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From Arizona to Oknawa: More Things Japanese
26 July, 2012 09:29
Benjamin Martin is from Arizona, USA now living in Okinawa, Japan. He is author of the YA novel Samurai Awakening coming this Fall from Tuttle Publishing, and recently won the 2012 Kengo Tarumi award for his photography in JTA’s yearly contest.
1. Why did you move abroad?
I’ve been interested in Japan since high school when I took Japanese as my foreign language requirement. The more I learned about it, the more intrigued I was, yet I knew I’d never really be able to learn the language until I went. I continued studying through college and applied for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme run by the Japanese government. I got accepted and after graduation started packing my bags.
2. How do you make a living?
The JET Programme is designed to bring young Western English speakers to Japan for between 1 to 5 years. There are three positions, but the largest is as Assistant Language Teachers. As an ALT I assist homeroom and Japanese Teachers of English in the classroom, giving students an opportunity to interact and speak with a native speaker. Luckily, I ended up placed on small islands in Okinawa prefecture. I spent three years on an island with a population of only 550 people before moving to my new island of 8,000. I fell in love with the culture, photography, and writing all at the same time. My first novel, Samurai Awakening, was inspired by my students and time living on the small islands.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
Thanks to Google Talk it has been very easy to stay in contact back home. Even on the smaller island, I had access to the internet and could usually do a video chat at least once a week. Living in such small communities gives me hugely unique opportunities to participate and learn about Japan. I’ve been lucky that I’ve never felt homesick or culture shock. Perhaps it’s due to the variety of learning I did before I came, or the helpful and welcoming people I’ve met here.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Japan?
One of the misnomers about Japan is that everyone is the same, that there is only one culture and one people. In my experience I’ve found as much diversity as anywhere else I’ve ever been. Living in such small communities, it’s true that I stand out. Being the only one with light skin and blue eyes draws a certain level of interest, but then when you know pretty much everyone around you, anyone new would do the same. The best thing I’ve found as an expat in Japan is that I’m given a lot of leeway to be myself. I naturally tend to adopt a lot of Japanese customs, but people seem to accept differences and are usually very interested in talking about them. Most Japanese people I’ve met want to learn about me and my cultural heritage.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Japan?
The flip side of all the interest in me as a foreigner is the stereotyped expectations some people have. Just as there is a (I believe an untrue) image of Japanese as the same, generalizations tend to get applied to foreigners. Perhaps it is due to Japan’s history, where the land was closed to all but a single group of foreigners for such a long period. It can be fun to prove expectations wrong, but it can be hard to do it with each new group of people you meet. Oh, and fish heads. I still don’t do fish heads. Sorry school lunch center.
6. What do you miss most?
I think food has to be one of the largest parts of any cultural identity. We are brought up with certain foods, we help our mothers cook (or at least lick the spoon), we have favorite restaurants, and smell and taste are such strong memory triggers. I love Japanese and Okinawan food, but I really miss some of my old favorites. Dear Subway, Open more stores. Delis have definitely not taken off here. There are a few sandwich shops around Japan, especially in large cities, but for the most part I miss sliced meats, cheeses, and sourdough breads the most.
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
I came to Japan after studying the language off and on for more than 7 years. I’m no linguist, however, and could barely speak when I got here. It didn’t help that a lot of the words I was hearing were actually hogen, the Okinawan dialect. Luckily between the little English others spoke, my crude Japanese and some very inventive hand gestures I usually was able to make myself understood. I went out of my way to participate. My first weekend I went on walks around the island searching out places to go and clubs to do. I quickly found several community sports that opened up introductions to a lot of other people and helped me integrate with the community at large. I also cooked my own food and shared it with my neighbors, coworkers, and new friends. I definitely recommend bribing people with food, especially if it is homemade and no one dies as a result.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
Studying Japanese history before I came was a huge help dealing with ‘strangeness.’ One of the things I love about Japan is that you can trace things back through history since. Cultural differences lose their shock value when you understand the reasons behind them. Still I’d have to say shoe management is one of the most difficult customs to adjust to. When you first arrive it can seem like every building you go to has a different shoe policy. Some want you to change your shoes, some leave them on, and even some want you to lock them in a box. Once you’re used to it, juggling your shoe become no problem, and the reasons for it can be traced back to the muddy rice paddies and ample rain of old Japan, but it definitely takes a little practice.
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
That Japanese students are all polite, studious, and driven young people. If you haven’t already, watch Studio Ghibli’s Totoro. There’s a scene that shows an elementary school far closer to reality than the image most people hold. Just like anywhere else in the world, kids in Japan run the full range from excited about school to merely interested in the next baseball game. Don’t get me wrong, teaching in Japan is great, but not every student wants to learn.
10. Is the cost of living higher or lower than the last country you lived in and how has that made a difference in your life?
The JET Programme provides the same salary for all participants of the same year no matter of your placement. Moving to rural Japan my costs were higher than back home, and I made less than working part time during college, yet my salary was still comfortable for my area. I’d say there is simply a bigger difference living rural versus city than the US versus Japan. Most of the saving I was able to do living rural, however, was made up by the high transportation costs between island and mainland.
11. What advice would you give other expats?
Be flexible and learn about your new home before you get there. Be proactive about meeting people and participate with your local community. If you don’t take advantage of the experience of living in your new community then there isn’t much purpose in being there.
12. When and why did you start your blog?
I started http://morethingsjapanese.com about a year after arriving in Japan. I was learning so much and having such unique experiences that I wanted to share them with my friends, family, and the wider world. I was also taking thousands of pictures that fit perfectly with a blog format. It is also about the same time I started writing Samurai Awakening. The two works fed each other though the novel is fiction. Writing is both entertainment and reflection for me. I hope you enjoy reading about more things from Japan!
Benjamin's blog, More Things Japanese
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This is a great interview and I really enjoyed reading through it.
There were quite a few things I didn't know about you and your life in Okinawa yet, so I'm glad I got to read about it now!