Chicago Shimpo
JET 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 events.
• 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 Program®.

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 in Japan.
• 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 work together.”
• “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 assistant.

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 2018.
• 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 other countries.
• 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.

Attendees challenge kakizome, a must do thing in a new year's day.

Consul General Naoki Ito (R) swiftly gets a karuta card and beats challengers.

A breathtaking aikido demonstration by the Japanese Culture Center’s aikido martial arts group

Katie Slupski (R), who taught English in Koya-san, brought authentic kimono dresses to JET Shinnenkai.

Katie Slupski (C) dresses a group of boys with kimono.

From left: Andrew Principe, Peter (pachinko machine winner), Tyler Blaz, and Gabriel Coronado