2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!
Did your time studying abroad catapult you to living abroad? For our fourth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, re-read the story of JCMU 2009-10 alum Ian Whiters (originally posted on October 13th, 2017), and learn how his time at JCMU was only just the beginning of his life with Japan.
My name is Ian Whiters and I graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. During my time as an undergrad I attended two programs through JCMU: the East Asian Religions May short program in 2009, and the Summer Intensive Language program in 2010.
A Religious Introduction to Japan
The May course was my first time travelling to Japan and I instantly fell in love. For two weeks we lived in Saikyouji temple (西教寺) in Sakamoto on the west side of Lake Biwa.
Every day the program’s instructor, Sjoquist-sensei, took us to different Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines around Shiga Prefecture and Kyoto. It’s one thing to learn about the history of a particular temple or shrine in a classroom, but it’s entirely different to learn about a temple or shrine on location. The experience was truly like none other!
I had become a Buddhist several years before attending this program, but for the first time, I got to experience Buddhist prayer services and meditation practice. It truly deepened my understanding of the religion and its practice.
Language (and Life) Lessons on My Return to Shiga
After the religion program, I began to miss life in Japan. From the wonderful people there doing their best to communicate with me in English to contemplating the serene beauty of an ancient temple as the wind quietly passed me by, I couldn’t wait to go back to my life in Shiga.
As such, I returned the following year on the JCMU Summer Intensive Language program, where I completed the 3rd year course. Unlike my first visit, my Japanese had reached a level where I could communicate with Japanese people and better understand what was going on around me. This was important because I signed up for a homestay and the family spoke very little English. Since my homestay was in Notogawa, I also had to learn how to ride the train to the Hikone campus by myself.
That summer my Japanese proficiency improved dramatically. The classes were all conducted in Japanese and we all had Japanese conversation partners. As opposed to learning Japanese in America, I could practice the things I was learning in the classroom every day in real life situations.
That summer marked another important milestone in my life. There was a Japanese girl in the English program at Hikone campus and we became study partners. We eventually started dating and in November we will celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary. I can’t imagine what my life would be like today if I hadn’t introduced myself to her in my broken Japanese. However, thanks to my teachers at MSU and JCMU I was eventually able to communicate in Japanese well enough to make a relationship possible.
Working as the JCMU Student Peer Adviser
The summer course was my last time at JCMU as a student, but my experience with JCMU didn’t end there. After I returned to America to finish my undergraduate studies I began working at the JCMU office on MSU campus as a peer advisor.
This was a great job to have as a student, and I learned a lot of skills that would later help me in my professional life. It may sound silly, but it was my first time using a copy machine or a fax machine. I also learned how to use Microsoft Word and Excel, which was something that I never learned in school. Furthermore, I started to learn about the visa process, which came in handy when my wife moved to America and when I applied for my first work visa in Japan.
My Life with Japan After School
After graduation, I started a Japanese teaching internship in the Lansing school district. The following year I was able to get a job teaching Japanese at New Heights Academy Charter School in New York City. At that time my wife was able to obtain a green card and moved with me to Manhattan.
New York is a great place, but the city life just wasn’t for us. However, I learned of an English teaching position in Youkaichi, Shiga Prefecture, which is coincidentally my wife’s hometown. It seemed like the stars were aligned for more, so I just had to go for it! To my delight, I was chosen for the job, and I couldn’t be more excited to start the next part of my life in my wife’s hometown. As I write this I have just finished my first week on the job, and there is no doubt in my mind that I made the right choice.
My dream of living in Japan has finally come true.
Advice for Future Students
If you are reading this and are considering taking a course through JCMU I have some tips for you:
- Take risks – I didn’t start studying Japanese until I was 22, and I never would have imagined this life for myself. If I hadn’t taken that first risk and tried something new, who knows where I would be today.
- Stay flexible – I was going to be a math teacher, but life took me in another direction. It’s not bad to have a plan, but when the universe speaks you need to listen.
- Be open-minded – I imagine a lot of you are interested in anime, manga, J-pop, etc… and that’s all cool, but please understand that there is so much more to Japan. Try the food, make Japanese friends, leave your comfort zone.
Come here with an open mind and you will leave with a full heart!