Soon after he graduated from the U of R, Jon Heese BFA’91 left the familiar to pursue adventure and a job in a faraway land. For five years he taught English in Japan. After some of life’s ups and downs, he now finds himself in a most unique situation; Even though he wasn’t born in the land of the rising sun – he’s a four-time elected representative in his adopted city.
Jon Heese - a Saskatchewan expatriate who is now a member of a prefectural legislature in Japan - readily embraces the suggestion that he is an outsider, noting that when he was a child his family moved around a lot, and he became comfortable making new friends all the time.
“I spent some of my younger years at Wymark, a farm community south of Swift Current, where my dad was a Mennonite preacher,” says Heese. “Everybody else farmed, so we were the outsiders.
Growing up, Heese was drawn to performing in plays and dramas, and also discovered a love for learning languages. He studied Music Education at the University of Regina with a dream of teaching English abroad. He had already lived and worked in Germany and France for a time, wanted to travel, and since music is the international language, he figured his education equipped him to do that.
During this time at the U of R, he recalls, he most enjoyed performing in operas, which were a lot of work, but for him brought music to life. Perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, he played a lead character, Nanki-poo, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado, which is set in Japan.
In 1991, five months after he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, he was in Tokyo, looking for a teaching position. At that time, English teachers were in such demand that within 10 days he was interviewed, and hired on the spot.
The move to Tsukuba
He first landed in the city of Ushiku, but soon moved to the nearby city of Tsukuba, where most of his teaching took place. Tsukuba is a government-designated science city, a community of about 250,000 that suited Heese because it had more foreigners, many of them studying or working at the science-oriented university, and the more than 50 research institutes located there.
It also had a much livelier nightlife. He describes the lifestyle as a lot of fun, with a great salary, although after a couple of years he noticed that his students were more interested in spending time with a foreigner and learning about his life than learning English. His students had little appetite for homework, and he felt he was more of an entertainer than a teacher. At the same time he was picking up acting gigs on the side, often playing U.S. presidents in Japanese movies and TV shows – he resembled a young Bill Clinton back in the day.
A change of direction
After five years - even with regular lessons in reading and writing Japanese - Heese could barely string together a sentence in conversation, which was frustrating for someone who was fluent in German and partly fluent in Russian and French.
Frustrated, he quit his job and opened a bar. It allowed him to be his own boss, gave him a place that felt like an actual business and forced him to speak Japanese with his customers. Within a few years, his conversational abilities had improved immensely, proof that his decision had been the right one, he says.
It was during this time, that he met and married his wife Noriko. She had moved to Tsukuba to study for her master’s degree in microbiology. They were introduced by a mutual friend, an Italian studying at the university.
Heese’s bar business suffered a serious setback in 2002 when the government changed the laws regarding impaired driving, and began cracking down hard. Almost overnight, business at the bar dropped by 70 per cent. He struggled on for two years, closing the bar in 2004, leaving him with a heap of debt to repay and uncertainty about what to do next.
A move to politics
Prompted by his attempts to keep the bar afloat, in 2004 Heese first thought about running for city council in Tsukuba, which required him to become a Japanese citizen. He did that, and was elected in his first attempt in 2008, aided by an electoral system that, ironically, makes it easier for outsiders, like foreign-born candidates, to be elected.
There is no ward system, he explains. Instead, the top 28 candidates are elected to the Tsukuba council, with about 40 candidates participating. Even with this advantage, he notes with pride that he placed second on his first try and topped the polls in the following three elections, becoming only the third foreign-born person with no Japanese heritage to win a seat on a city council in Japan.
He soon learned that officials, not municipal politicians, make most policy decisions and it takes time and effort to bring about gradual change, even for something as minor as the timing of a traffic light at an intersection.
“We are conduits for the citizenry to the real government, the civil service,” he says. “Politicians act more like an immune system, shooting down lead balloons that the real government might try to float.”
Heese attempted to move to the next level, running for a seat in the Ibaraki prefectural council (similar to a provincial legislature) in 2014, where the top five candidates are elected, but he came up short. He tried again in December 2022, placing fourth out of five, becoming the first foreign-born person in Japanese history to be elected to a prefectural council.
A fellow U of R grad
Leslie Tkach-Kawasaki BA’87 is a fellow political junkie and friend who attributes Heese’s success to his honesty, his ability to hold a learned conversation on any topic, his skill in reading the room, and campaigning on a street corner.
She teaches political communications in the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Tsukuba, and met Heese in 2016 while she was researching how foreign-born politicians in Japan conduct their campaigns.
They found they have a mutual interest in politics, and participate in social events organized by Canadian expats living in Tsukuba. “We play pool, we talk politics, about our kids and about the Canadian Football League,” she says.
While Heese feels he is still finding his feet in his new position of prefecture councillor it is a nice job to have, he says, giving him access to people he would otherwise not be able to meet. He plans to give presentations to universities and business groups in Canada - including bringing a delegation to Saskatchewan later this year to visit a potash mine. He is also seeking out people who are interested in making inroads in the Japanese market, as well as finding products that his constituents can export.
Heese always visits the University when he is in Regina, and is amazed at the number of new buildings on the campus, describing the renovations to the College Avenue campus as gorgeous. Wandering the halls, he says, he barely recognizes the place.