This article was originally featured in the December 2023 issue of Connect.

Vianna Chow (Kagoshima).

About 20km to the west of Kagoshima City is Ijuin, a town home to 25,000 people—well, now 25,000, plus one more person. I have lived in Ijuin for approximately three months and, needless to say, I am beyond grateful for my placement. Looking back, I was a bit hesitant about moving to Ijuin because of the population size, since I was coming from the sixth largest city in Canada. There was also my inability to drive; I often wondered if things were easily accessible. However, since I’ve  arrived, Ijuin has definitely exceeded my expectations, not just in its structural landscape but also in its people. As a new ALT with minimal Japanese communicative abilities, integrating into Japanese culture and communities seemed intimidating, especially since it was my first time living in a different country, and I was living alone. I have since met many people who have shown an immense amount of generosity and warmth. They, without hesitation, have brought me into their communities and shown me so much kindness even with our language barrier and cultural differences. Through these acts, they have not simply made me a part of their community but also have given me a home here. 

Being a fresh university graduate, I had little working experience or understanding about work culture. So I was a bit nervous and would often question and second guess myself. However, teachers from both schools where I work have been very friendly and welcoming, often attempting to converse with me in English, or with me speaking to them in my broken Japanese. Though communication is not always easy, they consistently make an effort to include me in things at school and outside of school. For instance, at my agricultural school, I often walk around the fields and stables to see the plants and animals. Sometimes, the animal husbandry teachers would let me feed the cows and their calves, and the agricultural teachers would occasionally show me around the field and give me some vegetables to take home. At my base school, they have also displayed the same amount of generosity and inclusion, inviting me to dinners and mountain hikes. Though it took some warming up and a few months of me being here, the teachers have continuously made efforts to integrate me not only in Japanese culture but also in the Japanese working environment, making me feel a part of the school community. 

Aside from my community at school, I also have my English community in Ijuin. It currently consisting of two groups, my Tuesday 英会話 (eikaiwa) group and the community of ALTs living in Kagoshima. Prior to arriving in Japan, I was asked by an ALT senpai if I was interested in joining the local eikaiwa. I agreed, thinking it would be a cool experience and a great opportunity to meet new people. Though it was all of those things, it gradually became more. The class is made up of the four sweetest ladies; they have invited me to sports events, made me food, and took the initiative to remember and celebrate birthdays together. Though we were all strangers, it didn’t feel like that; instead their kindness and generosity has provided me with comfort. Coming from a different country and living alone, you lose a sense of familiarity. However, being of East Asian descent, these ladies have provided a feeling of familiarity through their home cooking and generosity, often reminding me of my mom, and my grandma’s home, but with better English—kidding. Though living in Japan has been great so far, it isn’t without its difficulties, communication being a big one. With my limited Japanese, it often feels overwhelming, being surrounded by a language you are not familiar with and having to constantly pull out Google Translate to understand. This made me appreciate the ALT community here more, as I could relate to and communicate with them more easily. Though “every situation is different,” as they like to say, as foreigners you can share similar struggles and perspectives and feel understood. This creates a safe community for you to ask questions and voice concerns. 

In Canada, I was reading a book titled Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. The book discussed ways in which Japanese people have managed to live a long and happy life while also fulfilling their ikigai among other things. In one section, the authors talk about traditions and proverbs for happiness and longevity, in which one interviewee responded to the prompt by saying hello to children on their way to school and saying “drive safely” to the cars passing by every morning. The reading of this passage has propelled me to do the same, to greet strangers throughout the day. In response to my simple act, many smile back and start a conversation. My Japanese is not that advanced yet, and my greetings are often followed by awkward nodding and smiling. But regardless of the language barrier, people continue to show an endless amount of generosity. A couple of weeks ago, I went on a bike ride to my favorite mujihabai (nobody shop) to pick up some flowers. On the way home, I decided to go to a local cafe to unwind and enjoy some tea. While I was there I conversed a little with the owner, who knew very little English,  using my limited Japanese and Google Translate. As I was ready to leave, she invited me to the beach since we had been talking about nice places in Ijuin to watch the sunset and sunrise. I agreed and we went to the beach shortly after. I found it quite interesting that even though we had only known each other for a short amount of time she had still offered to drive me to the beach. She even treated me to ramen for dinner that evening at a place that had been recommended by one of her customers. Her reasoning being that she wanted to treat me to something nice. After exchanging contact details, she asked me if I wanted to go see cosmos at sunrise and of course I agreed—you only live once, right?

Overall, Ijuin has exceeded my expectations in more ways than I could imagine and continues to surprise me every day. So I hope to continue discovering new communities and maintain and strengthen the ones I am already part of. I will forever be grateful for the generosity and kindness everyone has shared, as well as for their endless efforts and initiatives to interact and participate in cultural exchange with me. Moving so far from home seemed scary before, but now I am not so scared anymore. Ijuin will forever hold a special place in my heart.

Vianna is a first-year Asian-Canadian ALT from Kagoshima. She enjoys sunsets at the beach, bike rides, and taking pictures.