Return to Shakotan

After a far too brief visit to Seattle, I returned to Bikuni by April 9th, 2012, ready to start my second year as Shakotan’s ALT. The moment I entered my apartment, I was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu. Unlived in for two weeks or so, the apartment had grown just as cold as the sea air outside. In my absence, the normally omnipresent curry aroma has dissipated, giving way to the bland, nondescript fragrance of nothing in particular. Walking in and dropping my suitcase on the floor, I was overcome with the sense that my dwelling had reverted back to its original state, like I had somehow come back not just in space – but in time – to my first day here, one year ago. This was an unnerving sensation.

Perhaps I had more doubts about my decision to stay than I had originally thought. Perhaps being able to visit Seattle and briefly see the people I love was a good way to trigger intense homesickness. Perhaps my apartment in Shakotan is a fortress of solitude, an ever-lonely place. It’s likely that all of the above of are true. In any case, there I was; voluntarily starting another full year in a relatively isolated Hokkaido fishing village, with only my laptop and guitar as companions. Was this really the right decision? Is there ever a right decision? Perhaps all choices are half chance.

I was in for a new experience by carrying on here; I got to see my students progress through school. In my first year at Shakotan, I had taught at the junior high school and two elementary schools. At the junior high, this meant that my Second Year students had become Third Years, and my First Years were promoted to Second Year students. Perhaps the most interesting to see, the students that I had taught as 6th graders were now the new freshmen at the junior high. No longer dressed casually as elementary school kids, these young students were sporting their new junior high seifuku (制服), the military-esque school uniforms that look like sailor outfits. And apparently more formal dress lends itself to more serious studiousness, as these kids seemed to have matured considerably in the span of three weeks.

Despite the small size of the elementary schools in Shakotan, this year all four of them have at least one 5th grader. Since English instruction officially begins in fifth grade, this means that my time teaching in elementary schools has doubled. I now teach at Bikuni, Hizuka, Nozuka, and Yobetsu elementary schools. Those last two have only one 5th grade student – and only five students in the entire school – meaning that our classes are one-on-one. Actually, there is also a Japanese teacher present, so technically these students get two teachers completely to themselves. How’s that for small class sizes?

Nozuka Elementary School has five students, total.

Unfortunately for me, some of my favorite teachers had been transferred to other schools. Apparently it’s common practice to move teachers about the region, typically at least once every six years. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is, but it seems that an individual would have to be pretty one devoted to teaching to pursue a career as a semi-nomadic educator. At the junior high, the vice principal, school manager, social studies teacher, and second PE teacher had all been transferred. At Hizuka, the French-speaking Kazama-sensei and his wife, along with the principal and vice principal, had departed for greener pastures. And at Bikuni Elementary, the lineup remained largely the same, but the teachers had swapped positions, meaning that I was working with different teachers for the 5th and 6th grades than I had been previously.

The loss of Kazama-sensei was a bit of a downer for me, as we had had some memorable conversations in a comical mix of broken English, French, and Japanese. At the junior high, I had come to really enjoy the way Vice Principal Tanaka would teach me new phrases and Japanese puns, and I knew that I would miss his comic presence. I was also sure to miss the social studies teacher, Yoshimura-sensei. In fact, I missed the whole Yoshimura family. The Yoshimuras had welcomed me into their home for dinner on a couple separate occasions, the most notable time being when Marissa was visiting and they had invited us over for yakiniku. I always felt like Shingo and I were pretty good friends (although I never actually called him by his first name like that). And the two Yoshimura daughters were the brightest students in their respective classes, so their absence was quite noticeable.

And yet the effect that all of these personnel changes had on me really paled in comparison to the big shocker: Yamazaki-san was also being transferred! The news of Yamazaki’s two-year transfer to the main Hokkaido office in Sapporo hit me like a ton of bricks. In my first year in Shakotan, Yamazaki had become my closest, most trusted, most helpful friend in town. We had worked together at the education board’s office every week, and he was always there to support me when I needed help. It probably goes without saying, but I needed help quite often. He was my pillar, my rock, the wind beneath my wings, and honestly, the only person in town whom I felt that I could communicate with perfectly, despite the language barrier. He had helped me get set up in my apartment when I arrived, guided me through many adventures (local festivals, sports days, trips with his family), introduced me to interesting aspects of Japanese culture (onsen, baseball games, yakiniku, “nominiucation”, etc), and also enabled me to go on some adventures without him (like hiking Mt. Shakotan and Hashigozake). We had even traveled down to Kōchi together for Kami-shi’s local Yosakoi Sōran festival. In my second year in Shakotan, Yamazaki wasn’t going to be there, and I was certain to miss him most of all.

Solar eclipse

My frustration in the matter of Yamazaki’s transfer is admittedly self-serving, but the reasoning of why he was being temporarily moved was genuinely perplexing. At first it seemed like a promotion for him, getting a chance to work in the bigger pond of the Hokkaido office. But that fact that his transfer was temporary made it seem almost intentionally awkward. You see, both Yamazaki and his wife had been working in Shakotan’s town office. They have a nice little house in the village where they lived with their two children (one in junior high, one in elementary school) and Yamazaki’s mother. Shakotan is two hours away from Sapporo by car and not accessible by train. By moving his position to Sapporo temporarily, the powers that be had forced Yamazaki to rent an apartment in the city, live there throughout the work week, and only see his family on weekends; the only time it was feasible for him to make the drive home, or his family to make the trip there. The fact that the transfer was temporary and his wife still had her career in Shakotan makes moving the whole family to the big city completely impractical. So why do it?

Cherry blossoms on the hillside

Apparently this kind of intra-company transfer, called tenkin (転勤 – job relocation), is a very common practice in Japan. I’ve been told that the idea of shifting people around is to avoid workers in bureaucratic positions from getting too comfortable. This is quite literally in an effort to avoid corruption and cronyism in the workplace. Having the same people working together in the same office for too long might potentially lead to minor corruption, like folks breaking the rules to do favors for their friends, or more serious unethical behavior, like embezzling money. The idea that anybody would suspect Yamazaki of ever doing anything unethical strikes me as preposterous. Although, I suppose I do have a TV from the Shakotan town office in my apartment, which is technically a no-no… Man, I love that guy.

While the loss of Yamazaki was a blow, I’m still bound to enjoy teaching in Shakotan. After all, Yusuke, the junior high English teacher, is still here, and we make an exemplary excellent educational team. He does all the lesson plans, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and grading; is responsible for students’ performance, discipline, and classroom morale; and basically deals with all the stressful aspects of the job. While I handle a fun ten-minute game at the beginning of class, provide pronunciation expertise (which I have simply by virtue of having grown up in an English-speaking country), and generally soak up all the glory and admiration the kids have to offer – just because I’m exotic and interesting to them. It’s a good system. Plus, Yusuke and I are avid soccer fans, both watching and playing the beautiful game. This year, the new school manager is also a young soccer enthusiast, so the post-lunch soccer scrimmages with the kids are looking to be better than ever.

After having eaten school lunch with the kids for over a year now, one student finally pointed out to me the proper dish arrangement for eating. Rice goes on the left, the bowl of soup on the right, and the plate for miscellaneous items (like vegetables and fish) is placed behind them. I had been taught to “triangle eat” – eating a little bit of each item without finishing any food faster than the others – but no one ever pointed out how to arrange the plates until now. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.

What it’s all about.


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