Alumni Share Fresh Memories of Japan,
Celebrate Lives of 2 Colleagues
at New Year’s Party
• Past participants and recent returnees of the Japan
Exchange and Teaching (“JET”) Program gathered at the Japanese American
Service Committee (“JASC”) in Chicago on January 19 for the annual New
Year’s Party, sharing their experiences of teaching English in Japan and
enjoying traditional Japanese New Year’s day customs.
• The JET Alumni Association (“JETAA”) of Chicago organizes
a New Year’s party every year for their members, their families and friends.
Among the participants of this year’s 16th celebration were some of the
most recent JET alumni, who have completed their assignments and returned
to the U.S. last year.
• Under the auspices of the Japanese government and local
governments, the JET program sends English native speakers from around
the world to Japan to teach English at elementary, junior high and high
schools. For a few years, a “JET teacher” not only teaches English but
actively plays a role as a link between the local government and community
and the world outside Japan.
• The party began with a breathtaking demonstration by
the Japanese Culture Center’s aikido martial arts group.
• Master of Ceremony Andrew Principe navigated the guests seamlessly throughout
the day’s events. Principe has returned from his assignment in the Ishikawa
prefecture last summer and is currently working part time at the Consulate-General
of Japan in Chicago’s Japan Information Center.
• In her welcoming remarks, JASC Program Manager Joan
Ambo talked about the historical background of the JASC
and important roles it plays, as well as some of the past and upcoming
• Ambo herself has lived in Japan for more than three years. She still
carries a lot of unforgettable memories of Japan, Ambo added.
• JETAA Chicago President Ella
McCann said one of the purposes of the JET New Year’s
party is fundraising. However, more importantly, it’s the occasion to
introduce Japanese culture in New Year tradition to the people who are
unfamiliar with Japan, she stressed.
• McCann also celebrated the lives of two JETAA members, Robert
Roberts and Daniel Pruitt,
who had lost their battles with cancer last year. In recognition of their
active contributions to the JETAA and in memories of their lives cut too
short, the organization will donate the proceeds from the New Year’s party
to the Be The Match® Foundation operated by the National Marrow Donor
• Naoki Ito,
Consul-General of Japan in Chicago, has always recognized JET alumni as
the “asset” for the promotion of the U.S.-Japan relationship.
• Following McCann’s remarks, Ito said that this year’s New Year’s party
is a “great start” of collaboration between the JETAA and the JASC, expressing
appreciation for the latter’s providing the venue for the event.
• “New Year in Japan is an opportunity for people to gather with loved
ones to reflect upon the year that has passed and hope for the better
in the year to come,” he said. “Today, we are gathering among the JET
family. We have traditional New Year’s games and entertainments, specifically
for children, so that everybody can enjoy them.”
• Ito also recognized the contributions made by Roberts and Pruitt to
the JET program and JETAA activities. “It’s something that is left behind
- a story about their lives - and it should be noted that the JETAA is
using this opportunity to donate proceeds to Be The Match,” he said.
• The day’s fun activities included traditional Japanese
New Year’s games such as fukuwarai, karuta card competitions, calligraphy
challenge, “origami” paper craft making, coloring a picture of boar (this
year’s zodiac), kimono dressing, onigiri (rice ball) making and more.
The food corner attracted everybody with Japanese favorites such as yakisoba,
sushi rolls and edamame.
• JETAA Chicago members Ed Clemmons and Lara “Zara” Espinoza made a dance
performance for special entertainment.
• The day’s most anticipated event, “fukubukuro” (Lucky Bag) drawing,
closed the party with an abundance of prizes including calendars, snacks
and sweets. This year’s top prize was a pachinko machine to indulge a
lucky JET alumnus – who most likely have experienced the game in Japan.
• At the kimono dressing corner was Katie
Slupski, dressing people with vintage kimono and obi rather
than casual summer yukata.
• The items were all hers – a gift she received from a friend of hers
• Slupski was a JET teacher from 2009 to 2011, assigned in Koya-san, Wakayama
prefecture where the ecclesiastical headquarters of the "Koyasan
Shingon School" is located. Her students at small local schools loved
English, and many of them hoped to have a job in the future where they
could use English, such as a travel agent or tour guide.
• A Milwaukee native, Slupski met a Japanese woman in Argentina where
she was visiting. The woman’s Spanish wasn’t very good, and Slupski tried
to learn Japanese in order to communicate with her better. That was the
beginning of her curiosity about Japan. Soon, she wanted to visit her
friend in Japan and “see what her life was like” there.
• As a JET teacher, Slupski had a lot of conversations with her students,
whom she ended up knowing quite well.
• Currently, she works at the human resources department of a company
in her home town.
• Though there isn’t a large international workforce there, Slupski says
she occasionally gets to use Japanese and her experience in Japan helps
her in helping people at work.
• “After all, it’s similar to teaching,” she said.
• Tyler Blaz
taught English in Ishinomaki in the Miyagi prefecture from 2015 to 2017.
• He had always been interested in Japan, like many other JET teachers.
To him, many aspects of cultural differences and similarities between
Japan and America were the main attraction to the JET program. He also
loves children and enjoys teaching.
• Ishinomaki was in its fourth year after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake
when Blaz arrived. The town was on its way to recovery, with many buildings
and houses under reconstruction.
• The people in the community were strongly bonded, but they were still
suffering from the pain caused by the disaster. Posters and marques were
everywhere with rallying words like “Stay strong, Ishinomaki” and “Let’s
• “That was a very special time for Ishinomaki, and it was a special experience
for me to spend two years there,” Blaz said.
• His students ranged from elementary school to junior high school. A
lot of energy was needed to teach them every day, often multiple classes,
but he enjoyed it a lot.
• “Every day was really, really fun for me,” says Blaz. “That includes
going out for break time as well as lessons in a classroom. I really enjoyed
my teaching job.”
• His favorite food in Japan was ramen (Ishinomaki soba noodles were “pretty
good,” too). He also enjoyed fresh seafood not readily available in Chicago
such as raw oysters and clams.
• Having studied biology and psychology at college, Blaz currently works
for a Chicago tech company that services the health insurance industry.
• Dennis Li
was a JET teacher in Seto-cho in the Okayama prefecture from 2006 to 2008.
• His parents were born in Taiwan but he grew up in Houston, Texas. Because
his mother used to live in Hokkaido with her parents, Li had visited Japan
many times before his JET assignment.
• He says he always wanted to spend some time in Asia to “follow his Asian
heritage.” Japan was a “beautiful and mysterious place with its wonderful
culture” for him, and he wanted to learn more about it.
• People around him in Seto-cho assumed that he, being a person of Asian
descent, knew the Japanese language and customs, but he didn’t. But being
of Asian descent was not all bad – it was good in some ways, because students
connected with him quickly and easily and the teachers were not shy around
him. That also meant that he didn’t get special treatments.
• “I loved teaching in Japan and I loved my students,” Li recalls. “JET
was the best time of my life as far as I can remember.”
• Li returned to Houston after his JET assignment and studied at a graduate
school for eight years. He now works at Northwestern University as a research
• Andrew Principe
completed his four-year JET assignment from 2014 to 2018 in Kanazawa,
Ishikawa Prefecture and shared his experience briefly with the Chicago
Shimpo during the welcome-home reception for JET teachers in November
• The pinnacle of his JET experience was his involvement in the project
of welcoming 200 teenagers from Luxembourg to Kanazawa, who were visiting
Japan for the world scouts gathering.
• An English teacher at Principe’s high school kept contact with a former
JET teacher, who was a scout leader in Luxembourg. The former JET teacher
wanted to bring his scouts to Kanazawa for a special tour, and Principe
and the English teacher organized the tour.
• He asked students in his high school and other schools to work as volunteer
English guides for the visiting teenagers. Principe believes it was a
very exciting experience for them because it was the first time they met
English-speaking foreigners of their age, which made them want to learn
English even more to develop a better relationship with visitors from
• The scouts from Luxembourg also enjoyed their visit very much as they
could see the unique part of Japanese life and culture. “That’s true omotenashi
(hospitality),” Principe said.