The Unexpected Path of Life After JET

This article originally featured in the December 2019 issue of Connect.

An Interview with JET Alumni Lillian Hanako Rowlatt

Community editor Clare Braganza interviews Lillian Hanako Rowlatt (Niigata 2003-2005)

What now? This question will probably strike many of us once we’ve left Japan, if it hasn’t already. The JET Programme only lasts 1-5 years, so before we know it, many of us have to return to our home countries and face the realities of entering (or re-entering) the ‘normal’ job market.

But even after we’ve left Japan, our time here will find ways to sneak back into our lives. This is what happened to Lillian Hanako Rowlatt, an ex-Niigata JET whose career path deviated from Japan before returning a decade later. Now, she’s the co-founder of Kokoro Care Packages, a company which delivers premium-quality, all-natural Japanese foods straight from Japan to customers worldwide.

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In this interview, Lillian tells me how it all began with the JET Programme: “Being half-Japanese, I have always felt a strong connection to Japan and wanted to learn more about my heritage before entering ‘the real world’. I chose the JET Programme for its established reputation and sense of community.

My time in Japan turned out to be beyond what I could have anticipated. I lived in the small town of Kashiwazaki-shi in Niigata-ken, and the people I met, from locals to teachers, students to other JETs, all opened their hearts and homes to me and made the experience one that I will never forget.”

One of the many welcoming gestures Lillian experienced stands out for her: “I remember a principal at one of the schools taking me out to the school garden, even though he didn’t speak any English and my Japanese was very basic, to show me the fresh fruits and vegetables they were growing. He told me the stories behind the garden and let me try some of the fresh produce. Even though we may not have understood each other’s words, his kindness spoke volumes. I encountered this sense of inclusion and openness in so many aspects of my life on JET. It made me feel like I was surrounded by family, even though I was miles from home.”

After two years in Niigata, Lillian returned to Canada and experienced “a sense of reverse culture shock.” She explains how “getting a ‘normal’ job can feel foreign in many ways.” But even though she’d previously seen her time in Japan as a “break before entering the ‘real world,’” she came to realise that JET had given her many useful skills.

“Taking the path less traveled can itself be something that distinguishes you from others. In a world where many follow the road map given to them, taking chances and trying something new can build character and skills that apply to any career. Thinking outside the box, taking on challenges, a willingness to try new things—these are all skills that are not only applicable but valued in many positions. If you keep your mind open, you’ll be surprised where your journey in Japan will take you.”

Lillian credits her time on JET as the reason she was able to transfer to New York and cover the Japanese stock market. However, her time in Japan never really left her.

“I have always treasured my connection to Japan and being half Japanese. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met in Kashiwazaki, and my love and interest in Japan has only grown since then. I feel a sense of calm and belonging every time I return. It truly feels like a second home!

Covering the Japanese stock market did help me stay connected to Japan, but not on a deep level that felt meaningful. I wanted to be more in touch with the traditions and the people, and to share the culture and philosophies that meant so much to me with others.”

Japan has a strong sense of community, which is part of the draw for Lillian. “Japanese culture is so dynamic and becomes more and more interesting the deeper you experience it! Part of the fascination comes from how Japanese culture embraces values I feel we are losing in the West; in the West, we are becoming more individualized and inward-looking whereas Japan puts the community first. Japan also has a strong sense of tradition, respect for its elders, attention to detail, and takes the time to master skills—values I feel we could all learn from. Whether you’re in Japan or experiencing Japanese culture, you always feel like you’re taking part in something bigger. Whether it’s sharing in traditions that are centuries old or taking part in cutting edge technology, you always feel a connection that is larger than you!”

Lillian was able to realise this desire when she met her Kokoro Care Packages co-founder, Aki Sugiyama. “Aki and I met when a mutual friend thought we would hit it off given our similar backgrounds in finance and our mutual passion for health, wellness and working out. We met for dinner during one of my trips to Tokyo and it felt like meeting my twin! We are very similar in many respects and share the same vision and drive when it comes to the benefits of a healthy diet and living a wholesome and connected life. Aki does an incredible job, doing all our sourcing and interactions with our local Japanese producers, while I work on sharing their stories abroad so that others feel connected to the people and culture of Japan.”

The challenges of dealing directly with food-producers halfway across the world were also eased by Lillian’s experiences in Japan: “Being on the JET Programme helped me to have an appreciation of the customs in Japan, a deeper understanding of the hierarchical structure that exists in some aspects of the corporate culture, and an acceptance that sometimes processes like incorporating can take more time. Despite this, I still run into some surprises! But most importantly, JET exposed me to the traditions, philosophies and respect people in Japan have for their food.”

These discoveries led Lillian and Aki to decide the goal of their new business: “To reconnect people around the world to the food they eat and the land from which it’s grown. I feel as if we’ve lost the true meaning of enjoying a meal with friends and family and the appreciation for the people and the land that creates it. Given our fast-paced world, we hope that Kokoro Care Packages will remind people to slow down and savor the gifts from the earth while enjoying the excitement of new tastes and flavors. We hope that through our Care Packages, people are able to be a part of a community that shares these values both inside and outside of Japan.”

With the benefit of hindsight on her path from JET to the stock markets to co-founding her own business, Lillian leaves JETs with a piece of advice: “I would recommend current JETs involve themselves in as many activities and experiences as they can. It’s these moments that make the whole journey worthwhile and can open you up to new opportunities later on. I would also recommend getting involved with JET alumni and communities outside of Japan. Not only are they a wonderful resource, but they also provide a great support network.

Although it may not be clear now, you never know how your time on the JET Programme will lead to a future career. When I left Japan, I had no idea that I would one day be covering the Japanese stock market in New York or starting a business that is so deeply connected to Japan. Looking back it seems like this was the direction I was meant to take—I hope that others find their path as well.”

Feel free to contact me directly at lillian@kokorocares.com if you would like to connect!

Kokoro Care Care Packages

For us, food is about community. Not only do we strive to offer the highest quality products we can find in Japan, but we also share the stories of the passionate farmers who produce the food, and the beautiful regions where they’re grown. We’ve featured a soy sauce that takes three years to brew using 200-year-old family traditions, a brown rice jam made by a young couple that started their own local farm just outside of Osaka, and a yuzu miso created by a 66-year-old woman who started a yuzu company in Tokushima in order to preserve the pesticide-free yuzu and help the aging farmers with their harvest. Through these stories and many others, we hope to connect people on a deeper level to Japan, its people and its traditions. We also love seeing people sharing their creations and their experiences with our products. The Kokoro Community is truly what makes our products special.

After spending eight years in capital markets, Lillian left her SVP position in the financial industry to launch Kokoro Care Packages, which delivers premium-quality, all-natural Japanese foods straight from Japan to customers worldwide. She helps connect people to Japan though its unique tastes and flavors while also supporting the local farmers and producers by sharing their stories of tradition and passion. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree, Honors in Mathematics with an Economics subject of specialization and was an ALT on the JET Programme from 2003-2005 in Kashiwazaki-shi, Niigata-ken.