Alumni Interview Series – Episode 8: Emily Rich (Sakata, Yamagata, 2017-2020)
Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?
I lived on the coast of the Sea of Japan in Sakata City in Yamagata Prefecture from 2017-2020.
What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?
I feel like this is a long story. I got my BA in Japanese at the University of Mount Union, and the JET Program was always presented as a post-graduation option. My (future) advisor and professor talked about it with me when I was a visiting prospective student, too! Many of the students graduating with a Japanese degree ahead of me went on JET, and there was an official presentation and Q&A from a JET alum each year. It was always on my radar, and my dream for several years.
Interestingly enough, when I completed my study abroad in Japan, I realized I didn’t want to live there permanently. My original plan was to participate in JET and then find permanent work in Japan, but that was no longer an option after experiencing what it would be like to be an expat in Japan. I needed to find a new career path, and it was easy to realize at that point that I was interested in pursuing librarianship. I was a student worker at my university library, and often picked up shifts as stress relief.
I decided I wasn’t going to apply to JET, and would concentrate on graduate school. Then, less than a month before the application deadline, I saw a well-targeted ad on Facebook, encouraging people to apply. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, but I felt reminded of how much I wanted to live and participate in a Japanese community, and experience Japan as a slightly more permanent resident than an international student. I loved my new goal of librarianship, but I also wanted to fully realize what I had initially set out to do, and put my degree to use before I concentrated on other objectives. So I applied to JET and I applied to graduate school at Simmons College in Boston and waited to see what would happen. I didn’t know how much I wanted it until I was anxiously watching my email for news about my application, interview, and acceptance. As it turned out, I decided to defer acceptance to Simmons College and head to Japan.
I often told people that I applied to JET “on a whim”, and while my decision to apply at one in the morning was certainly last minute, it was also part of a long-term goal that I wasn’t willing to give up.
What are some of the things your prefecture is known for? Ex. food, hotspots, etc.
Yamagata is known for cherries! 80% of Japanese domestic cherries come from Yamagata. One summer, a neighbor left a giant bag full of three varieties of cherries outside my door.
The biggest tourist draws in Yamagata are Yamadera Temple and Mount Zao for skiing and hot springs. Yamagata’s flag features three mountains, which represent the Dewa Sanzan: the three holy mountains of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono. When I think of Yamagata, one of the first things I think of is driving my little blue car through the mountains.
Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?
My region of Yamagata was the Shonai region, and Shonai-ben was something I learned bits and pieces of, but it never fully caught on for me. What I remember best is “nda” (んだ) which is something I heard teachers and staff say in the school offices all the time. It just means “yes”. I also picked up “mokkedano” (もっけだの) which is “thank you”.
At one of my elementary schools, I hosted a monthly “English Cafe” event for teachers and staff, which was an eikaiwa and coffee/tea break after the students left for the day. During our meetings, they loved to share Shonai-ben phrases and words with me, and I wish I had thought to write them all down. It was a highlight of my day to sit down and share language with each other.
If you were to return to live in Japan, would you choose to live in that same prefecture?
If I returned to Japan, I would not only live in the same prefecture, I would live in the same city. Sakata has become such a special place to me. Last week, in a fit of “homesickness” I made a zine titled “Furusato” which is about Sakata and what makes it so important to me. I can travel and visit other areas of Japan, but returning to Sakata is always going to be a breath of fresh air. While I was on JET and traveled to other places in Japan, driving back into familiar mountain ranges and rice paddies was always such a comfort. Even landing in the tiniest of airports, Shonai Airport, was accompanied by the loveliest feelings of coming home. I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else, if I were given the option.
How has your connection in relation to Japan changed since living in Japan?
Before (and after) study abroad, I had a very romanticized view of Japan. I had never truly lived there, never experienced day-to-day life. The experience of living there, developing routines and friendships, and being a part of a Japanese community was very impactful. I view Sakata as a hometown, and I still feel very connected to it. I’ve recently returned to the US, so I’m in a period of adjustment and I find myself working to continue my connections to Japan and to Sakata.
I work in an academic library now, and there isn’t a strong connection between Japan, JET, and my current work. Recently, I wrote an article for AJET Connect Magazine, and it was exciting to reconnect with the community of current and past expats in Japan. In a post-COVID world, I’m hoping that I can find some Japan-related volunteer opportunities in the city where I live, and attend local JETAA events. Something I would love to do in a post-COVID world is volunteer to help with an exchange program which happens annually in the fall between Sakata and Delaware, Ohio. Each year, junior high school students in Sakata apply to spend a week in Delaware, Sakata’s sister city in the US. I would love to volunteer in Delaware the next time they visit, and welcome people from Sakata to my home state.
This interview is part of a partnership between the Japan Society Boston (JSB) and the United States Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA) in which JET alumni contribute short interviews about their experiences in Japan in each prefecture.
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