JQ Magazine: JET Alum Ashley Thompson’s ‘Surviving in Japan’

Ashley Thompson is "Surviving in Japan (Without Much Japanese)"

By Ashley Thompson (Shizuoka-ken, 2008-2010) for JQ magazine. Ashley is the founder of Surviving in Japan (Without Much Japanese) and Lifelines columnist for the Japan Times.

Six years ago,Japanwas nowhere on my radar. If someone had told me then thatJapanwould become my second home, I would have laughed.Japanwas foreign, unknown, and I had no interest in it other than its traditional art and history. Plus, I was a homebody—living overseas became a potential option only a few years ago.

After graduating high school in the town I spent most of my life, I moved two hours away (via car) toSeattlefor school and work. During that time I met David—a senior at the university I attended for a year while volunteering—who became one of my closest friends. I came to learn that David was born inJapanand spent his childhood there, after which his family moved back to theU.S.

Through David, I learned more aboutJapanand what I heard piqued my interest. Our volunteer work involved kids, and sometimes they asked David aboutJapanor he would mention something about it. I visited his family a few times also, and it was obvious thatJapanplayed a significant role in their lives. Occasionally the conversation turned toJapanor good-natured teasing was exchanged in Japanese among their six-member family.

David left forJapanin 2007 as part of the JET Program. At the time, I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in social sciences, taking Japanese for my degree’s foreign language requirement and still working. With my closest friend gone and my time inSeattlethen five years and counting, I realized how comfortable I had become. So comfortable, that I realized I was in a rut and decided it was time for a change—a big change.

Over the course of the summer and fall in 2007,Japanand JET were brought to my attention multiple times through random conversations and events, which all started with my dad. I was considering studying abroad inEuropeor finding a job overseas, but he said, “Why don’t you try JET?” I laughed it off, assuring him that going to Japan was a ridiculous idea for me—except the idea remained firmly planted in my mind.

I went through the motions preparing the application, and finally decided to mail it off two days before the deadline. I resolved that if it all worked out, it was meant to be, and if not, that was fine, too. The next six months were an awful waiting period. I was chosen for an interview but afterward felt it had gone horribly wrong and doubted I would be accepted, though by that time I was convincedJapanwas my next step—my big change.

The e-mail came in April 2008 ending the waiting process and confirming I would indeed leave forJapanthat July.

In September, my eyes full of stars and the wonder of a new arrival, I visited David inIshikawaPrefecture(I was placed inShizuoka). Unbeknownst to me, David proposed, and I happily accepted. At that point, as far as I was concerned,Japanwas amazing.

My first year had plenty of ups and downs, including learning what the “real” Japan looks like, and attempting to adjust from being a very independent person to a very dependent person, as I couldn’t speak the language well beyond the basics. I had more stress at my job than anticipated, so in order to become self-sufficient and have more of an outlet, I taught myself how to do things. Asking a busy co-worker for help often resulted in confusion or a comment along the lines of, “did you know this can be done online?”

I discovered better ways to achieve simple daily tasks, such as the redelivery of a package. Calling over the phone in Japanese was far too difficult, but learning the words and kanji online, though tedious at first, was simpler and more convenient.

I learned how to determine bus schedules online, how to order food, clothes, etc., in Japanese, how to do a furikomi (bank transfer), on my own with some time-intensive practice and was rewarded with more independence.

David transferred toShizuokaprefecture in 2009 following our marriage, and I was transferred to a new school so we could live together. However, just as I was adjusting to my new work environment, I fainted at school. The cause was unknown at the time and my condition worsened over the months, as the doctors were mystified.

After a frustrating few months, we finally received a diagnosis of labrynthitis from my doctor in the U.S.–requiring a few months to heal completely. I quit my job early so my school could get another ALT, as I had inconvenienced them enough.

While ill during the long winter months and holed up indoors, I started writing seriously again, something I had not done in a few years. In January, I came up with the idea to start a blog for other expats in Japan, writing about various discoveries I had made during my first year and a half in Japan. I figured if the information was helpful for me, others might feel the same. In February, Surviving in Japan (without much Japanese) was born.

Though traffic was sparse at first, as to be expected, I’ve reached out to other expats inJapan, who have been generous in spreading the word. The great thing about it is that while they are mostly JETs, many others have various occupations and come from all walks of life. Surviving inJapanhas also become a place for those with experience living inJapanto share their thoughts, which is helpful for folks who are still new. In addition, I feel like in some ways it even connects to the Japanese community, since I occasionally ask for ideas from native speakers, or they kindly offer feedback. Community is essential for expats, especially to connect with other expats, but also vital inJapan. This makes me very excited to see where Surviving inJapanwill go in the future.

Though my time with JET was short-lived, I’m still connected to the community, also because David is still an ALT. My relationships with expats and Japanese citizens continue to develop and grow. It’s funny to think about where I am now–this place that my husband is so close to and where I’ve experienced important life transitions.Japanhas become home.