"I Helped Create a Phonics Program"

A volunteer interview with Jonathan Dear on his trip to Himeji, Japan

What made you decide to volunteer in the first place?

I’ve always wanted to spend time in Japan. I spent a considerable amount of time studying Japanese language and I really wanted to improve my conversation skills. My sister studied Japanese in school and so I would study with her. When I realized that most Japanese classes go from basic to advanced with little in between, I knew I wanted to bridge the two by immersing myself in Japan. I’ve just always had a strong interest and connection with Japan. Also, my family has always been into volunteering and it’s something that’s important to me.

So you’re fairly fluent in Japanese?

I can hold a conversation, for sure. My family is from the Tai Shan province in China. They don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese there and they use a really old script (Hoi San) which isn’t like Mandarin at all. 

Did you spend much time travelling around the country?

A little bit, but I was more interested in immersing myself in the local Himeji culture. Himeji is at the end of a group of big Japanese cities. There are no big cites after Himeji – it’s kind of the end of the line so to speak. They speak a different dialect in Himeji as well. It’s known around Japan as being a bit rougher but it’s very fun to speak. (says some words in Japanese)

I’m told the main attraction in the area is the Himeji castle. Did you have a chance to check it out?

I actually volunteered there! I took friends and family on tours there and got to know it quite well. Bryan Soong (a fellow Canadian Lattitude volunteer) came to visit the castle with me once as well. He was only 20 minutes away although he was in an isolated community but we still got together once and a while. I actually preferred going out with co-workers and exploring Himeji area because they were around more often. Bryan travelled a lot and I was more content staying local and really diving into the region I was placed in.

What was it like at Himeji International School? What kind of work did you do?

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Honestly, it evolved over time. When I first got there I was just a child wrangler (which is more difficult than you might imagine). They had never had a volunteer and weren’t sure how to use me. After they built up trust with me and some of the teachers left, I took over their duties. I went from having no responsibility to being in charge of teaching phonics and supervising the bus trips and assisting with lesson planning. I actually helped create a phonics program at the school in conjunction with another teacher, which got put into practice while I was there.

Did knowing a good deal of Japanese help you on placement?

I think it was more of my willingness to help than knowing the language. Knowing Japanese definitely helped, but I think being willing to help in any way was more important. I was volunteering at an international school where they’re open to people from different backgrounds. What did frustrate me was that I had to speak English all the time to the kids. I would have preferred to practice my Japanese with them, but I eventually got comfortable with my placement. As soon as we got on the bus for field trips though, I was able to speak Japanese to them.

How did the kids respond to you?

Well, when I spoke to them outside of the classroom, they were not responsive if I spoke in standard Japanese, but as soon as I spoke in the local Banshu dialect, they were very attentive! The overall view in Himeji is that generally, people from Tokyo sound like sissies.

So what was one of the trips you took out of the city?

The school actually paid for me to go to Hiroshima because they felt it was very important for me to see the museum. I actually once got asked by a homeless man for some money and I inadvertently responded in Banshu dialect. He turned pale and ran away because apparently people from Himeji have a tough reputation!

That’s funny, what a great card to have up your sleeve! I know it’s hard to pick, but can you tell me what was your favourite memory was?

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It would definitely be when I volunteered to clean the Himeji castle. They gave me a pen that said “Himeji Castle Love Meeting”. Everyone meets in the mustering ground where the soldiers used to get trained hundreds of years ago. The Japanese military got involved in the cleaning and trained groups of people. I mostly cleaned and gardened but the army did all the dangerous stuff. They repelled down the building to clean the roof and it was like something out of a James Bond movie. At the end of it, they gave me a bunch of free passes to go to the castle which was cool.

Some people are worried that they might get set back if they do a gap year. How do you feel about that?

I’m unsure, I guess it would depend on each person’s situation. I personally spent lots of time learning and talking about my plans. I almost look at it like I’m just doing a later university program. Honestly, if I want to get into a master’s program or any other post graduate program, having this experience will help set me apart from other people. Everyone will have good grades at that point so people start looking for things that set applicants apart.

Do you have any plans to return to Japan?

I think so, probably. Haven’t mastered the language yet and I’d like to continue improving my language skills. I’m planning on going into linguistics and having spent time teaching in Japan will definitely help.

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Ok, last question. If you had to give a new volunteer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Talk to people and don’t be shy! I initially held back and only spoke when I was spoken to. That lasted for the first couple of months. I was afraid of making mistakes or saying something wrong or offending somebody. I finally got fed up with it and just decided to be ok with making mistakes and put myself out there. I found my confidence and comfort with the Japanese language improved so quickly during the last few months of my placement.

It was also interesting working at an international school and noticing the differences between other English speakers and how they taught. For example, there was a British guy, one guy from Tennessee and another woman from Wyoming. We were all very stubborn in our pronunciation and sometimes we would blindside each other but it was really just more fun than anything. I’d say as a Canadian it was easier to understand both British and American pronunciation.

How do you feel now that you’ve been home for a bit?

You know, I didn’t really realize how ‘in the boonies’ all of Canada is. Compared to Japan, there is some much wide open space here. My city wasn’t even that big by Japanese standards but it was still half a million people! I was riding the Skytrain in Vancouver (Vancouver’s local subway system) and had to laugh because there were two lines crossing each other. In Japan you would have a spider web full of train lines crossing each other all over the place – even in a small or medium sized city, it’s wild.

Jonathan Dear was placed at Himeji International School, 3 hours west of Tokyo, Japan. He volunteered through the end of 2016 until February 2017, working as a schools assistant.

Jonathan deferred to the University of Victoria before leaving on placement last September. He’s slated to begin pursuing his bachelor of arts in linguistics with the goal of practicing law.