Allen’s Erik Griffith Recalls His Stay in the Land of the Rising Sun


Erik Griffith, a Southeast Kansas native taught English in Japan before coming to Allen.

Judd Wiltse, Features Editor

Whether it be to visit the beautiful countryside of Europe or on a mission trip to Africa, a large amount of American citizens can say they’ve been out of the country at least once. Only a minority of those, however, can say they’ve lived outside of America, and Allen Community College instructor Erik Griffith is part of that minority.

Born in Joplin, Mo., living most of his life in southeast Kansas, and holding four degrees (an Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor’s in Science/Social Science, a Bachelor’s of Science/English, and a Master’s in Arts/English) Griffith signed on after college to the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program to act as an assistant English teacher, working with ages junior high and older.

“I just knew that I wanted to go overseas,” said Griffith. “I really have not had much experience with other countries. I’ve been to Canada once, and Mexico once, and I knew that I really wanted to do this.”

I was so uptight, but I realized that the Japanese don’t have high expectations of foreigners to understand their customs.

— Erik Griffith

Despite his excitement, Griffith remarks that the flight wasn’t as emotionally smooth as he would’ve liked.

“Mid-flight I got a mild panic attack. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into,’” said Griffith, “Because, you know, that’s kind of a big step.”

The panic attack didn’t last long as he landed at Narita airport, around two hours north of Tokyo. After taking a bus Griffith arrived in Tokyo and described it not as a city, but a large mass of people moving from place to place.

“I remember the first time walking out into the throngs of Tokyo and it was overwhelming,” recalled Griffith; also comparing the scenery to the film Blade Runner, a mass of humanity crowded into a bustling area, skyscrapers, flashing advertisements all happening at once and five times the size of New York City.

While being instructed by his ESL (English as a Second Language) course instructors for his two year trip, he was firmly drilled on the regimented life of the Japanese. Taught that the smallest incorrect gesture could serve as a grave sign of disrespect, Griffith was incredibly nervous when conducting his first interview. Fearing that he would unknowingly transgress a social protocol, Griffith was incredibly tense and nervous, much to the pleasant amusement of his interviewers.

Even after two years, when you’re living in another country every day is novel…I stuck out; I enjoyed sort of a celebrity status in some circles.

— Erik Griffith

“The Japanese are a lot more easy going and forgiving than I expected,” Griffith said. “I was expecting a stern interview but by the second day I was at lunch with the people at the board of education office and my meeting supervisor, who was also translating, said ‘Why are you so nervous? You need to relax.’ I was so uptight, but I realized that the Japanese don’t have high expectations of foreigners to understand their customs.”

Griffith noted that one of the nicest areas in Japan that he visited was the city of Hiroshima, the city that was the site of the first atomic bomb attack on Aug. 6, 1945. He said the city seemed to rise from the ashes and start anew. Griffith described the citizens of that district to be equally as pleasant as the flower garden that now grows at the bomb site.

Upon returning to the United States, Griffith described it as melancholy, saying that it was depressing how little he felt at home.

“Even after two years, when you’re living in another country, every day is novel,” said Griffith. “I stuck out; I enjoyed sort of a celebrity status in some circles. You know, I was the white guy in an overwhelmingly non-white community, and now I was nobody.”

Eventually Griffith found his way to Allen after returning to Emporia State to find a permanent position in teaching English composition and literature classes. After hearing through the grapevine that there was an opening in Allen County, he sent an application to the college and was called back the day before classes began and was given his interview.

Griffith was hired immediately after and has served the students of Allen for the past 20 years.