How can COs leverage the power of the JET alumni network?: The JET Program Satogaeri Project

by Mark Frey
JET Programme Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), Kumamoto, 2002-2006
President, JET Program Alumni Association of Northern California (JETAANC)


How do you feel about your hometown? If you are like me, you have very warm, nostalgic feelings about it.

These are the feelings I have for my Japanese “hometown,” Aso, in Kumamoto Prefecture. I lived and worked there, at the foot of the magnificent Aso volcano, as a JET Programme participant from 2002 to 2005. I know this very beautiful, very rural region like the back of my hand. The friends I made there are like my second family.

During the past ten years, I have held Aso and Kumamoto very close to my heart. I became a volunteer “Monbassador” to promote Kumamoto in California and beyond. I became an active volunteer in the JET Alumni Association (JETAA), eventually becoming the current President of my local Northern California chapter, JETAANC. In leading the largest JETAA chapter in the world, I oversee over 30 activities a year that support the JET Programme, promote U.S.-Japan exchange, and encourage social and business networking.

Returning back to Aso, Kumamoto

I now live very far away from my Japanese hometown in Aso and rarely have time to visit. So imagine my joy when I was selected along with 12 JET alumni from around the world to participate in CLAIR’s JET Program Satogaeri Project. The Project sent me on a very special satogaeri or “homecoming” trip back to Aso for a couple days in November to reconnect with friends and help strengthen ties between JET alumni and their Japanese hometowns.

I am very thankful to the staffs at CLAIR, Kumamoto Prefecture, and Aso City for all of their efforts in making my JET Satogaeri Project journey so special.

The JET Satogaeri Project is one of the ways CLAIR is preparing for the 30th Anniversary of the JET Programme next year. Before heading to Aso, I participated in the JET Alumni Global Forum in Tokyo, where we discussed plans for the Anniversary and the 2020 Olympic Games and 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Then, it was off to Aso! Like many JETs, I made many friends in the community, including neighbors; colleagues at City Hall; teachers and students at the middle and elementary schools where I taught; my adult English conversation students; and members of the local taiko and kimono kitsuke groups that I joined.

Meeting with former kimono kitsuke instructor

On my first night back in Aso, I had a very touching 10-year reunion dinner with many of these friends. During my two days there, I was able to meet many other old friends. We shared many smiles and memories together. I also toured the Aso volcano region, which is now a UNESCO Global Geopark and features some of the best onsen hot springs in the world.

On my final night in Aso, I led a workshop with members of the community to explore how we could strengthen ties between Kumamoto and the JET alumni who lived there. I put to them a simple math problem. Through JETAA, I am connected to 62,000 JET alumni in 65 countries. They work in every sector and industry, at every level, from entry-level to CEO. Through my corporate and university alumni networks, I am connected to an additional 365,000 professionals in 157 countries. This adds up to over 427,000 people in my worldwide network that everyone in Kumamoto has access to simply by knowing me.

Bonding with old friends at the Aso Geopark

If the size of my network is typical of the thousands of JET participants who lived in Kumamoto over the past 30 years, that means your average resident of Kumamoto has access to somewhere on the order of 850 million people worldwide through their JET alumni.

I believe this power of the JET alumni network is the greatest single area of untapped potential for the JET Programme right now. Any JET Contracting Organization (CO) that is not leveraging this network for its own benefit is missing a truly huge opportunity.

How can COs leverage the JET alumni network to achieve their social and economic goals? First, COs need to reach out to their JET alumni and ask them to reconnect with them. I believe the best way to do this is to invite them to join an online JET alumni group for their prefecture. A Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google Group may be best platform.

Once the JET alumni join the online group, COs need to start making specific requests of them, at least once a month. Ask them to share news about local products or tourist spots with their social and business networks. Ask them to support local economic and cultural exchange initiatives. Ask them to post photos and memories of their time living there.

Leading a workshop on building ties between Kumamoto and the world

JET alumni loved living in their local towns and prefectures and know what makes them so fantastic. I am confident that they would do anything for them, if asked. But COs need to ask them!

In Aso, I saw the power of the JET Satogaeri Project first hand. If we are able to give this homecoming experience to all JET alumni while leveraging the power of their networks, then we have tapped the JET Programme’s area of greatest potential. I can think of no better initiative for the JET Programme’s 30th Anniversary!
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