Kay Hood was in middle school the first time she ever heard about the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.
Her mother’s friend had participated in the program for several years, and it was one of the things that first piqued her interest in Japanese culture and traveling to the country one day.
The other was Cartoon Network.
“I used to watch Adult Swim – I probably shouldn’t have been watching it – when I noticed that there was a show called ‘Bleach’ coming on,” Hood said of the popular Japanese animated show. “I thought it was the weirdest name for a show. Then I watched it, and it was the first anime that I actually sat and watched weekly and got really into. ‘Bleach’ really propelled me into the world of anime.”
Now, Hood, who graduated from the University of Missouri–St. Louis this spring with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and a minor in French, will participate in the JET Program after years of anticipation.
“It’s surreal because three years ago I was thinking, ‘I just have to focus on getting done with school, and then pray I can even apply,’” she said. “After going through the process, which is a lot of waiting and really nerve-racking, making it all the way through is really gratifying. I’m grateful that I was successful.”
The program accepts between 2,000 and 3,000 Americans annually. During her yearlong assignment, which can be extended further, Hood will assist a Japanese teacher in foreign-language classes and serve as a cultural ambassador to promote the JET Program’s goal of international cooperation and exchange.
Proficiency in Japanese is not a requirement for the program. However, Hood’s education in the language, three previous trips to Japan and familiarity with the culture likely set her apart from thousands of other applicants.
Participants work in both private and public schools throughout Japan, though Hood is still waiting to be assigned. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, this year’s departure has been delayed for the time being.
Hood wishes she had a more concrete departure date, but she’s thrilled to have the opportunity at all. There was a time when she didn’t know if she would study Japanese or travel across the Pacific.
As an adolescent, Hood loved anime and manga – the distinctive style of Japanese comics that read from right to left – as well as classic Disney animated films such as “Beauty and the Beast.” Her interest in animation led her to pursue art at St. Louis Community College.
After a few classes, Hood realized that she enjoyed art but didn’t think it could be a career. She switched to the associate teaching program and also started taking Japanese courses offered at the college. It sparked an interest in traveling to Japan.
Hood applied to the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, which enables undergraduate students with limited financial means the opportunity to study abroad. She won the scholarship and decided to take part in an intensive summer study abroad program through the KCP International Language School.
“I started becoming more and more interested in Japan outside of anime, and I finally made it there in 2015 and loved it,” Hood said of the study abroad program. “Everything was so different but slightly familiar because there are a lot of American things there. I really liked the new experiences I had there.”
Upon returning, Hood finished her associate degree in teaching and decided to take a break from school to work and travel. She returned to the country twice more during a three-year span, once to Tokyo and once to Kumamoto with her husband.
Kumamoto is located in southern Japan near Nagasaki, and the journey there gave Hood a chance to explore the country beyond the nation’s capital. Along the way, she saw other cities such as Kyoto and Osaka but also rural areas more reminiscent of the film “My Neighbor Totoro” than Tokyo’s neon cityscape.
Highlights of the trip included the classic architecture in Kyoto and visiting the city of Himeji.
“It has this big beautiful castle,” Hood said. “The mascot for the city was a little cartoon character version of the castle, and I loved it. I thought it was the cutest thing ever – this really big, bulky castle with a cute face on it. I liked stopping off at that city because we got to walk around, and I saw a group of Japanese kids that I chatted with for a second. I think about that a lot, and I have a lot of pictures of that, probably, hour and a half that I spent there.”
The experiences abroad encouraged Hood to return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Japanese and, eventually, to apply for the JET Program. She was immediately impressed with the Language and Cultural Studies Department at UMSL.
“After talking with Amy Michael, I realized the Japanese department – the teachers and staff – really care, and the students work hard,” Hood said. “I thought it was a great fit.”
Michael also recommended that Hood enroll in a summer Japanese program at Washington University in St. Louis before beginning her first semester. The program helped prepare Hood to jump right into her classes at UMSL, where she excelled.
In addition to taking Japanese and French classes, Hood tutored other students in both languages and served as a supplemental instructor for the “Languages and World View” course. She enjoyed connecting with students over their shared love of languages and viewed tutoring as an opportunity to review her own language skills.
Though sometimes there were difficulties switching between languages.
“For three semesters in a row, I would have a Japanese class and then a French class, or vice versa, right after each other so having the switch was sometimes hard,” she said. “I said ‘Oui’ a lot in my Japanese class instead of ‘Hai.’ It was funny but kind of embarrassing.”
Still, Michael, assistant teaching professor of Japanese, noted Hood’s dedication to learning.
“Kay does not limit her study to the classroom,” Michael said. “She continually strives to better understand the cultural context of language by learning as much as she can about Japan’s history and arts. As a student in the ‘Modern Japanese Film’ class, she joined me and a small group of her classmates in an optional field trip to attend a Hirokazu Kore-eda film retrospective. We joined a screening of ‘Maborosi’ moderated by scholar Dr. Linda Ehrlich and Kay contributed to the film discussion with insight and poise.”
That commitment led to her being named the Outstanding Student in Japanese among the 2021 graduates.
Hood is still working to become fully fluent in Japanese, but she doesn’t think the language is as intimidating as it might seem to many English speakers. The grammar and conjugating verbs have come quite easily to her, but the different styles of formal and informal speech are the most challenging aspects.
It’s something Hood hopes to work on in the JET Program, where she’ll be able to take Japanese lessons while working as a teaching assistant. Between her experience tutoring and her education at UMSL, she feels prepared to succeed.
“I absolutely loved my time at UMSL,” Hood said. “I am so grateful to all the staff and the students I worked with because I feel like I did really well. I have such a great foundation that as I continue to study it’s not as intimidating as I thought it would be. I loved being at UMSL, and I’m proud to be an alum.”