30 Years, 30 Stories: Dare to Dream

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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 studying in help you achieve your dreams? For our fifth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU 2003-04 alum Greg Werner, and discover his longtime dedication to Japan led him to reaching not just one, but two of his loftiest lifelong goals.


Sunset over Lake Biwa (image by Greg Werner)

Like a dream, vibrant hues of orange and pink bathe the pastoral landscape as late-winter morning crawls over silver-capped mountains. Wiping the sleep from my eyes I gaze out over a shimmering frozen sea of snow-covered fields. I’m taken back fifteen years in time; to a place where every crystal clear sunrise carried swirling rays of light across the surface of Lake Biwa and into my dormitory.

With a blink, I’m back to reality. Time to prepare for a full day of teaching young minds how to communicate in a foreign language, English!

Japanese schoolkids playing in the water (image by Greg Werner)

Even after seven years of teaching in a Japanese elementary school, there are few lessons I look forward to as much as “I want to be a ~.” The objective of the lesson is to enable sixth graders to understand the target English phrase while encouraging them to attach it to a personal and meaningful dream for the future. As the school year draws to a close, thinking about their lives as adults is probably the last thing sixth graders want to dedicate serious thought to. Sometimes, asking them what they want to be when they grow up is a contest where every other student is competing to produce the most depressing answer:

  • “I never thought about it.”
  • “I dunno.”
  • “I don’t care.”
  • And the winner is, “I want to live off of my parents.”

It can be pretty frustrating but only because I expect much from my students, particularly while covering the topic of their futures. Despite the rough start, during this forty-five minute lesson I watch as the faces of my students transform from distracted or nervous to beaming and bursting with questions. Dedicating this victory to ‘superlative education skills’ is tempting, but the truth is, I simply tell them the story of my dreams.

By age thirteen I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew where I wanted to be, in Japan. I’m one of the few Westerners who enjoyed the Japanese comic and animation Dragon Ball (DB) before its North American boom in the late nineties. The series sparked my self-study of Japanese and served as a watershed for many of my childhood interests, directing me to a destination far from the forested mountains of northwestern New Jersey.

Developing a DB website during middle school led me to writing articles for a nationally distributed DB magazine as a high school student. This journalism funded my first three-week visit to Japan as a part of Rotary Club’s Short-Term Youth Exchange Program (STYEP). During this trip, two encounters gave direction to the next decade of my life; the most imperative of these encounters was the foreign English instructor placement program, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). The answer I’d been searching five years for was clear, my professional dream was to be an English educator in Japan.

The goal of building a powerful resume for JET gave me the impetus to move beyond obstacles of learning Japanese through self-study. The decision to study abroad was an easy one. Summers in Japan taught me the hard way that I only knew enough about the language and culture to know that I didn’t know enough about it. Fortunately, the decision about where to study was also an easy one, the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU).

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Nowadays, aggregated online reviews and virtual tours have become the norm, but in 2002 all I knew about JCMU was what I learned from its website. Tucked away in the countryside of Shiga Prefecture’s Hikone City, JCMU’s rural location would keep me focused on studies during weekdays while at just an hour from Kyoto and Osaka by train, it was conveniently located for weekend excursions. The website’s alumni testimonials were heartfelt and meaningful. The faculty were professional and well-established educators. Even the dorm rooms looked a far cry better than my own accommodations at the time. Excited about all of these prospects and more, my expectations of the faculty and JCMU could not have been higher. As time would tell, those lofty hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. But little did I know that the faculty had even higher expectations of me.

Evening of boats on Lake Biwa (image by Greg Werner)

My first late-summer Monday afternoon at JCMU best surmises the kinds of results faculty members expected from us. I was fidgeting nervously in Nishikawa-sensei’s office overlooking Lake Biwa while I explained my concerns over being placed in the pre-intermediate Level 2 course. With no formal Japanese education and only a handful of Chinese characters (kanji) to my name, I was dozens of kanji behind my peers and couldn’t form a proper ‘polite-form’ sentence to save my life. Nevertheless, based on my placement test, Sensei asserted that I was between introductory and intermediate levels. After asking Sensei how long I had to catch up to the rest of the class, she looked me straight in the eyes and replied, “Well, all of that material will be on your test this Friday so, it would be best to start from today.” The following Monday, after those tests were returned, mine didn’t quite manage to find its way to the refrigerator door.

Beautiful archway (image by Greg Werner)

In defiance of those crushing test results, Nishikawa-sensei‘s and Melville-sensei’s no-nonsense expectations encouraged me to double-down on my studying efforts. Every day brought new challenges of absorbing lessons while studying old material to catch up with the rest of the class. To deal with these challenges, JCMU’s instructors gave each of us linguistic tools they expected us to work wonders with. Failure to deliver wasn’t met with chiding. Instead, our instructors used an unfamiliar motivational approach.

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When our performance dropped -without so much as a word spoken- we somehow felt the weight of our instructors’ expectations being lifted from our shoulders. Despite that pressure’s initial discomfort, having it taken away was more motivation than any amount of finger wagging could instill in us. In this way, the faculty and staff of JCMU went above and beyond their responsibilities as language instructors by introducing us to unfiltered Japanese society; one in which true feelings are often wrapped under layers of suggestive hints and unspoken ubiquitous subtleties. Thanks to our instructors’ efforts, as our understanding of the language grew deeper so did our experience with nuanced Japanese societal interactions.

Flowers in bloom (image by Greg Werner)

Mistakes, misunderstandings and even a few tears were part of my experience at JCMU but after two semesters I was ‘polite-forming’ sentences while bowing on my cellphone and chewing through twenty new kanji a week without batting an eyelash.

You bet I got that job with JET.

Sakura by Hikone Castle (image by Greg Werner)

Accomplishing a program at JCMU is more than just completing focused, meaningful Japanese language study; it means you’ve successfully experienced real life in Japan. That is to say, the day-to-day social interactions that exist beyond colorful vocal artists, ostentatious documentaries, and comic books. Inside and outside of the classroom you will experience empowering accomplishments and embarrassing lessons that JCMU and the people of Hikone have been teaching alumni for thirty years.

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Today, after JET, I continue to live my professional dream, but that’s not quite the whole story. That second life-altering encounter from Rotary’s STYEP was an introduction to the highest and fastest-selling Japanese comic of all time, One Piece (OP); a story about friends overcoming hardships to accomplish their dreams.

While following the path to JET I faced my own share of hardships during which OP was a much-needed source of good humor and inspiration. My dedication to OP grew deep and the series gave me a personal dream: to thank OP’s author face-to-face. With the author being notoriously reclusive, I was able to sympathize with Cervantes’ character Don Quixote de la Mancha and his ‘Impossible Dream’.

But I made that dream a reality in 2013.

Now, in addition to teaching, once again I’m also a journalist specializing in a Japanese comic. I currently write Japanese and English columns for the official One Piece website. I also write a monthly article in OP publisher Shueisha’s VJump magazine and participate in numerous series-related projects. Imagine my surprise when I learned that JCMU’s current media specialist -an alumnus of JCMU himself- is not only a OP fan, but also read some of my bilingual articles ‘for practice’. How’s that for a ‘circle of life’?

Super One Piece professor, Greg Werner! (link)
Click the image above to read my articles (in English and Japanese)!

It’s an honor to join the chorus of voices congratulating the faculty and staff of JCMU for thirty years of excellence in language and cultural education. I offer my humble thanks to the faculty for helping me achieve not one, but two life goals. May the doors to JCMU remain open as long as students dare to dream.

Sunset over Lake Biwa (image by Greg Werner)

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