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Thursday, November 03, 2016

My First Japan - Reminiscences of an Assistant English Teacher on Sado Island


My first experience of Japan was a small island in the Sea of Japan called Sadogashima (Sado Island), part of Niigata Prefecture.

Sado Island at that time had several municipalities, including a city called Ryotsu, which is where I was based as an assistant English teacher (AET) in junior high schools.

Sado is by no means a wealthy part of Japan. Most of what in the late 1980s would have been a population of about 40,000 made its living from farming or fishing. There were one or two towns that were better off than others, each with their own AET, but I was employed by the Kaetsu Board of Education, not Ryotsu. Ryotsu was the main harbor on Sado, and traditionally a fishing town. It was certainly not one of the better off parts of Sado and did not employ me.

Yes, this was the late 1980s when Japan was on a high. Japan's economy was the second biggest in the world, after the US, and I recall the yen being so strong that it was about 87 yen to the USD at one stage. I also recall things like the standard drink machine price being 60 yen as opposed to about 120 yen today. Japan was on an all-time high - palpable even in out-on-a-limb Sado.

I had four good friends in Ryotsu, who had adopted me a few weeks into my stay. I was walking home from my school one evening when someone from a car parked outside my place approached me and made my acquaintance in good English. He was the local tailor, and with him in the car was a young farmer, and another shopkeeper who sold women's clothing. Another member of my new gang was the only female: a Japanese Korean woman who ran the local pachinko parlor as well as an English cram school.

My friends helped me integrate into the Ryotsu community by organizing a Wednesday evening English conversation class open to all - with, of course, me as teacher. It had a regular attendance of about 15 to 20 people. Through my group of friends I also took part in the annual Ryotsu festival once or twice, dressed up as a ballerina one time as part of the shopkeepers' part of the procession, all of them in drag.

Many weekends, the group of four and I, plus one or two others, would go out on the town, to an izakaya and karaoke afterwards. One of the regular "others" was an energetic young oddball whose favorite song was "Japanese Businessman" - a number that perfectly summed up the mood in Japan at that time. The verses of this martial-sounding ditty likened the businessman to a doughty samurai setting out to conquer the world, and the refrain was powerfully simple: "Bee-zhee-nesu mahn, bee-zhi-nesu-mahn, Jah-pah-NEEEEE-zu bee-zhee-nesu-mahn!" This guy would belt it out with heartfelt fervor and the whole of Japan behind him.

Even with the Japanese economy at its climax, Ryotsu showed no signs of any opulence, just the hard grind that had brought Japan to where it was at. I was unique (to put a gloss on it) among the four AETs on Sado for living in a bit of a dive - albeit quite a spacious one. It was one the second floor of a two-story prefab with a family next door and four people in a unit each downstairs, and there was a small hole in the wall of the entrance. The neighbors never got used to me, although the fierce little next-door girl's regular animosity did change all of a sudden to admiration in the aftermath of my abovementioned festival transformation into a pretty ballerina.

There was a car ferry to Niigata City - as there still is - that took 2 hours and 20 minutes. I'd take it once a month to the monthly Kaetsu Board of Education meeting of the AETs it employed, and about once a month to Tokyo  where I would go for R&R.

My memories of what Japan's glory days were like have mostly melted into a golden muddle that I can't distinguish now from my excitement at being in the country I'd always wanted to visit since I was in elementary school. The fact that I stayed as upbeat as ever about Japan even after the economy hit a massive rock in early 1992 suggests that the latter was a lot more significant.

25 years later, I was back on Sado. The "Nakano Mansion" I had lived in for three years was still standing, but completely boarded up. Ryotsu City was no longer. Well, it was there but it was now part of what was now Sado City, which covered the whole island, obliterating the various towns and villages that had existed at the time. Only a handful of the stores lining the main street remained in business. The friend's women's clothing shop and the other friend's pachinko parlor were gone. However, there on that same corner where I spent so many weekends being regaled about Japanese history, in a shop that hadn't changed a bit in quarter of a century, there sat my old friend the tailor (and Waseda University graduate) still there behind his counter, as energetic and sharpwitted as ever and as delighted to see me again as I him  - still in business, a true businessman, a Japanese businessman!

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1 comment:

  1. I am standing in Niigata City as I write this! I enjoyed your interesting personal history.


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