JET November 2014

Where are they now?

Launching a career: from teaching to selling spaceflight

Now in its 27th year, the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme has welcomed over 55,000 people from 62 countries to deliver grassroots international exchange between Japan and other nations. Fifth in our series, this column features former JETs, both in the UK and Japan, who keep the idea of fostering mutual understanding firmly at heart.

I am president of Space Adventures Ltd., a space tourism firm based in the US. We arrange flights to space for individuals and, in addition, are developing a mission to fly two private citizens to the far side of the Moon. We are on track to complete the latter undertaking in 2018.

It will mark the first time private citizens fly around the Earth’s satellite, and the first time any human will have left low-Earth orbit (a region 160–2,000km from Earth) in more than 40 years.

I was born and raised in the UK, and from 1995 to 1997 was an assistant language teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in Arao-shi, Kumamoto Prefecture.

While flattered to be asked to write this article, my immediate reaction was “what on earth am I going to say?”

However, after some reflection, it became clear that my time in Japan has had a profound impact on my career and the person I am today.

For me, the decision to move to Japan was an easy one. I was a graduate of the University of Manchester with an undergraduate degree in international management, and had studied abroad at Babson College in Massachusetts.

As a child, I had travelled extensively with my father, who ran an international business, so it is fair to say I had the travel bug.

When I heard about the JET Programme, I realised immediately that I wanted to join it, rather than the rat race in London. It helped that my then girlfriend (now wife and mother of my twin girls) was equally keen to experience life in Japan, and join the programme.

There is so much to appreciate in Japanese life and culture: exquisite food, stunning architecture, fascinating history, and beautiful scenery. But, for me, the people make the country what it is.

Some of the warmest and most intriguing people I have ever met, I met in Japan.

Moreover, the two years I spent there taught me not only about Japan’s culture, but also about that of fellow programme participants from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.

I took the opportunity to travel extensively in Asia, too.

In addition to gaining a greater appreciation and understanding of Japanese and other Asian cultures, I learned how to communicate better, how to listen, and how to pick up on non-verbal communication.

I also got to terms with the workings of social hierarchy—something that exists in Western culture too, but is subtly different within the Asian context. What is more, I firmly believe it can only be learned through first-hand experience.

Immediately on my return to the UK, my experiences on the programme helped me stand out from the crowd of graduate recruits. I was more world-wise and confident than when I had left, and comfortable in groups of people I did not know.

After all, once you have murdered a karaoke rendition in front of 100 of your closest colleagues, how awful can it feel to deliver a PowerPoint presentation?

As a teacher, I learned that you have nothing to worry about as long as you know more than the people you are addressing; and that it is okay to say “I don’t know, but will get back to you”.

I also learned you have to understand your audience and tailor your message accordingly—in other words, you can’t deliver the same lesson to nine different classes across three different grades.

These skills live on in me today, enabling me to remain calm before walking onto a stage in front of 700 travel industry professionals.

My time in Japan was no bed of roses—nothing in life is—but I am left with incredibly fond memories, and carry a love of the culture wherever I go. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom comes from a Japanese colleague who became a great friend.

Over meals or at parties he would say that, “eating or drinking until you are 80% satisfied is perfect. The challenge is eating slowly enough to know when you reach that point”.

I find that rings true. In life we are always rushing to attain what is bigger and better. Instead, occasionally one just needs to slow down and appreciate what one has and where one has been. 

Considering my experiences in Japan made me slow down and reflect on how truly enriching and rewarding the JET Programme is.