26 Nov 2023
15th November 2021
JETS Spotlight: Callum Forbes
Callum Forbes is currently the Coordinator for cultural affairs at the Embassy of Japan. A role that he has held for the five years since returning from his time on the JET Programme.
Why did you decide you wanted to be on the JET Programme and Where did you go?
My motivation was that I wanted to learn a non-European language. It just so happened that at the pub where I was working at the time, there was a former JET and when we were talking about the state of the job market, our next steps and so on, she said to me that I ought to consider the JET programme. This was ten days before the deadline, and on looking at the application form, I didn’t think I would be able to pull it together in time. My then partner encouraged me to put an application in, and she applied herself. There really was never a moment when I stopped to properly consider what the implications of moving to Japan would mean for me as I was too busy getting everything together for the application! I hate to admit it, but by the time the interview came round I had still failed to consider the implications but decided that I should attend it anyway, and before I knew it I was on a plane to Naoshima in Kagawa, feeling extremely panicked by the fact that I was language-less and about to be living on the opposite side of the world. An anxiety I am sure has been heightened since the pandemic as the uncertainly for outgoing JETs must be really quite high so I wish them all well.
What are some of your best JET memories?
For me, it was the people. I was on an island and therefore isolated from the pre-made JET community (mainly facilitated by AJET), and although I had an amazing time with other JETs I was ‘forced’ to make friends locally. I studied Japanese at Kumon after I arrived, and was filling out up to 400 sheets of homework a week. I attending the cram school on two evenings a week (sitting at tiny desks designed for the elementary school kids who attended the cram school). After class, I would get into any local cafe or restaurant and speak to whoever was there - sometimes it was Japanese tourists, others it was the staff or other islanders. After about a year, I had a degree of fluency that meant I could make what I would describe as genuine friendships with many people on the island and across Japan.
What was your biggest challenge whilst on JET?
My biggest challenge was my staggering immaturity. Having just graduated and spending time in an academic environment, it is very easy to apply a critical eye to everything you see in the Japanese classroom. And JETs are notorious for the amount they complain about the education system in Japan. It is easy to think that you have all the answers and that things would be better if you could change things up, but quite likely that attitude is not conducive to your personal or professional relationships. At the time, I thought I was being quite balanced with when I shared my opinion about lessons structure and so on. I was lucky insofar as I had the chance to do so because we were an English education research and pilot school with evolving and non-textbook based lessons at the elementary level. We had monthly ‘demonstration classes’ which were attended by educators from across Japan, and accompanied by lengthy meetings in Japanese which I initially could not meaningfully take part in, but as time went by they were a great platform to share what I thought could be improved about lessons and what was and was not working for me personally. However, in reality, you do not (as I did not) have all of the answers simply because you have experienced non-Japanese education systems. That isn’t to say that you don’t have anything of value to contribute, you very certainly do, but it takes an element of maturity that I lacked to be able to know when is the appropriate time to share your thoughts and how best to do this.
You are working on a new exhibition now, can you tell us about it?
The exhibition is really one part of a multi-phase project. It’s a pottery exhibition, and the pots that will be on display have been wood-fired in a Japanese Anagama kiln in Oxford. We began by conducting workshops with groups in London, teaching young adults how to make pinch pots in clay, and explaining how firing an anagama is different from western kilns (the most widely used at the moment being fuelled either by electricity or gas). As part of the project, collaborating groups and artists also ran workshops in Oxford, Birmingham and London, and the idea was to give access to as many people as possible to this kind of firing. About 400 pieces were produced for the exhibition, from children and first-time potters, to famous British studio potters, with the idea being that the space inside the kiln is, in a way, an equalising and egalitarian space. We wanted fine art to be sat next to work produced by children inside the kiln. We wanted the communal firing to be the source of the decoration on the pots. So we asked that artists did not use any glaze on their work: instead, the pots take on their decorative character from the interplay of ash, ember, flame, clay and temperature. This is one of the things that makes an anagama special: the act of loading and firing the kiln is itself a decorative act. That is what we are trying to pull out through the exhibition. The exhibition will run from December 10th until March 2022, and I would be very pleased if JETAA members popped along during the run. I would be very happy to make myself available to speak to anyone who comes to the exhibition, if interested, and if you speak to reception in the Embassy they would be able to call me, and I’ll come down, and we can talk more about pots.
What has been the most rewarding exhibition or event that you have worked on?
It is quite difficult to pick out, but I will mention three here. You’ll have to indulge me in elaborating a little more about the current anagama project, as that was a certain highlight for me. Alongside doing the exhibition and the outreach arm, I was also involved as part of the firing team who loaded and stoked the kiln. In my spare time I am myself a potter, and so this project was the connecting point between my professional and creative lives. Learning how to stoke the kiln alongside a wonderful group of volunteer potters was something that I will treasure for my whole life, and I made friendships that I do not think could have been possible in other settings. I am hoping to build the project into an annual, open-access firing of the largest anagama, alongside the project director Dr Robin Wilson. The two of us are currently looking for funding and volunteers to get involved. If you think that you might like to help then please do get in touch with me via my Instagram page or website.
I have also been organising the performance side of Japan Matsuri since 2018, and that I feel is another personal highlight. Especially in 2020, where the event being cancelled meant that we had to go online for the first time ever. It was an awful lot of work, but I was the MC on the day, and it was a lot of fun too. You can still see all of those videos on YouTube if you visit the Japan Matsuri YouTube page; https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJa6OKxV3nGtvRLplQBrhBQ
I’ve also been involved in various visits from Japan including three Prime Ministers, and although those ‘events’ are very different from my day job it is often quite exciting to be a part of those high level visits, even if it is in a purely supporting role.
What advice do you have for others hoping to get a job that involves sharing Japanese culture?
This is quite a difficult one. I would say that you will be amazed how much you can achieve on your own if you are willing/interested in sharing Japanese culture. Indeed, getting involved with JETAA is one such way. Likewise, the Japan Society in London and Japan Society North West put on a huge range of interesting events and are usually looking for volunteers - so I’d say both of those avenues are open to people. Once you are involed with those organisations you’ll be amazed what you hear, so rather than spending hours trawling the internet looking for a job, I would suggest just getting out there, getting involved with the groups already doing things, and see how you go!
What ways, outside of work, can JET Alumni stay in touch with Japanese culture after returning to the UK?
The UK has a quite developed cultural ‘scene’ when it comes to Japan. Unfortunately much of this is concentrated in London, and I must admit that my own knowledge of the cultural scene in the UK is also embarrassingly London-centric. To name a few active organisations: Japan House London, the Embassy, the Japan Foundation, the DAWIA Anglo Japanese Foundation, the Japan Society and now also Pantechnicon host a fantastic range of events on Japanese culture - many of which now have an online element too. Regionally, the Japan Foundation do run a touring film festival which often has directors talks and so on, and Japan Society North West and the regional JETAA chapters put on events too.
If you are after a more private approach, you’ll be amazed at how many Japanese gardens there are in the UK - it is almost certain that you will have one near you. Many of them are in stately homes, but a lot are also publicly accessible, and the Japanese Garden Society keep a good list of those here: