Seattle native Jenn Doane (Shimane-ken, 2010-12) has played soccer since she was eight years old. Having been a four-year starter on her high school varsity team, a three-year starter in college, and selected to play for the Olympic Development Program, she is now the first American to play professional soccer on a Japanese team, the Hiroshima Ange Violet. JQ learned all about her path to the team in this exclusive interview.
How did you become interested in Japan and the JET Program?
I have known about the JET Program since I was young, actually—my parents were both very involved in the Japanese community in Seattle: My mother was the executive director of the Japan America Society and the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce, and my dad served as president of the Society as well, and I think they have even been asked to be interviewers for prospective JET candidates. However, as any teenager would, I wasn’t interested in anything my parents were! I am three-fourths Japanese and one-fourth Caucasian (my mom is full, my dad is half, and both were born and raised in America).
I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of being Japanese, but I grew up in a mostly Caucasian suburb–and while I don’t think I was ever really picked on or anything, being Japanese wasn’t something I was overly proud of! You should have seen the reactions of my friends when I sometimes brought onigiri and kamaboko in my school lunch!
I was planning to be a Spanish major in college until my junior year when I decided to switch my focus to Japanese and study abroad in Osaka. I think I finally came around and got more curious about my heritage and the Japanese language. Many students from my college (Whitman) do the JET Program, and after a wonderful study abroad experience and hearing from all the raving alums, I thought it would be the perfect thing to do after graduating. So, here I am (or rather, there I was…).
I noticed you were a violinist for the Whitman Women’s Symphony. Any plans to continue with the violin in Japan?
Unfortunately, I have not touched a violin in a long time—however, I really have a passion for music and have found other ways to realize the musician in me! I joined a singing group in the countryside (we sing all the Glee hits) and have also been learning guitar. If I had easier access to a violin, I would definitely love to get back into it!
If you don’t mind sharing, what was it like to be on JET and teach at schools during the time of the disasters last year?
Compared to the JETs and teachers actually living in Tohoku, I can’t say that things were dramatically different. However, there was a kind of solemnness in the air after what happened— lots of moments of silence, and donations boxes all around school and town. One of my college friends is a JET in Miyagi Prefecture and we couldn’t get a hold of him for two weeks after the earthquake…it was terrifying. Thankfully, he had been at a relief shelter without Internet or phone access.
I also had the opportunity to volunteer in one of the hardest hit towns of Tohoku (Kesennuma) about six months after the tsunami, just helping sort debris and cleaning ruined houses, and it was such a moving experience—I met some incredibly strong and inspiring people, people who lost loves ones, everything they owned, or both.
If you had to choose one, what was the most memorable moment of your time in Shimane-ken?
This is a really, really tough question—I don’t think one moment can take the cake for most memorable, but it was rather the fact that I was involved in so many different things and getting to know so many different and amazing people. To give you a taste, in my town I joined the local taiko group, helped start a kids futsal (like indoor soccer but uses a smaller, heavier ball) class, played adult futsal, joined a singing group that only sang Glee hits, was in a cooking class, occasionally did ikebana, and participated in both Japanese and English conversation classes (I am probably forgetting many other things).
In Shimane I served as the AJET president, head of our scholarship program and in charge of most AJET events (and I was a TOA last year!)—busy would be an understatement! I was deeply involved in both my town and my prefecture, and in turn developed close relationships with both foreigners and Japanese people. Seattle is a diverse place, but I don’t think I would ever have had such a dynamic and interesting life outside of my day job!
How were you introduced to playing soccer in Japan?
My town in Japan was incredibly small (population 3,000), so I didn’t really have many opportunities to play. There was a group of men that would get together every week to play futsal at one of the elementary school gyms, [so I] went to that and also helped start and coach a weekly kids’ futsal class. I discovered a women’s futsal team in a town about a drive away—the drive was horrendous! Also, [I played in the] two biannual soccer tournaments for ALTs in Japan. I decided to create a Shimane women’s team for the Awaji Tournament, and we actually won the whole thing four consecutive times!
To be honest, in the past two years [while being an ALT] I feel like my soccer skills and condition have really gone down, simply because I haven’t been able to practice regularly or with high-level players.
So, when one of my friends at my board of education saw an article in the newspaper about open tryouts for the new Ange Violet team and suggested I try out, I didn’t think I had much of a chance! I just showed up at open tryouts and got an email a week later saying I had made the team. To be honest I was not so confident in my performance at the tryout, and was incredibly surprised when they told me I had made it—I hate to say it, but I think the fact that I am foreign and the tallest girl on the team may have helped my case a bit.
What were the tryouts like?
I actually only went to one out of two tryouts—the second [one] in January. I didn’t hear about the tryout until early December, immediately before I was to leave for four weeks [of] traveling. [At the tryout,] all we did was warm up and go straight into full-field play.
I think I was most surprised by all the TV cameras and reporters! I had to do a few interviews, all in Japanese, which was a bit nerve-racking. It was also my first time playing in a full-field game with top-notch Japanese women. Even though I had a small stint with a women’s team in Shimane, this was the first time I had experienced competitive, aggressive Japanese women soccer players! It was awesome!
You mentioned that you three-fourths Japanese; based on your appearance, have you faced any difficulties or assumptions made by your teammates or opposing teams while in Japan?
It is hard to say because I am the only foreigner on my team, and I think many of the girls have had little exposure to foreigners. However, I do believe without a doubt that I would be treated differently had I been Caucasian or something other than Asian. I do not have native fluency in Japanese, but I studied for three years and have lived here for over two…so it is just good enough (and I look Japanese enough) for them to kind of expect me to speak it perfectly and understand everything they say.
If I were Caucasian (regardless of my Japanese ability) they would probably do the opposite, and speak more slowly and give me more of a break, I think. It has been an interesting and sometimes difficult experience—I have never had a problem making Japanese friends, and this is likely because most of my good Japanese friends are interested in learning English or learning about foreign culture. However, the girls on the team couldn’t really care less that I can speak English or that I am a foreigner—they are more concerned about how I play on the field and being able to communicate soccer-wise with me. I am just doing the best that I can!
Do you have any words of wisdom for any other JETs who are considering playing professional sports in Japan?
I think they would be the same words of wisdom you would give any foreigner coming to Japan, or to any JET teaching in a Japanese school for the first time—you have to be flexible, open-minded, and try to share your ideas and ways of thinking (and in this case, playing) from home, while also being respectful of the Japanese way and trying to learn something from it! I can think of a million things that frustrate me about the way they do soccer here in Japan, but I can think of just as many things that are really, really great about it and would have been useful to me when I was just starting out as a kid and through college–and this is for all soccer-playing girls in America, not just me!
What are you looking forward to most? What are you most anxious about?
I’m most looking forward to playing competitively again and getting a “second chance” to reach my full potential. I played all four years of college soccer with a torn ACL and I finally got surgery after my senior year. Now that my knee is (hopefully!) fixed and I don’t need to use a brace, I am hoping to get another chance to be the best that I can be! Also, after college soccer in the States, unless you are good enough to be pro, I think it is difficult to find a high-level club…so I want to enjoy every second!
I’m most anxious about my performance and avoiding injuries. [In my opinion] I was not chosen for the team because I had an amazing tryout, but rather because I have a lot of potential. I know I can get better once I get into the swing of things, but I have not gotten there yet! I am really hoping to prove to the team and coach that I am a quality player.
I still have to have a full-time job while I play for this team. We have sponsors that help us cover a lot of costs, so we don’t have to pay anything to play (uniforms, field fees, transport costs, insurance, away game expenses all covered), and they also are helping with housing. Unfortunately, in Japan, even for the top players, you cannot make a living as a female soccer player.