Guest blog 17- Joanne Sato on falling in love in (and with) Japan

My SEVENTEENTH guest blogger is Joanne Sato – a Leeds girl (but I won’t hold that against her) now resident in rural Japan. I have never met her, nor has she been to one of my JALT talks in the last three years or so. I am her devoted follower on twitter, where she tweets under the name of @sugarjo, a sort of language pun that anyone who speaks a bit of Japanese will understand. One of the reasons we started communicating on twitter, and eventually skype, was a shared interest in drama, and you will read about her drama work with her students below.

Twitter can offer an engaging insight into people’s lives and it certainly has for me with Joanne, which is why I pleaded with her to do a guest blog MONTHS ago – and then promptly lost it when she sent it to me. I finally owned up to this error, and she kindly re-sent it.

Joanne has only rarely visited twitter recently, which is why I’m doubly pleased to be publishing this guest post.

Konnichiwa -こにちわ!I’m Joanne, originally from Leeds in the UK but have called Japan my home for twelve years. I lived in Tokyo for three years but have since made my home in the north – never grim up here – in a smallish city.  I am married to Hirotaka, known to all as Hiro, to my mum and dad as Hero, we have a little girl of six (miniature hero).

I came over with the doomed Nova English Language group straight out of university and after three days (yes, three whole days) training was teaching forty hours a week. Since my year at Nova, I have taught a wide range of learners in a variety of Japanese contexts, from one-year-olds to company presidents to university students. This is just a bit of my story as to how I found my little piece of teaching and learning heaven at a women’s college in northern Japan.

I have a deep-seated working class sense of duty (from my dad) that I can’t escape in anything I do, so when I entered the sweatshop plastic cubicles of commercial ELT my whole heart was in it. I have been loyal to ELT in Japan ever since.

In one year and three months at Nova I must have taught over 1,500 hours of PPP, this was my first experience of teaching, of ELT and that slippery fiend SLA (and many other abbreviations I have yet to master). It was an intense, exhausting, rewarding job, and one which has led me on a love affair with teaching English and studying Japanese culture and language.

I’d leave the little cubicle after a days work and walk out into a Tokyo evening. BANG! Life hit me in all its intensity, brightness, loneliness, and magic. Tokyo won my heart, sucked it in, swirled it around and spat it out again coldly on the pavements with my homesickness.

The shiny skyscrapers next to a tiny Shinto shrine, the eclectic fashion and style, the amazing food, noises and smells, the singing/talking toilets, baths, heaters and gadgets; this was most definitely not Europe – that’s another story. I yearned for normality but I knew I didn’t want to be back in the UK. Just as I thought I should leave Tokyo would suck me in again, urging me to move just one little step further away from ‘home’. I liked ‘missing’, but more than that I loved learning about this new relationship with a city, a country (my new home), and a blossoming love.

Blossom in the city - a typical Tokyo image


Love: He said he’d teach me to surf. Love went falteringly, deliciously differently from there. The real deciding moment was returning to the UK for three months to think about if I could deal with delicious difference and (remember this is before cheap mobiles) changing pound notes for pound coins, running to the phone box next to the petrol station and pounding them into the slot telling Hiro, “I’m coming back”. The rest as they say…

Mr and Mrs Sato...


We now belong to a small but growing group of Japanese husband/western wife ‘units’ in Japanese. In my work (especially university EFL) environment, the vast majority of long-termers are western husbands with Japanese wives. Hiro and I are good for novelty value – and have been known to ham it up.

Enough of love, let’s move to teaching. Well, not enough of love, but enough of Tokyo/Hiro love and onto my love of teaching. I knew I wanted to teach university students, it had been my plan to return to the UK after a year here and do an MA and lecture. My reasons for this were located in my experience age eighteen at Art College in Leeds, that moment when your basic core is shaken by a change of thinking about, or visualizing life – Kristeva, Irigaray, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes – they rocked my world.

I was made to question everything about meta-narratives, about a reality which was constructed in a reality I had no experience of etc.etc. It was passionate, engaging (and dare I say entertaining) teachers who took me on this journey and led me here so far away from where I had expected to be.

Upon leaving Tokyo (for Hiro’s job), I was determined to fulfill my dream and get part-time work at the local national university here, I had a job there within a year but was confronted with large classes (70 in one oral communication class).

I was also lucky enough to have been offered work at a Catholic women’s college teaching one conversation class a week. This is the job which changed my perceptions, my goals, and ultimately led me to doing an MA in TEFL through Birmingham University’s distance learning programme. It felt like the job was waiting for me, the way I taught seemed to fit the educational philosophy of the college. I think this is essential; to find a teaching space where we are supported in our classroom innovations and style. I also enjoyed the wonderful femaleness!

As I came to love the teaching/learning environment (and gave up my work at the national university), I threw everything into teaching a wide range of classes being offered to me at the college, including communication skills, literature, writing and ESP (Business, Tourism) classes.

What compelled me to undertake an MA and aim for a full-time position was also the ‘other stuff’, the activities outside the classroom in which full-time teachers were involved, especially because of the small size of the college. These included curriculum design/innovation, committees, school camp, volunteer activities, the college festival, student counseling, the study abroad programme and many more.

Of this ‘other stuff’, the one which I most longed to be part of was ESS (the English Speaking Society) which is involved with debating events and participates in a yearly play contest involving five universities from the north of Japan.

This is how I first made contact with Ken after he commented on a picture I tweeted on our 2009 play Grease. When we won the contest last year, I knew the feelings which have constantly compelled my most respected colleague Bill to say “this is what makes it worthwhile, Joanne”. I felt like we had just won best picture at the Oscars.

Joanne's students performing Grease


We are in the process of rehearsing for the 2010 contest now. It involves many late nights, weekends, blood and tears but the effects on student confidence, motivation, pronunciation, team-building, and spirit are phenomenal.

In a Japanese EFL environment, the struggle is to make English meaningful. I have noticed during my MA studies that the best textbook, the best teacher, the most focused and carefully planned study cannot make English meaningful if it is never actually ‘used’ or experienced outside of the institutional spaces of the classroom.

My classroom is alive with debate, chatter and the buzz of students engaged in English but where I have found this engagement steps up a notch is ‘out there’: on a stage, backstage discussing logistics, volunteering as an English guide, introducing Japanese culture to non-Japanese, teaching free English classes to local children. English becomes ‘meaningful’ and ‘experienced’, it becomes the language of communication not test-taking (I’m so glad this isn’t an MA paper and I don’t have to explain ‘meaningful’, ‘communication’ or ‘tests’).

I am a firm believer in the use of task-based learning and the inclusion of content classes in language curriculums (I teach British History, British Culture, Gender Studies and Japanese Culture) I think this is one way of having more ‘meaningful’ classrooms. However, my recent interest is in finding and creating opportunities for my students to put their English to use in the community. I may well be facing an uphill battle in such a small city but my whole heart is in it. There have been a few worlds rocked, on occasion.

This is a tiny part of my story – thank you for listening. I am lucky enough to have had the chance to meet and share stories with an incredible group of educators in Japan and also hear stories from my forming PLN who continually inspire me in my search to be a better, more passionate, more engaging and – yes I do dare say – a more entertaining teacher.

Some people will do ANYTHING to get their photo taken - and Joanne is just as bad!


17 thoughts on “Guest blog 17- Joanne Sato on falling in love in (and with) Japan

  1. Joanne – what a fantastic post! You have achieved so much and I admire you for the passionate nature of your teaching. Your students are very lucky to have you. You have really vividly brought to life the sights and sounds of teaching in Japan in a variety of contexts. Thank you!


    1. Hi Janet – thank you! I have just arrived back after a really long Thursday at college and reading your post reminds me why I feel so tired (and so happy). It is a beautiful tiredness that results from doling out passion to the students all day!

      I am lucky enough to love what I do and where I live, everyday brings surprises and challenges. It was a lovely surprise to find your comment! Thank you, again.

  2. Ken – my conspicuous absence on twitter is due to me being on the final leg of my MA TEFL. Dissertation in the works, due in September. Can’t wait!

      1. I’ll be there with rings on mi fingers and bells on mi toes come September…Then I will have to decide whether it is PhD (glutton for punishment) time or return to doing a bit of painting, drawing and maybe a textbook or two time!!

  3. What an incredible story! I love your poetic description of your experience in Tokyo. Japan is one country I’ve put at the top of my list and one day I’ll visit.

    All the extracurricular activities I have with my students is the stuff I really love to do. We get a chance to be creative and I’m a bit more free in what I can teach. This is where you get to see students’ passions evolve and they learn English quickly because they are using it in a way that is enjoyable for them. Unfortunately, I have met with several educators who do not enjoy doing extracurricular activities. I’ve heard many say that is not my job. I’ve even had some get angry because they say by doing extra their bosses expect them to do more.

    I have one question. Did you ever learn how to surf?

    1. Hi Shelly. Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. I had a big night out last night, slept on a friend’s floor and have been at parent-in-laws all day!

      Thank you so much for the comment. The extracurricular activities are a really great time to get to know students, I get to know what they are interested in and they are completely relaxed. Their English improves quickly as they strive to communicate their thoughts to me.

      As for the big question, I did learn to surf – not very well mind you! I now enjoy wakeboarding, which is a lot easier, and we have a kayak too. We still love the water but we enjoy it at a slower pace now!

  4. Hi Joanne!
    Wow! Where can I start from! What a beautiful post (and I really love the way you write!).
    I love how you describe your love of your husband, Japan, your work and the drama projects you are doing and sound so interesting – good luck in everything you do and may you always be happy and successful!
    Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful story and good luck with your MA TEFL and everything else you decide to pursue after that.
    Your post fills us all with happiness and hope – and thank you for that!
    Kindest regards,

    1. Hi Vicky
      Sorry to have taken so long to reply to you (see reply to Shelly).

      Your lovely words made me smile! Hiro laughed at me as I smiled at the computer screen!
      We are rehearsing for the play contest at the moment, after only a week the students are walking boldly out on to the stage and speaking with confidence. Last week they were all hiding at the back of the stage near the curtains. We have a beautiful concert hall at college and just being able to practice there feels like a privilege. It is exhausting work but the rewards are huge for both the students and Bill and I.

      Again, thank you for your kind words, they have filled me happiness and hope!

  5. For all the times I end up visiting Fukushima (about once every few months), we have yet to meet. We’ll have to make a night with Mark, Phil, and others.

    Great blog post and definitely refreshing from the usual thinly veiled gripes of teaching in Japan.

    1. Chris, I do hope this blog post leads to you all meeting up somewhere. A tweetpic of the occasion is essential! 🙂

      1. Hi Ken – have been AWOL after big night out, we drank the bar out of beers! Thank you so much for asking me to do this post. I have received lovely comments which have made me smile even more than usual!

    2. Hi there Chris,
      I was out with Mark and other colleagues last night (turned into a big night out!). I went camping with Phil and other Fukudai guys during Golden Week, it was lots of fun. Let me know when you are visiting and we can get together and take a pic for Ken!

  6. First I want to say thank you to Ken for posting this absolutely wonderful piece by our Sugar Jo. The writing is exquisite. What a delight to read! Apart from the lyricism, I was also impressed that you described your experience at NOVA as positive, Joanne. What a breath of fresh air to read something honest, but positive about working there. I too came over through NOVA. I worked there for 4 years. Can you believe it? I think I’m the only one I know who finished every contract they had with NOVA. I was very lucky. Many of my colleagues there were from working class stock like you and me, and they had a strong work ethic. Of course, some didn’t. Still, of the 10 teachers that were with me when I started there 3 have Masters degrees in TESOL now, and 4 are still teaching. I discovered JALT through NOVA. I was encouraged to start my Masters at Temple University, Japan campus by my Assistant Area Manager and he arranged a reduced timetable for me so I could start. Yes, I was lucky, but still, I think those that had a strong work ethic and who were positive thinkers were able to get a lot out of their NOVA experience. No doubt the same is true for people at other private language schools and people on the JET scheme.
    Anyway, Chris Cotter, and I will be at the MASH Equinox in Tokyo, so maybe we get get Ken his snap then.

  7. Wow Michael! How lovely to be called ‘lyrical’, although I’m not sure I deserve it.

    As for Nova it was a great experience and gave me the chance to meet many brilliant people (both students and colleagues). It really did provide me with a good foundation for all the other teaching jobs I have done. It was the start of my journey here in Japan. The deadline for my MA dissertation is the 20th of this month and I feel I am about to move on to the next part of my journey. I feel privileged to be sharing my journey with so many great educators and look forward to the MASH Equinox events (where I am sure there will be many a photo taken).

    @ken The Japanese twafia would no doubt make you welcome the next time you are over our way!

  8. I also very much enjoyed reading about your experiences in Japan…..
    I’m an ESL teacher living in Taiwan now, but I started out a long time ago first working in Fukuoka prefecture, in very rural situations, mostly teaching kids in private homes. They were long, exhausting days, including a lot of driving. After that I went up to Osaka and ot hired on a ECC (which is still there, but much more slick corporate than back in the nineties).
    I remember occaisionally visiting Nova Schools when I was looking for work there and noticing those cubicles, and also hearing about the long and densely packed class schedules.
    My wife and I always miss Japan, and your blog touched my heart. Thanks.

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