsuyaki back in January. No one told me about it, so I felt left out when I saw pictures of it on Facebook. A month ago at the prefecture’s capital I attended the Shingen-ko Festival, the world’s largest samurai parade. Most divisions of samurai reenactors were representatives of companies or municipalities. You could also participate individually if you paid ¥15,000 ($135USD). So I was surprised to see a division from Kosuge including some of my co-workers march by. At work a few days later I asked if I could participate next year. Apparently the village only participates once every 15 years! Bummer.

I was determined not to let another experience pass me by. As the festival approached, I asked several times whether there was anything I could do in preparation, or to help during the festival, of if I could maybe participate in the lighting ceremony? I didn’t know anything about the ceremony, except that there had to be some such ceremony, because it’s Japan, and I know how they feel about pomp and circumstance.

I heard back a short time later that I could participate, no problem. I was to be a yamabushi (mountain monk). Cool! I asked when we would practice. I was asked my shoe size. The date of the festival approached. I asked when we would practice. Then the Jr. High vice principal, who would also participate, received an information packet (in Japanese of course). He made a copy for me. Among some confusing diagrams and a script, I deciphered a timetable. (I also had a line of dialog in quasi-archaic Japanese.) We would meet for the first time at 4pm the day of, and practice just 2 hours before the ceremony. I felt apprehensive about this. I would be handling fire, and I worried about being able to understand all the instructions about where to go and what to do, last minute. Fortunately, the vice principal can speak English, but miscommunication can still happen.

ILord of all he surveys spent the day of Genryu Matsuri perusing the stalls and hanging out in the shade with my visiting friends. To experience my quiet village suddenly bustling like Tokyo/the rest of Japan, was jarring. It was strange to walk through the familiar streets of my village – the village that has become a home to me – and not recognize the majority of faces. It was like I was back in a foreign country again (a feeling I usually only get when I leave the village). But it was a pleasant atmosphere.

At Japanese festivals, there are typically small stalls with goldfish in buckets for young children to try to catch with a flimsy net before it breaks. If they can catch a fish, they get to take it home in a plastic baggy. But at Genryu Matsuri, next to the ballfield an outdoor swimming pool, which isn’t used the rest of the year, has been supplied with fresh shallow water and stocked with 400 river trout. If the kids can catch one with their bare hands, they can take it out of the pool and have it grilled fresh.

swimming pool fishgrilled trout

Somewhat unrelated, are two streamers of 100 giant koi flags strung from two mountains across the valley in celebration of Children’s Day tomorrow (May 5th). You can see these windsock-like flags flying all over Japan this time of year, but to see them swimming in the sky between the mountains – as if the mountains were the banks, and the sky, the river – is a sight.


IMG_16314pm rolled around, I said bye to my friends, and went to the designated meeting place in a building across the river. I was ushered into a seminar room and found a seat with my name. On the table stacked and folded was my costume, an onsen towel bag, and a bottle of tea.

We sat quietly for a couple minutes as the rest of the to-be yamabushi entered. We were divided into an ‘A’ team and a ‘B’ team. The ‘A’ team were five representatives from Kosuge. The ‘B’ team were five representatives from municipalities or organizations downstream the Tama River with some special connection to Kosuge.

We went back to the river and the unfiltered late afternoon sun where the director led us in a rough walk-through, and I did my best to keep track of mental notes and the positions and order I was supposed to do everything. I was to be in second position behind the commanding officer, the elementary school principal. That didn’t give me a lot of room to watch what the people in front of me would be doing.

A week ago I spent the day helping the village set up the grounds and preparing 20 metal tripod lanterns resembling disc golf baskets along the river, with wood blocks, charcoal, brown paper, and rags. We would be lighting these first of all, and I was to light the three on the farthest end.

A week ago I spent the day helping the village set up the grounds and preparing 20 metal tripod lanterns resembling disc golf baskets along the river, with wood blocks, charcoal, brown paper, and rags. We would light these first of all, and I was to light the three on the farthest end.

We went back to the meeting room, ate a bento box dinner, then changed into our costumes. The yamabushi outfits were intricate: 13 pieces in total: under-robes, over-robes, under sash, over sash (obi), baggy trousers tightened off under the knee, toe-split water boots with back fasteners (jika-tabi), forearm sleeves secured by a ring around the middle finger, prayer beads, a beautiful red silk necklace imprinted with gold designs and four attached pom-poms, a tiny tie-on hat (tokin) resembling a Jewish tefillin (but instead of scripture storage, doubles as a drinking cup), and a boxy backpack (resembling a TARDIS) with tatami siding. As one friend said, wielding a torch in conjunction with said backpack, I looked like a ghostbuster. “If you need to go to the toilet, you should go now, because it’s difficult to take off once you have it on,” warned the vice principal. But I got it on without too much trouble, just some minor fumbling and assistance around the obi sashes. It felt comfortable. And like any good costume, I felt the part.

IMG_1633 - Copy

When we returned outside, the sun had already dipped behind the mountains, so it felt much cooler. We walked up the street single file, passing food stalls, cosplayers, and divisions of volunteer firefighters. We cut down to the river where we waited on the north side under a bridge with the ‘A’ team. The crowds were buzzing with anticipation on either side. People passed back and forth on the bridge above, some waving to us. It got darker.

The principal lit his torch, and the rest of us lit ours from his. The lights went out. The crowd hushed. An announcer delivered the opening narration, “Humankind has from ancient times lived with Water, sought Food, and used Fire. In this way, we created and developed today’s culture. The civilization of Fire has transformed the hearts and minds of the people to flourishing. We would be pleased if everyone in attendance today feels a sense of harmony around the fire…”

Taiko drumming commenced. The principal lead out, and I followed a few paces behind. The principal went directly to his position, as he was not to light any of the lanterns.


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

I was pretty sure I was supposed to go to the very end and light the last three. But a doubt lingered whether I understood correctly. With the principal in position, I continued ahead in front.  Then I heard voices from the crowd. “Jaymuz! Jaymzu, where are you going?” called a giggling voice that sounded like the mayor. Shoot. I really must have misunderstood. Surely, he would know if I was doing the wrong thing? I must have gone too far. I glanced over my shoulder.  The other three were well behind me and already seemed to be lighting their lanterns. So I bailed. I turned in early and started lighting the lanterns in the middle. Mistake. I should have gone down to the end. I stole the lanterns of the yamabushi behind me. The instructor from earlier came and directed me down to the end. Now I looked stupid. The other side of the river already had their lanterns lit, and I was the last to return to the formation. But I got back with all the lanterns lit, and the ceremony went on.

The taiko drums stopped. The principal stepped forward and bellowed his introduction into the microphone. Then it was my turn again. I stepped forward to say my line. I was nervous because I hadn’t practiced shouting it yet. And the residual trauma of messing up the lanterns still echoed in my psyche. The line started out well. I was loud and firm, with no voice cracking, well-paced, and well pronounced. But then I got toward the end. But what I should have done was given my full name in last, first, middle order and ended with the more humble “to-mo—————–su!” (I am called).


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

Ah well. I stepped back in line. Everyone else gave their similarly structured introductions. Our torches burned on.

Then came time to light the big one. The ‘B’ team crossed the river to our side and both teams circled around the main omatsuyaki, then we dipped our torches under the chain mesh to light the branches. The director walked around with an oil canteen pouring gas over our torches and branches to help them catch.


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

Then the teams split up: the ‘A’ team circled around the smaller omatsuyaki on the north side, while the ‘B’ team covered the one on the south. This time we just left the torches on the ground supplying the fire, then scuttled away from the growing flames.

_DSC9600 some men just want to watch the world burn

Because I was focused on the task at hand, and getting away from the flame, I’m afraid I missed those first moments of the flames enveloping the omatsuyaki. By the time I returned to the safe zone, the fire storms were well under way. The crackling pine leaves were aglow, and the skeletal frame of the pyramids were visible again. The flames plumed up and released great clouds of smoke and sparks. The fire department sprayed a hose constantly back and forth over the sparks in the sky to create a vapor shield for the nearby trees. The flames stretched high, well above the bamboo shoots. The heat was already palpable, even from 40 or 50 meters away. We had to keep backing up.

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Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

The crowd sat packed on the stone steps on either side of the river bank in the roped off area. Those closest to the fire must have been uncomfortable, because I had to keep backing up past them. But remarkably, one little girl on the beach a few meters in front of us, supervised by her mother, danced about, patting her face, feeling the heat. I took another step back, relaxed, and relished the blaze. Peaceful flute music played through the speakers.


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

Embers falling from the steel basket lanterns appeared to strike dangerously close to the crowds sitting under them, but no one seemed too bothered. One of the firefighters walked by every so often, dousing the sparks on the ground with a watering pot.


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

We hung around for half an hour, taking pictures and watching the beacon burn its course. I paid special attention to the pyramid frames, expecting them to collapse. (One of the smaller pyramids did eventually partially collapse. Immediately after the festival, the fire department bulldozed the bits still standing.)


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

The taiko drummers resumed their performance. The flames faded to coals. I was handed another torch. We got back into our formation. Our job wasn’t finished yet. The elementary principal, the commanding officer, screamed even louder than he had before, and led the single file charge across the river. I followed close behind. I don’t know if it was due to the proximity of the lingering heat, adrenaline kicking in, or my intense concentration, but I had a distinct lack of feeling (or remembering) any coldness of the river. I was about half way across when it occurred to me that I was carrying fire over water. This was not just a symbolic convergence of the two elements. I could quite literally drop the torch or lose my footing, and quite literally extinguish the flame. But at the deepest point the water was only a little above my knees. I was told to expect it above my waist. So I carefully waded the rest of the way across, holding the torch high and proud. I almost stumbled stepping up the bank on the other side, but all was fine. Then I heard a splash. The yamabushi directly behind me fell in! There wasn’t much I could do since I was still carrying a torch, so I kept following the commander.  Glancing behind me, I noticed the fallen comrade recovered okay and managed to save his torch. I was consoled that at least it wasn’t the clumsy foreigner.

We marched down the river past the last of the lanterns where we united our torches together under a fuse. Sparks chased the fuse 100 meters farther down the river where it triggered a loaded arsenal of fireworks straight up into the sky. The fire from our torches flowered and wilted directly above us. We dipped our torches in the river, then enjoyed the view, while I tried not to let any ashes in my eyes. I couldn’t really hear, but apparently back by the stage the fireworks were well synced to music and made for a great show.

We all wished each other otsukaresama (‘good work!’) and went back to the meeting place where we changed out of the yamabushi clothes. The director thanked us and copiously handed out beers from a box, which I was happy to take after a long hot day. Finally, some of the yamabushi went to a ryokan to take a bath, but I reluctantly skipped that bit to rejoin my friends.


This was the second time I directly participated in one of my village’s festivals. The first time was back in August, three days after moving in. It was a much smaller shrine festival that involved parading around various locations in the village and performing dances in masked costumes in the summer humidity. I didn’t dance, since the dancers had been preparing for several weeks already. But I carried a large paper-flower standard in front as a sort of grand marshal. This was an awesome way to get involved with the village and meet people right away. I felt welcomed and honored that they would entrust to me such a prominent position. But it didn’t turn out well. I was culture shocked, heat exhausted, dehydrated, then sick, and just generally overwhelmed. I went home early and passed out.

But this experience turned out a lot better, fortunately.


By the looks of it, Genryu Matsuri is as ancient as any other local festival in Japan – a tradition carried on for who knows how many generations back. Yet it was devised a mere 29 years ago as a convenient set date for the extended families of the village, and those who grew up here, to come home for a visit. So it is not an explicitly religious festival. It’s not connected to any shrine or temple. But you can’t help but notice the religious elements.

For instance, the Yamabushi are mountain monks of Shugendou, an ascetic blend of Buddhism and Shinto.

And there is something very religious and Japanese about the way the Japanese do festivals. Festivals are serious fun. Even sacred fun. Even when they are secular, or devised to stimulate local economies. How did older festivals get started if not for these reasons, to (re)vitalize local areas? This is how traditions get started. The only difference may be recent history.

Coupled with the idea that Japanese religion does not so sharply distinguish between the sacred and the secular, the result is a kind of renewed pop-religious event. In writing this article, I kept asking about the symbolic significance of this or that element of the festival. Although there was some explicit symbolism, mostly the answers I got were just for aesthetic reasons, e.g., because it looks cool or it seemed like it would be exciting. So the connection with the New Year’s tradition may just be a trivial one. Just an excuse to have a big bonfire. But just as burning the New Year’s omatsuyaki returns the gods to their home, after using the fire the yamabushi cross the river and light the fireworks, thereby returning the fire to its home with the gods.

This story ends much better than Prometheus.


Photo by Haruhiko Hirose

[Genryu Matsuri occurs annually in Kosuge Village during the first week of May]

Alternate Part 4 The Perks

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – The Perks

I’ve gone into my own personal alternate story, given tips on how to cope with alternate limbo and gone into what you can and should do after being upgraded – now it’s time to address the title: “Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate.” In this final installment of “alternate” posts, we can finally get down to the good stuff, the “perks” of alternate-dom. Now these can vary greatly depending on your situation, but hopefully my experiences will help illuminate that light at the end of the tunnel nonetheless!

Openness to Opportunities Other Than JET


I’ve already touched on this a bit, but being an alternate forced me to consider options other than the JET Program. Before I was alternated I, like many other JET hopefuls, was very much set on going to Japan and believed JET was the only viable option for me. I had heard of the eikaiwa horror stories and I also knew that I couldn’t afford (nor did I have an interest in) being a language student again. What I didn’t know is that there are alternatives to JET if one is set on doing ALT work. The best one is considered to be the company Interac, which I touched on in my first post of this series. In addition, you can often find private companies looking to hire ALTs by browsing through sites tailored to foreigners looking for work in Japan such as GaijinPot or Daijob.

However, maybe you’ll realize you don’t want actually want to work as an ALT. Maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that you don’t even want to teach English at all. If that’s the case, there are certainly a plethora of opportunities available; it may just require a bit more initiative on your part.

I will actually be moving to Tokyo to pursue freelance work when my contract with JET is up in a little over a month. I doubt I would have been willing to make such a big life change had my eyes not been opened to all the amazing job opportunities in Japan during my months in alternate purgatory! I think that being an alternate really allows one to take a few steps back from JET. Without that tunnel vision blurring your perception, you may be surprised to find that there have been other great (or even better) jobs there for the taking the entire time!

No Wasted Time!

This one is specific to my situation because I arrived in Japan in September as opposed to late July or August. It initially had me pretty bummed, as I knew I’d be missing the orientations, but as I’ve come to realize it was very much a blessing in disguise!

Why was it a blessing, exactly? Well, most new JETs must start “work” within a few days of arrival in their new city, while the students don’t actually start classes until September. This means that you have to go show up at your base school for eight hours a day, five days a week and just sit at a desk. Sure, you can use the time productively, but I can imagine that getting more than a little monotonous for a month straight! In addition, it’s August – quite possibly the hottest month of the year in Japan – and it’s not always a guarantee that there’ll be air-conditioning! When I arrived in September, it was the perfect temperature; I was totally comfortable without cooling or heating my apartment (which can result in cringe-worthy electric bills!).

Since I arrived September 8th, a Tuesday and about a week after the kids had started school, I was a little worried I might have to jump right into work without adequate time to get acclimated to my new environment. Luckily for me, this was not the case. In fact, I had about a full week before I started classes and even then I ended up spending the rest of September only having to give my self-introduction presentation. In other words, I had plenty of time to prepare but at the same time, didn’t get bored (well okay, the self-intro did start to get just a tad bit old after the 20th time!).

Like I said before, I was originally sad I’d miss out on the orientations, but everyone I’ve talked to swears they’re a waste of time and a total snooze fest. If they were anything like the orientation I attended in November, I must say I’m inclined to agree! Nothing against JET – I’ve just never really been a fan of sitting on my ass and listening to people talk for hours on end, no matter what the subject matter may be. So as it turns out, “no orientations” was a good thing too! And if you’re like me and worried missing orientation will set you back, don’t. This job was much easier and much more fun than I could have ever imagined; you’ll pick up on it in no time!

One-on-One Attention


This one could be applicable even if you’re not an alternate, though I’d say being an alternate certainly increases the odds. The first few days after my arrival, my supervisor and a translator from the BOE took me around to be introduced to my schools, start a bank account, get my car, and get a phone contract, among other things. We had a lot of down time in between these activities and they always left the decision up to me as to where to go. This may or may not have resulted in many shopping sprees and trips to Sushi-Ro… I also feel like, since the other new JETs were settled in at this point, my supervisor was much more available to answer any questions I had and ensure I had a smooth transition.

Being a late arrival also resulted in a lot of attention from the other JETs in the area. I know many alternates fear short-listers adopting elitist attitudes toward them, but my experience couldn’t have been further from that. In fact, I got the feeling that the other JETs felt bad about my situation and were therefore extra nice in order to make me feel welcome! They took me to a local restaurant for a little welcome party my first Friday in town and also all pitched in to pay for me at another event that same weekend. So all in all, I’d say being the new ALT on the block is like being the “mysterious transfer student” in an anime – everyone is looking forward to learning more about you!

From Zero to Hero


Another possible perk is that you could be viewed as a sort of savior. Though that may sound a little intense, I’m not exaggerating! I was upgraded because my predecessor decided he wasn’t going to re-contract with JET at the last minute. This left my schools and local BOE in a tizzy as they scrambled to find a suitable replacement. When I met everyone at the BOE and my schools in person, one would think I had just walked on water while balancing the Holy Grail on my head, a basket-full of kittens that I had just saved from a fire in tow. Their relief at having me there was obvious. Though I did nothing more than accept a job and then show up and do said job, everyone was very excited to have me there. It took months for that excitement to wane and eventually become normalcy. And I definitely think that initial excitement was amped up on steroids because they had to wait for me to show up.

If you’re an alternate upgrade – especially a late upgrade – chances are that your schools were either left ALT-less for a while or thought that they might be. You may wonder why it’s such a big deal for them to be without an ALT – I mean we are assistant language teachers, after all – but I think ALTs play a vital role in the schools. I say my job is like being the “cool aunt”; when I show up to class, it’s time to actually have fun learning English. Even when I don’t have any classes, being there seems to lift the kids’ spirits. We ALTs are symbols of the awesomeness of cultural exchange and so our presence alone has power. Just by showing up to work you’ll probably be loved by all, students and teachers alike!


And finally, I’ll wrap this post up by going into the most important reason for why I’m glad I was an alternate. (Warning: Cheese Alert!) Quite simply put, being alternated made me “want it” more! All that time spent with that proverbial carrot hanging on a string in front of my face led to an indescribable rush of joy when I finally got upgraded. I doubt I would have experienced that rush so intensely had I been short-listed from the get-go.

In the long run, I think it has made me much more appreciative of my experiences. There are many JETs who end up dissatisfied after the initial excitement of the first couple months wears off, but I can say with confidence that I have enjoyed the entire ride. The good days, the bad days, the days in which I’m stuck at my desk for eight hours with no classes – it’s all been an adventure. I’m so grateful I had the chance to experience this unique opportunity and I know I’ll take it with for my entire life. It made those three+ months in purgatory more than worth it and because of that time, I’ve been able to appreciate this “jet coaster” that much more!

And that’s why I’m glad I was an alternate!

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

ALT Fashion Blog

What do I wear? (Women)

A lot of incoming JETs seem to be concerned about what we ALTs wear on the job. I too remember the stress of packing and wondering, “What the heck should I bring and leave behind!?”


It’s hard to give advice because, as everyone says, “every situation is different”. However, perhaps we can help give you a general idea of what we do (and do not) wear to work. Below are brief “fashion profiles” of three ladies here in Japan: Danie, myself, from chilly Akita, Sara from warm Kumamoto, Denica from metropolitan Tokyo. We hope this can help you get a better idea of what might be appropriate in your ALT position.



USA Akita

Hello folks! I have been living in rural Akita-ken for almost a year now. I teach in 3 Senior High Schools. Unlike the other two ladies here, I hate shopping. I only go out when I really need something, but most of the clothes I brought have been suitable and I haven’t had any trouble finding what I need. I get the impression that Senior High Schools are less relaxed than lower levels (not just in fashion!) but even here I think my options are pretty flexible.


NO I am starting off with what I can’t wear to school because there aren’t really any guidelines for what I “should” wear. But what I “shouldn’t” wear has been made explicitly clear:

(1) No Jeans

(2) No Shoulders

And these last two weren’t made explicitly clear to me but I personally tend to steer away from:

(3) Bottoms as short as the ones in the picture

(4) Clothes with graphics (Sorry Snow White!)

I feel these guidelines are similar for the American professional world. And aside from those 4 rules, it’s pretty much anything goes.




Akita gets cold! This is a black sweater-dress, black tights, a shawl and necklace. It’s hard to see in the picture, but the dress is actually as short as the bottoms in my “what not to wear” photo! I figure the length is non-issue since I am wearing thick black tights.

This is my heaviest winter outfit; I typically wear the same outfits year round but in winter I add layers. I arrive dressed like an eskimo: big winter boots, thick snow pants, and a large jacket. When I get to school I strip down to a nice outfit. I have a locker at each of my schools to store my heavy clothes.

As for what I wear during school, I always try to cover my upper arms (up to the elbow). Otherwise many teachers will comment that I must “feel cold”, even when I am clearly sweating! I wonder if it’s an indirect way of saying that I should cover more. Regardless, I cover my upper arms to avoid the comments and it’s not difficult because Akita is freezing! None of the schools have central heating and, though the classrooms are heated, the hallways are pretty chilly!

Protip: Packing winter clothes can take up a lot of space. Some ALTs recommend shipping your winter clothes but I personally don’t think this is necessary. I was able to buy everything I needed at a good price here. However, I am a tiny person, even for Japanese standards! I have heard plenty of taller ALTs complain about small sizes, especially shoes! Even then, you can order clothing online from websites like Rakuten. Most of your favorite stores should have a Japanese website.


Untitled design (1)

“Cool biz” starts on June 1, and it means you can wear more relaxed clothing to keep from getting heat stroke. For me, this just means I can wear clothes that expose my upper arms and I won’t get any comments about “looking cold”.

These are my two favorite summer outfits! I love dresses and I brought a lot of dresses like the one in the first picture from home. I don’t wear any tights with it.

The second outfit was entirely bought in Japan from Honey’s and Uniqlo. These stores have work-appropriate, fashionable, and affordable clothing! Also, Uniqlo sells “cooltech” and “heattech” clothing which is a godsend in the dead of summer and winter.

DeowaterProtip: Even in Akita the summers get unbearably hot and only one of my schools has A/C (and even there it’s only in the teacher’s room!). Sara and Denica below have given some great advice on surviving summer, so I will only add a tidbit about “Deo-Water”. I have seen it at the pharmacy, grocery store, and even conbinis. It’s essentialy deodorant water and I sometimes pop into the bathroom at work and use it to freshen up. It not only takes away the stick but it has a cooling effect as well!


11150225_10206540368334052_2961667444934716962_nMy hair is supremely curly and, surprisingly, hasn’t drawn much attention. I recommend bringing your curly-hair products from home because, unsurprisingly, I haven’t had much luck finding products here. I have also been a little wary about getting a haircut here, but ALTs with hair like mine have told me this is unwarranted. As for make up, I am not too into it… But in the bathroom before work I might cover up some blemishes and put on some mascara. It looks pretty natural over all.


These are the outfits I wear to school. My wardrobe relaxes a bit on the weekends… However, even then I try to cover my shoulders. I learned that shoulders are a bit of a no-no when some students called me “sexy” for exposing my shoulders. There has been a lot of debate within the female-ALT community as to whether or not we should cover our shoulders. I believe that this decision is entirely up to you.

USA Akita (1)

Hi, my name is Sara. I’m a second year ALT in Kuma Village in Kumamoto-ken at the junior high school, elementary schools, and nursery schools there. I love shopping, so I have far more clothes than I know what to do with. Many teachers and office workers comment on my outfits, and I enjoy experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what is “school appropriate,” because they have mostly given me enthusiastic votes of support. I live in the countryside deep in the heart of Kyushu, which has afforded me a lot of freedom because of the more relaxed atmosphere. Here are some of my favorite outfits for summers and winters in Kumamoto.


Kumamoto has relatively mild winters with little to no snow. Rain and just above freezing temperatures are normal and the wind can blow viciously. Thus, I can get away with a wool pea coat with a scarf and gloves instead of a down coat, and leather boots instead of snow boots. The classrooms and staffrooms are sometimes heated, but the real cold is in the hallways between classes. Here are two of my favorite winter outfits:


Look 1: grey wool skirt from UniQlo; second hand sweater (the label says GAP); thermal black leggings (footed, can also buy foot-less)

My basic instinct when it comes to clothes is to get colors that play well with others (neutral colors). Thus, it makes mixing and matching really easy, and I generally have colors and prints that will never be accused of being “too bright.” The grey skirt goes with almost any other sweater, but I like blue because it’s generally non-offensive and brings out my eyes. A lunch lady once commented that my skirt was short, but the opaque black tights seem to cancel out any possible sex appeal; I also have long legs, so skirts and dresses that are just above knee length on Japanese women are ¾ thigh length on me.

Pro Tip: Thermal tights are a must, even layered 2-3 more times with more HeatTech. I suggest getting thermal layers for top and bottom in every neutral color, in long sleeve and short, for maximum layering and warmth.

13442072_10209706446197461_1660774900_oLook 2: second-hand white jeans (label says GAP); white graphic T-shirt; burgundy sweater-blazer from Forever21; thin gold belt; fun socks

Whoever said you absolutely cannot wear jeans was lying (sorry Danie!). Black and white jeans aren’t so obviously denim, and so are more appropriate than indigo jeans, but have the same versatility, ease, and comfort. The girl who wore them before me had much more junk in the trunk, so there is ample room to add thermal layers; that also necessitates the belt, which is a great way to add a pop of color or shine (kids WILL pull on any jewelry, make no mistake). Also something kind of casual is my T-shirt; I noticed many women in the offices wearing these kinds of shirts over thermal layers, and then usually layer again with a sweater. The sweater-blazer is great because it’s warmer and more comfortable than a normal blazer. I often fit a fleece UniQlo jacket underneath it.

Pro Tip: Socks are a great way to jazz up your outfit without being distracting or unprofessional (as long as they match). I collect cat socks and Hello Kitty prefectural socks that are cute and interesting.


Summers in Kumamoto are brutally hot and humid, and come with rain storms and typhoons. A good rain jacket is essential (I got mine from a second hand store). Generally, women wear sheer hose in summer, but I shave my legs and call it quits, mostly. On office days, I wear long trousers because my bosses use the aircon excessively.

13410588_10209706445397441_737869239_oLook 1: black hi-lo skirt from GU; purple blouse from GU; second-hand brown leather belt

Remember neutral colors? I get everything from this skirt (I paid 150 yen for it 4 years ago and I’m still loving it). The length and color make it perfect for any short sleeved blouse and it’s cool and airy around my legs. Knee- and midi-length skirts are always appropriate.  I generally wear a cooling UniQlo camisole underneath the blouse (every. neutral. color).

Pro Tip: On especially hot days during the height of summer, pack baby wipes, a spare camisole, and a stick of deodorant in your bag. Use your lunch break to strip off in the bathroom or locker room, wipe away sweat and replace your sweaty cami with the new one. You’ll be fresh for the afternoon!




13446044_10209706445517444_355615850_oLook 2: sky-blue gaucho pants from Zara; second hand patterned, sheer blouse

Sheer is your best friend in summer. It gives the illusion of being covered, but still lets your skin breathe. Lace is also a good option. The blue pattern is floral, but not overwhelming (very common patterns like stripes or polka-dots, or simple florals or geometric designs are ideal; no strange color blocking or in-your-face designs; additionally, English or Japanese words on clothing is thought of as very casual). These gaucho pants came into fashion last summer and are great for keeping your legs covered without sacrificing breeziness.

Pro Tip: Go on, wear the crop top. A crop top layered under a sheer or lace top (like mine in the photo) can add a pop of color or texture to the outfit, but would be totally scandalous alone. A high-waisted pant or skirt can also help disguise the length of a crop top, but add a neutral colored camisole underneath (think of wearing it in the same way as a low cut top, except instead of cleavage, it hides your midriff).



If at all, wear small, non-offensive jewelry. Do your best to avoid odd piercings (even ear cartilage is sometimes frowned upon), and anything sparkly or gaudy. Small silver or gold studs or hoops are nice for ear lobes. Avoid bracelets and dangly necklaces around little kids. I wear two silver rings every day and kids touch and pull on them all the time.


I have short hair, so I don’t do much with it. If at all possible, avoid the big beach waves and unnatural perms (If you have naturally curly hair do not feel obligated to straighten it). Colors other than black or dark brown are pretty taboo in schools, but they won’t object to red or blonde if it’s your natural color. Avoid unnatural colors like blue or green, or obvious dye jobs with roots showing, or only dying parts of your hair. Hair accessories like bows, clips, and bands are great here!


Feel free to use makeup sparingly on the skin and eyes as preferred. I cover my eyes in all neutral colors and use brown or thin black eyeliner with mascara. Because my lips are sensitive, I only use Vaseline, but subtle reds, pinks, and neutrals wouldn’t go amiss. Bright eyeshadow, heavy eyeliner, or bold lips tend to draw unwanted attention. Teachers mostly don’t paint their nails, but I’ve seen ALTs get away with short, polished ones with solid colors and minimal designs.


Slippers: I have two pairs of slippers, one for summer, and one for winter. For either season, get ones that:

  • Are easy-on-easy-off, but won’t fly off when you’re chasing kids around.
  • Have durable soles with texture so you won’t slip
  • Cool, flexible, and breathable in summer, and warm and snug in winter
  • Japanese have an aversion to bare feet, so if the slippers don’t have toes or a heel, they will wear socks, which I think looks funny (black shoes, white socks deal). I get summer slippers that cover my toes and heels.

If you have multiple schools, carry your slippers in an eco-friendly tote bag. Add baby powder to summer ones frequently to absorb smells.


Danie (2)

Hey all, I’m Denica, a British JET placed in Ueno, Tokyo. I enjoy shopping and should be able to show you loads of flattering outfits but between Tokyo rental prices and paying off student loans I’m not left with much money to dress myself with. So, you won’t be finding any fashion revelations here – just safe, choice pieces that are worth the money and let me work in comfort throughout the nutty seasons. Hopefully the thrifty amongst you will find this useful.


Tokyo winters are dry and reach a low of -1 or -5 in January, by which time I’ve dug out the down coat and earmuffs.  I find this temperature very easy to dress for as I come from rainy old Britain, especially considering how easy it is to purchase thermals here. Layers are your friend, as they heat small spaces, not buildings. Like the staffroom at school or a kotatsu at an izakaya. I also go for muted colours even more so in winter but like to jazz it up with rich dark colours like mauve, green and deep blues.
Denica 1Outfit 1: Dark Collared shirt, wool cardigan, thermal mauve trousers.

This outfit is a mix of my staples that I couldn’t survive winter without and are worth every penny.

Trousers: Dark or natural coloured jeans are A-okay at work and I even have a lovely black and green chequered pair too. No matter what though stick with the Heatteach from Uniqlo.

Uniqlo Real Wool Cardigan: Definitely not cheap as its real wool but it’s very warm and good quality. I have two, one in black and one in dark green that go with just about everything.

Simple Non-Iron Shirt from Britain’s Primark (pretty much the same as America’s Target): I’m sure you can find an equivalent most places. They cover the shoulder, don’t need ironing and are presentable. I have them in 8 different colours including bright yellow and a cool mint. I wear these with a HEATtech vest and a wool cardi and I am as snug as a bug in a rug.

Protip: When it comes to skinny jeans at work I have a ‘butt covering’ which can either be a very long top or a cardigan. I keep a long black all-purpose cardigan, on the back of my chair at work and throw it on if the top I’m wearing that day isn’t long enough, or if I’m just cold.

Denica 2Outfit 2: Green shirt with black knee length floaty skirt and leggings.

Skit: Simple under-the-knee length black skirt that goes with everything.  I bought it from the supermarket on my road and it is indispensable.

Shirt: Full sleeved green collared shirt, again from Primark. I’m a classy girl, you see. Again, all the Heattech underneath.

ProTip: I mostly wear skirts in winter with the help of thermal leggings which I picked up very cheaply form Donki. You can also pick up patterned wool tights in many colours (I have green, gray and mauve) from GU.





Summer is a relentless vacuum of greasy faces and clothes damp from sweat, the heat radiating between your clothing and your body whilst you try your best to explain prepositions of place to uninterested students. You need your wits about your to survive it so let’s dispel a myth right here and now: cotton is not good in summer. Cotton can carry 7% of its body weight in water. Although breathable, it will soak up your sweat and make you hold it against your skin all day whilst you wish you weren’t a walking furnace. DRY, AIRISM, and linen products are the way forward. The previous two are Uniqlo only and whilst you can get good quality linen in Uniqlo it is possible to buy it elsewhere. But remember the 3 Ls: Linen, loose, light coloured. You get it tight you may as well not have bothered spending out on it, cuz it ain’t cheap. These fabrics dry out easily and quickly and let your skin breath. All of my summer clothing are one of these three fabrics.

Denica 3Outfit one: White cropped trousers, blue polka dot half sleeve top.

Uniqlo DRY Crop Trousers: professional looking, a norm in the workplace and very comfortable in summer. I have them in white and blue (yes, white is hard to keep clean but they reflect the heat) and these go with all of my tops. I love them.

Breathable baggy shirt: Charity Shop Find. This is one of the many tops I have like this as they’re big, baggy and airy, perfect for summer. As I’m on a budget I will wear my Primark shirts for as long as I can but there reaches a point where you can’t wear a collar anymore and swap to shirts like those above.

Pro Tip: Hold your hand to your upper arm, your fingers at the top of where your arm starts, not the shoulder itself. Where your palm ends is roughly where you should remain covered until you’re crazy sweating buckets. When that time hits you can go a little shorter as long as you shoulders are covered completely. When you do, check out the average length of shoulder coverings in your office.

Denica 4Outfit two: Pin-striped linen trousers, loose white top, and mesh cardigan.

Pin-Stripe Linen Trousers. Linen is breathable, looks timeless and and dries out easily. Ticks all my boxes. I own a variety of colours like these and fold up the bottoms when I need to. This outfit rolls out at peak temperatures.

Uniqlo Anti-Bacterial Mesh Cardigan: Used purely as a token item I wear to keep my shoulders covered. They are see through but count as a covering, breath very easily and dry out fast. I wear one every day and consider them my main weapon in getting away with shoulderless tops.  I have 3 in white, black and green that come to just above my elbow and another two with full sleeves in grey and black.

Pro Tip: AIRISM underwear and the vests that have built in bras (they’re amazing, just trust me, try them) are a must. Buy in skin colour tones only as they actually look better under white and other colours. Buy them now, they aren’t cheap but very, very, very worth the input. Also, why no skirts in summer?!? At my job, you cannot wear a skirt without tights to work. I’m much more comfortable in crops or linen than tights in summer but you may feel differently.


I wear minimal makeup all year round but a few female teachers in my school even wear glittery eye shadow. In summer I don’t wear makeup as I wash my face with cold water in between classes.  I keep a blemish control stick with me and cover up any spots if I need to and carry on. I also have an endless supply of grease sheets, in winter and summer.


I’ve been through all types of hair care products to control the frizz and grease my fine hair produces in humidity and this is what it boils down to: Organix Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner and Heat Protector Spray but do not buy Japanese sprays, they’re all very bad. Both can be purchased off amazon.jp and have totally changed my hair in this country, even in summer I enjoy styling my hair and not having it look like a bush. I straighten every day as I still need that to make the hair around my temples behave and dry, damaged hair reacts very badly in humidity so use heat protector spray. Every. Single. Time.

Anything Else?

Purchase as little as possible before arrival. Japan is excellent at producing clothes to suit its seasons so do your wallet a favour and buy on arrival. Don’t freak out and spend loads on finding the right thing before you arrive – it probably won’t suit the season or dress code. Make this a golden rule.

The one exception to the golden rule is orientation. You can guess what I’m gonna say here: black linen suit. It needs to be black to be used at all your school ceremonies and linen will keep you cooler than the thick cotton or wool suits that are so popular back home.

Final Words

These profiles, of course, do not fit every body type and every placement. Ultimately, a lot of the little details will be left up to your specific placement and personal preferences… As you can see just from us three ladies, what is appropriate or not can vary! Do not be shy about asking your pred and/or fellow female co-workers about work appropriate clothes. After all, I was “explicitly” told what not to wear because I asked. Also, don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Our co-workers know we are new to their culture and are forgiving. A good general rule is play it safe at the beginning until you have an idea of what is best for your placement. In general your style probably won’t have to change much for your workplace here in Japan!

If you have any questions, feel free to comment here and/or check out the JET Ladies Facebook page. It is a safe space for us female JETs to ask questions.

As for current ALTs, if you would like to contribute to a second blog in the series, feel free to comment and/or email me at daniemanos@gmail.com.

Happy teaching!



Alternate Part 3 After the Upgrade

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – After the Upgrade

So, you’ve been upgraded? Or maybe you were shortlisted, spared from undergoing the trials of alternate-dom? Regardless of how you conquered the monstrous beast that is the JET application, congrats! *cue celebratory music*

In this post, I will go into to the things you can (and need) to do once you’ve been upgraded to the short-list. This could be helpful even if you’ve bypassed the whole alternate thing altogether – however, it’s tailored specifically to those who were upgraded. Honestly, though, I think the main difference between being on the short-list from the get-go versus being upgraded to it is the time frame you’ll have in which to get things done; former alternates will often times be dealing with a more expedited process (which, personally, I liked a lot).


You, post-upgrade

More Forms! ALL the Forms!

Now that you’ve won the JET lottery, what are you going to do next? (Aside from going to Disney World, of course) …The answer? Fill out more paperwork! Yay! Who doesn’t love regurgitating the same trivial information on paper over and over again? (If your response is not “Hell yes, paperwork is my favorite!” then you might want to rethink your life choices – mainly pertaining to accepting a job in Japan – because the Japanese apparently can’t get enough of the stuff)

When you accepted the position of “alternate short-list candidate,” you were required to turn in a few forms before it could be official. So it’s only natural that, despite giving your JET coordinator verbal consent that you accept the upgrade offer, you are required to turn in another novel’s worth of dead trees before you can finally be a bona fide short-lister! No worries, though. Compared to your application packet, this’ll be more of a short story. If you’ve made it this far in the JET application process, you’re a pro at this red tape stuff by now – I believe in you!

Status Upgrade Form

This form is where you “officially” accept your upgrade to the short-list. It should just be a single page that you sign and date and also indicate the airport from which you plan to depart (hint: it should be the same as your interviewing location). Easy peasy.

Certificate of Health

For this one you don’t actually have to fill out anything – your physician does. When you were alerted to your alternate status, it’s likely your coordinator advised you to make a doctor’s appointment in advance. However, if you are a late upgrade then you may have already cancelled that appointment.

If you don’t have a doctor’s appointment, the first thing you should do after being upgraded is make one! In my case, I only had two weeks to get all my forms in from the time I was upgraded. If your regular physician books quickly, you may be in trouble. This was the case for me, so what I ended up doing is going to the same office (where they, ya know, have all my medical records and stuff) but seeing a different physician.

The form can be filled out by a Physician’s Assistant but it’ll need to be co-signed by an actual physician. I’d recommend going to one that has known you for a long time, as they must indicate how long they’ve known you on the form. I think it goes without saying that the longer they’ve known you, the more credible JET will find your medical history.

 IRS Residency Certification (Form 8802)

This one’s all kinds of fun. You have to download it from the IRS website and then you have the wonderful privilege of paying them $85 to process your form. Hang in there, though – this one’s hella worth it. If you’re a US citizen (which I’m assuming you are if you were told to turn this form in…), then this form will ultimately exempt you from Japanese taxes. “Amen” to that!

I paid for the form beforehand on the IRS website, giving me the option to fax it. Considering I was short on time, I chose this option (otherwise, you gotta go the snail mail route) and would recommend fellow alternate upgrades do the same. Be warned if you choose this option, though – it required god-like patience. The fax kept refusing to go through because the lines were so busy. I tried their two fax lines over and over again and it still ended up taking about an hour. Let’s hope you’re luckier than I was!

Chances are that if you are an alternate upgrade, you won’t be getting Form 6166 (the U.S. Residency Certificate the IRS gives you in exchange for your troubles – aka the thing that exempts you from taxes) before leaving for Japan – heck, many short-listers don’t even get it on time! So it is important that you give them the address of a person you trust to send it to you in Japan. Once that person receives the form, have them mail it to you ASAP! I will say it again: no taxes!

Criminal Record (if applicable)

I can’t tell you much about this one as it wasn’t applicable to me. If you are a US citizen and have lived in countries other than the US (excluding Japan) for 1 or more years within the past 5 years, then I’m sorry – you’ve got yet another page for your auto-biography in the making!

FBI Background Check

Like the Health Certificate and IRS forms, this one also requires a bit of scrambling around. You’ll need to get your fingerprints taken, which can be done at most police stations (for a fee). Then you’ll have to pay the FBI $18 for each copy of the background check you request. They do not accept cash or personal checks, so you will have to pay either by money order or credit card (by filling out / sending the provided Credit Card Payment Form).

Prior Visa Cancellation Form (if applicable)

I (to my surprise) had to fill out this one. If you have done a study abroad in Japan within the past five years, it’s likely that your student visa is still valid. If that’s the case, then it needs to be cancelled before the embassy can issue you a shiny new Instuctor visa.


one does not simply network

Once you cross the finish line of the rat race that is handing in the final batch of JET paperwork, you’re free – you can finally relax a bit! In order to make your move to Japan a bit smoother, however, I suggest you dabble in the art of networking. This is especially important if you’re an alternate upgrade – the later your upgrade happened, the more important it becomes.

It’s likely you could end up leaving for Japan with Departure Group C, in which case you will get a smaller and shorter Tokyo orientation. Or – as was the case for me – you may not even get an orientation! Though you’re likely to become close with other local JETs once you arrive in your designated city, it’s nice to know you have some contacts before even setting foot on Japanese soil. In addition, if you’re able to befriend some current JETs or JET alumni, they’ll be able to offer you a wealth of valuable information that can mentally prepare you for what’s to come. If you have a more realistic idea of what to expect, it can help mitigate the symptoms of that nasty beast known as culture shock later on.

Pre-Departure Orientation

This is the orientation that happens right before Groups A and B leave for Japan. For those departing with these groups, it is mandatory. However, for those upgraded to the short-list later on, it will most likely be optional. Though this was the case for me, I attended the meeting anyway and would recommend doing the same if you are able.

As a late upgrade, it’s possible you may feel a bit left out at this orientation as you will not be getting on a plane for Japan the next day like (most likely) everyone else there. I didn’t even have my placement info when I attended. Though that made conversations about where we’d be in Japan a bit awkward, it also made me memorable! By the end of the night, everyone knew me as “the girl without a placement.” For some, maybe that could get a little annoying, but I didn’t mind standing out – it was like I was this “wild card” that could end up anywhere. I was tempted to have people take bets on which prefecture I’d end up in! When I did finally get my placement info, those that I had befriended were eager to hear about it and share in my excitement!

For those who won’t be departing for Japan in a group, I’d say the pre-departure orientation is a must. You will most likely learn important information regarding JET and getting to Japan and, more importantly, make some useful contacts. I was able to meet a lot of fellow incoming JETs – all from the same general vicinity in the states as me – and hearing their stories was inspiring. It was also reassuring to know that I would now know a bunch of people in Japan – even if I wasn’t sure how close or far they’d be from me! I also connected with some JET alumni who proceeded to invite me to the JET Alumni Association (JETAA) Facebook group.

More importantly, though, it was a really good time! Attending the orientation got me even more excited about my new life in Japan. And since I didn’t have to wake up early to catch a flight the following day, the whole process was stress-free!

 The “Interwebs”

Once you have your placement information, it’s time to take your networking ventures to the web! (Let’s face it: at this point the majority of JETs will already be in Japan, so there aren’t many other options available…)

First and foremost, you’ll want to check out Facebook. Now I’m not exactly a Facebook fan – or a fan of social media in general, for that matter – but it will definitely prove useful in connecting with other JETs. Each prefecture has its own Facebook group, you see, so joining yours will put you into contact with JETs within the general vicinity of your placement. (Be sure to take “general vicinity” with a grain of salt, though. I was placed in Kyoto prefecture but I’m so deep in the country that Kyoto city is about three hours from me!) If you know the name of your city, it’s possible you may also encounter people from that very same city! These are the people that will be able to give you the best advice and, if they’re re-contracting / just starting out with JET, are people you’ll be hanging out with in due time

JETs will also post about local events in the Facebook groups. Once you’re in Japan, attending such events is another great way to meet people and, often times, learn more about Japanese culture while doing so. These events can also help you connect with locals. I did a day-long homestay shortly after arriving in Japan and I’m still in regular contact with my host family!

In addition to Facebook, I found myself frequenting message boards on Reddit and IThinkImLost (a website for current and future JETs). Both sites have hangouts for alternates, which can be helpful for your sanity as long as you don’t get too obsessive about upgrades.

So many past, present, and future JETs have posted on these forums that you will most likely find good answers to any questions you may have – as long as you’re persistent in your search. If you have trouble finding answers, you can always join these forums and post a question yourself; your inquiry will likely be met with some swift and informative responses!


So now you’ve arrived at Narita, fresh-faced and down for some new adventures in “The Land of the Rising Sun” (but even more so, “The Land of All Things Kawaii EVER” – they don’t always include that one in the guidebooks). This is where the real networking happens. I think it goes without saying that Tokyo orientation is prime time to make some new friends!

Now if your arrival is scheduled post-August 18th…ish, then you won’t be getting an orientation. However do not despair, newly upgraded, for it is likely others who have undergone similar trials will be waiting there when you arrive!

I departed for Japan on September 8th, a Tuesday, and was the only one from my embassy to do so. Naturally, I expected I’d be alone upon arrival in Narita too, but that did not end up being the case. After meeting up with the JET Program people, they told me we still had to wait a bit before sending me to my hotel because they were expecting another girl to arrive shortly. Once she did, they put us both on the shuttle for the hotel together. We got to know each other and made plans to eat breakfast together the following day before parting ways and heading to our respective hotel rooms.

The next day, to my surprise, we discovered that about twelve other new JETs had also arrived the previous day and stayed in the same hotel. We were able to discuss our respective alternate limbo stories as we waited together for a JET representative to lead us on the next phase of our journey. When the JET representative came, they had us get on a shuttle back to Narita. From there, we were split off into three groups – I was in a group of five headed for Tokyo station. On the trip to Tokyo station, we all got to know each other fairly well and it turns out three of them were even headed to the same prefecture! Before we parted ways, we all exchanged contact information.

Basically, the point I’m trying to make is that even if you’re a late upgrade and are forced to bypass orientation, you should have no problem meeting some new JETs in Tokyo! JET seems to coordinate departure dates – it makes it easier on them and allows us to get that sense of camaraderie at the same time. Many of my fellow September 8th arrivals were upgraded a few weeks earlier or later than me and yet we still all arrived on the same day. So unless you’re upgraded really late (like in the fall), you can expect to meet people. Because it will be a much smaller group, you’ll have the chance to get to know these people better and you’ll now have some people to bond with over the woes of your prior alternate-dom!

Next Time

Next time, in my final installment, I will finally be addressing the title: “Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate” and going into (what I consider to be) the positives of being a former alternate! (You’re totally dying to find out, right? Right???)

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

alternate purgatory part 2

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – Life in Limbo

Last time I went into my experience as an alternate; this time, it’s time to turn the focus to you, fellow alternates! Either you were alternated but have since received the mysterious “call” and have therefore ascended to the lofty rank of “short-lister” (fingers crossed?) or… you’re still very much stuck in limbo. If the latter is true, then this post’s for you. If you’ve been lucky enough to have received an upgrade, then congrats! Be sure to check out next week’s post which will go into what should be done once you’ve been upgraded.

Why Did This Happen to Me?


If you currently find yourself trapped in the purgatory that is alternate-dom, you may ask yourself the above. And then you’ll probably ask it again. And again. And again –  going through that nerve-wracking JET interview in your head and wondering what went wrong.

I know I certainly did.

Considering that I had felt I was both very qualified for the job and that my interview had, for the most part, gone fantastically, I just couldn’t figure out why? Why me? Why wasn’t I good enough? What did the short-listers have that I didn’t?

Well, as I touched upon in my last post, no one really knows the answer! So save yourself the headache and stop asking these questions! It’s only natural to wonder what you could have done better (and even helpful if you end up not getting upgraded and subsequently apply to JET again) but there’s a point where it just becomes destructive. Better to let it go and focus on what you can do right now.

Chances of an Upgrade

So here are the facts (as far as I’m aware) – granted, they’re not very concrete because a lot varies from year to year, but having a general idea of how the whole process works can give one a kind of peace of mind. Just remember to take it with a grain of salt. I don’t work for the embassies so I can’t vouch for just how accurate any of the following is. It is quite simply a culmination of what I have gathered through research, personal experience, and talking to various people.

One’s Interview “Score”

Apparently when potential JETs are interviewed, they’re given a score based on how well they did. This score is what ultimately determines their fate in regard to the JET Program. If their score is low, they are flat-out rejected. For those with higher scores, though, things get a little more complicated.

Depending on the ratio of interviewees who scored high to positions that are currently available, there may be more people with a high score than there are positions available. In that case, certain candidates are short-listed while others are placed on the alternate list. How do they determine who is short-listed and who is alternated, you may wonder? The unfortunate answer is that no one really knows for sure; JET seems to keep that information tightly under wraps.

I think a lot of it depends on what each particular contracting organization is looking for in an AET, however. Whether you are willing (and able) to drive in Japan and your Japanese ability (or lack thereof) may play a part in it. In some cases, the ugly truth seems to be based on factors out of our control, such as gender and nationality.

In my area, for example, many of the positions are filled by males and – as far as I know – always have been. Whereas I’m female and every one of my predecessors (except for the one right before me) were also female. Now that might sound extremely discriminatory but I won’t judge too harshly as I believe the contracting organizations all have their own reasons for choosing specifics “types” of people.

Take another example in my area: there apparently used to be a lot more national diversity among the JETs. But last year an American military base was put up and now all but one of the JETs are American. We suspect that our contracting organization was actively scouting out Americans as potential candidates because they hoped that we could help smooth relations between the military and the locals. Whether that is the case or not, I truly do believe they have reasons other than blatant discrimination for choosing the people they do – at least, I really hope that’s the case! Regardless, there’s nothing we can do about it so no use crying over spilt milk, as they say.


My apartment in the inaka!


…at least it has a good view!

The Alternate “List”

From what I understand, the alternate “list” is fairly long because JET anticipates a large dropout rate. Each year many potential short-listers will decline the offer or drop out once accepted due to various reasons. Another common occurrence is that current JETs will decide at the last minute that they don’t actually want to re-contract (such as in the case of my predecessor). For that reason JET likes to have a lot of back-up and that’s why each year quite a large portion of the alternate “list” is, in fact, upgraded!

When I was alternated – I had a hard time believing being upgraded could be that common, but as I quickly found out, it is. I’d say almost half of the current JETs and JET alumni I know were initially alternates! Of course, I’m still the weirdo here because most of those people were upgraded within the first two months of discovering their alternate status. In fact, one of my fellow Kyotango JETs was only on the alternate “list” for a single day.

 Now you may be wondering why I keep writing “list” in quotes, right? Well, I use quotes with the word because after a certain point, it seems like it’s more of a pool that is drawn from, based on what the contracting organization is looking for. I suspect this because I was apparently quite low on “the list.” And just how do I know that?

I asked.

Yes, you can ask where your place on “the list” is. Your coordinator may not be allowed to give an answer, however. And regardless of if they can or cannot answer, I can guarantee that your answer won’t be a straight one.

I was lucky in that my embassy was one of the supposed “relaxed” ones when it came to finding out one’s position on the alternate list. I called my coordinator in regard to some paperwork I had to turn in and toward the end of our conversation, went ahead and asked if she could possibly give me any indication of my place on the list. She did – subtly – and it was not what I was hoping to hear. In essence she encouraged me to “pursue other things,” implying that I was probably quite low on the list and therefore wouldn’t be getting into JET. Ouch.


 So yeah, go ahead and ask. It can’t hurt. Just don’t annoy your coordinator by asking for updates constantly. One call is enough. And don’t pay too much attention to whatever you learn (or don’t learn), because despite what my coordinator implied in that call, she ended up calling me back a couple months later to offer me an upgrade!

The “Call”

You may be wondering about the nature of “the call.” Questions like “What time of day should I expect it? “ and “Will I miss out on an upgrade if I miss my call?” are common. When I was an alternate, specifics on “the call” were hard to come by. This led to more than a little OCD on my part. Normally one to pay little attention to my phone, I couldn’t stop checking it for the three-ish months of my alternate-dom. I’d always have the volume turned up loud and I was extremely wary of any unknown number I saw. A couple of times I swore it was the embassy and by missing their call I believed I had missed my chance at an upgrade! (Conveniently, they didn’t leave a message. Or call more than once. Or try to contact me by other means… the things the mind of a desperate person conjures up!) So hopefully by answering such questions, I can save y’all some sanity!

When to Expect It

In my case, the call came in the morning. To be more specific, 10:44am – at least, that’s the time my supervisor left her voice message for me. (Yes, I still have the message on my phone… but I’m not that crazy, I promise!) Most other alternates I asked also got their calls in the morning. It seems like the calls are made within the first few hours the embassy is open. Also worth noting is that (as far as I’m aware) the call will happen while the embassy is open! That means you don’t need to worry about missing your call outside of normal business hours.

What to Watch For

Not everyone receives a call though. Sometimes it’s only an email, so be sure to check the email you used for your JET application at least a few times a day. In my case I received a single call on my cell, a voicemail, and an email. This seems to be fairly standard but I’ve heard of people only getting an email. I suppose it just depends on the embassy? So if you know someone who was upgraded from your embassy, I’d ask them just how they were notified to get a good idea of what to expect.

Also worth noting is that the number they used to contact me was unmistakable; it was the number of my JET coordinator and one I already had in my phone. My JET coordinator’s number was a variation of the embassy phone number, so if, for some reason, you don’t know your JET coordinator’s number, be sure to look up the number of the embassy and get familiar with it.

What If I Miss My Call?

No sweat if you miss your call; I did, along with many of my fellow alternate upgrades. As I went into above, it seems to be fairly common for your coordinator to try to contact you via multiple means. They really want to get a hold of you because it is likely that you hold the invisible qualities they are seeking to fill whatever position has opened up. Now that doesn’t mean they’ll wait forever for you, though, as they do have a schedule to keep. So I think it goes without saying that if you see a missed call or email from your coordinator, you should get back to them ASAP!

In my case, I believe I got back to my coordinator within two hours of her leaving the message. I have a feeling they give you at least until the end of the day to get back to them, so I’d suggest being very mindful of your phone and email during your embassy’s business hours. That way if they try to contact you, you can get back to them before the end of the work day. If the embassy is closed when you realize you received a message or email, then be sure to call up your coordinator as soon as the embassy opens the following day!

What Can I Do Right Now?

Earlier in the post I suggested focusing your effort on what you can do right now rather than what went wrong in the past. So what exactly can you do right now? The short answer is to just put JET as far from your mind as possible. Easier said than done, I realize, but it’s honestly the best thing you can do for your sanity. And I’ll admit, I had a really hard time with this one! I was constantly hanging around message boards for alternates and looking up stuff about Japan and teaching. The more time I spent focusing on JET, the more disappointed I was with each passing day that went by without being upgraded. It wasn’t until I completely “got over JET” that I got upgraded!

Ultimately I was able to distance myself from JET by doing the following. So I encourage you to:

  1. Do something you love! My favorite activities (other than travel) are gaming and working out. Therefore, to get my mind off JET I both bought a new game and increased my allotted workout time – allowing myself to be fully immersed in the activities. When involved in these things I completely forgot about JET!
  2. Study Japanese. I was a Japanese major in college and yet there’s always more to learn! Whether you’re a complete beginner or near-native speaker, studying the language will help you feel more connected to Japan. It’ll also help you to feel more confident in your ability to get around once you’re in Japan (whether it’s with or without JET!).
  3. Look into alternatives to JET. If you are anything like me, then you know that you definitely want to be in Japan. But you also don’t want to have to wait another year and endure another grueling JET application process! If that sums up your thinking then you’re in luck because there are tons of alternatives to JET!

I briefly mentioned one such alternative in my last post. If you’re feeling really adventurous (and have adequate money saved), you don’t even need to get a sponsor beforehand to come here! Look online for a monthly apartment, come over on a tourist VISA, and start networking! There are more than enough jobs for foreigners in Japan – particularly in Tokyo – but many require you to first be in Japan!

Once you realize that JET is not the only way to get here, it allows you to not need an upgrade to happen. It will put your mind at ease, and you may even discover that there are options that are more appealing to you! But just be careful because usually when you finally “let go” of JET you tend to get offered a position!

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.