Three cultural exchange ambassadors in rural Kyushu

Kira Jinkinson (Oita)


Every Wednesday evening, in a brightly lit room on the second floor of our city hall, a lively eikaiwa (English conversation) group takes place. Small talk is encouraged, cultural events discussed, and grammar explained using a range of games and activities. Every week is different, but there is always laughter and an exchange of interesting stories. The group is facilitated by myself and the other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) living here in Mie-machi, Bungo-Ono. Never heard of this place? It’s the location of my JET placement, in Oita Prefecture on Kyushu Island, southern Japan.

Technically, Bungo-Ono is a “city,” but really it consists of seven small towns spanning over 25 km, surrounded by mountains and rice paddies. One of these towns is Mie-machi. From here, 50 minutes on a turbulent two-carriage diesel train will land you in Oita City. There you can board a slightly faster JR line that ferries you to Kitakyushu and the bullet train route after a further 90 minutes of travel. Not the placement I was expecting when I requested Osaka, but nonetheless one I have come to love—partly for the sense of community fostered by this eikaiwa group. 

It is here that I have had the pleasure of meeting Bungo-Ono’s older residents and learning about their lives. And I want you to meet them too. Mitsuko, Ka-chan, and Kimi-san—aged 72, 79, and 62 respectively—are dedicated members of the eikaiwa group. Since I started volunteering here in August, they have yet to miss a single session. I interviewed them to learn more about their motivations for learning English, their interactions with foreign cultures throughout their lives, and the impact of foreign teachers in the community. I prepared some questions and sat around a table with the three of them in the city hall after an eikaiwa session one Wednesday evening. 

Mitsuko

Mitsuko speaks excellent English and has a calm, elegant presence. She explains with a smile that she was “born in Mie-machi, raised in Mie-machi, and now I’ll die in Mie-machi.” She recalls the first time she met a foreigner: “I was in high school and had a chance to take part in a speech contest. My English teacher, who was Japanese, invited an American to our school to train me.” Mitsuko was very nervous and could not communicate with the American man at all when they first met, and she didn’t win an award at the speech contest. Nonetheless, she was inspired to study English. 

After earning a degree in education at Oita University, Mitsuko married her husband and—like many Japanese women back then—became a housewife. However, from the ages of 36 to 66, Mitsuko worked from home tutoring middle school and junior high school students in English. She has been attending the eikaiwa group for four years, and often supports her former English teacher from high school to attend the group, too. He is now 88 years old and lives with mobility needs. Mitsuko picks him up from his house, drives him to the city hall, and helps him walk down the corridor. 

30 years ago, Mitsuko tells me, a Canadian man called Ian Davidson came to teach English at a private school in Bungo-Ono. She says Ian “couldn’t speak Japanese at all but loved soccer” and that he got involved with the local boys’ soccer team. Mitsuko’s son was in the team at the time so he interacted with the Canadian teacher. She says Ian was “kind and had a calm character, so was easily accepted by the boys and their families.”

Mitsuko describes a trip Ian organised through the school, which brought the boys’ soccer team over to Canada. “We were so happy. There were in total 50 members including 15 parents going to Canada. . . so most of them were children.” The boys “had never got on a plane. . . Of course they had never been to a foreign country—it was so exciting.” Whilst the parents stayed in a university dormitory—it was summer vacation at the time—the boys did homestays with Canadian families. Mitsuko found it amusing because the hosting families were “rich so they had pools, so the children thought that in Canada all houses had a pool.” When the boys returned to Japan after the 10-day trip, Mitsuko remembers that “most of the children were excited to drink Japanese tea and eat Japanese bento. They thought it was so delicious. They were so cute.” Aside from missing Japanese food, the boys made “very good memories,” and two went on to become English teachers when they grew up. 

Ka-chan

Our next ambassador is the reason I wanted to conduct these interviews—she has endless interesting stories and a great sense of humour, energetically using gestures to explain herself when she can’t remember the English words. Her passions include gardening, music, and learning English.

Ka-chan’s first interaction with foreigners was when she lived and worked at Osaka Port as a typist. She was 20 at the time, recalling that “about 55 years ago, Japan had many imports from all over the world.” I’m fascinated—imagining Osaka Port in the mid 1960s, foreign ships docking from “the Middle East, Europe, and Russia”—ship crew mingling, interacting with Japanese culture. I wonder if they tried takoyaki or okonomiyaki, what they would have thought. During this time, Ka-chan “met many foreigners. . . They were friendly to Japanese people but I was very sad we couldn’t speak English.” This is when Ka-chan realised she wanted to study English, so she could communicate with people from other countries. 

After working in Osaka, she returned to Oita, married her husband, and also ended her career to become a housewife. The years passed and Ka-chan was busy looking after her family, so her desire to learn English was put on hold. But when her children grew up, she had more time to travel and study. First, Ka-chan visited Europe, spending time in Paris, which she found a little disappointing: “it had a bad smell.” In Italy, she fondly recalls enjoying wine and pasta, and staying in an “old and historic hotel” in Rome where she “opened the window and found the tomb of Augustus.”

I asked how travelling had impacted her, how she managed it all in the days before Google Translate. She couldn’t speak a word of French, Italian, or English when she visited Europe, and I imagine this must have been very difficult. Despite the language barrier, Ka-chan explains that people “were very good and kind to us.” In Italy, she lost her way back to her hotel, but “many people gathered round and one of them brought me back.” On another trip to Hawaii, she missed her bus and “a kind young man picked me up and took me to the hotel.” Ka-chan realised that “human beings are the same all around the world. Everywhere.”

15 years ago, an American ALT named Nicole came to Bungo-Ono and started the eikaiwa group. She supported Ka-chan in starting to learn English and they became close friends. Mitsuko adds that “Nicole’s contribution has been significant.” She has since kept in touch through regular Skype calls “between San Francisco and Bungo-Ono.” When Ka-chan told her that the eikaiwa group was still going strong all these years later, Nicole was “very surprised and she felt very happy.” She came to visit in late December and stayed at Ka-chan’s house.

Kimi-san

Kimi-san’s motivations for learning English are slightly different, stemming from music and religion. As a child in the 1960s, he recalls listening to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel, artists who had a profound effect on him. He is proud to know the lyrics to 10 Simon & Garfunkel songs, including “Scarborough Fair”—his personal favourite. He explains that “Scarborough Fair” was originally based on a Scottish folk song, but was shortened when recorded by Simon & Garfunkel to make it “easier for many people around the world to listen to.” He regularly quotes poetic lyrics during the eikaiwa group. When I don’t recognise the reference, he smiles and says the song was before my time. 

Kimi-san started attending church as a high school student, and continued going every Sunday when he moved to Tokyo for college in the early 1980s. This is where he first interacted with foreign people. He explains that “a famous American pastor came to Japan and spoke in several places.” He was invited to Kimi-san’s local church in Tokyo, where the Japanese pastor interpreted for him. At that time, Kimi-san says he “spoke so little English” that he was unable to communicate directly with the American. He then met another “remarkable” overseas student from New York, who was “certainly a Mormon and spoke fluent Japanese.” Kimi-san was impressed by his bilingualism and commitment to Japanese culture. Kimi-san later returned to Bungo-Ono to teach Japanese at Mie High School whilst studying English in his spare time. He has been attending the eikaiwa group for the past 10 years. 

Kimi-san and Ka-chan now play in a band together alongside Japanese friends and former ALTs from America. Kimi-san switches between acoustic and electric guitars, while Ka-chan plays the harmonica and ukulele. They are very talented, practising regularly. I had the pleasure of watching them perform at our eikaiwa Christmas party whilst we enjoyed onigiri and Japanese desserts made by the eikaiwa participants, mashed potato and cookies made by the ALTs, and—the staple of Japanese Christmas—take-away fried chicken. The band played a mix of Japanese songs and western Christmas classics.

Kimi-san is happy that families here now celebrate Christmas and Halloween alongside Japanese cultural events. He says that “different kinds of cultures are mixing together, and a new kind of culture will be born. . . The JET Programme has contributed to those kinds of things.” He explains that Bungo-Ono is “a narrow local place and everyday [people here] think the same things. . . [they] seldom experience new things and new thoughts, whether it is religious matters or music or different cultures.”

Ka-chan agrees that “Japanese culture and other cultures must interact.” She is keen to meet people from other countries and build friendships saying she wants to be “a citizen, ambassador like that.”

Like Kimi-san, Mitsuko values the JET Programme, and has “envy [for] current students because when they are young they can hear native speakers.” But she feels “so happy to have the English eikaiwa class” which means she can “enjoy lifelong learning. . . I always thank the ALT teachers.”

Alongside English study, Mitsuko is now learning Korean from the Korean JET CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) in our town. She also volunteers to support the new community of migrant workers living in Bungo-Ono, who are from Nepal, China, and Sri Lanka and work on the kiwi plantation and for a construction company. She says that “once a month we enjoy cooking, playing games, and teaching Japanese. . . It is very interesting to learn about each other’s cultures and lifestyles.” Mitsuko hopes “they will not be isolated in an unfamiliar country.” I am warmed by her empathy towards the foreign communities that live here. She has been very kind to me and the other ALTs, quick to answer questions and help us navigate living in Japan. 

In fact, I could say the same about so many members of the community here. Whether I need to jump-start my car battery, find a doctor, or buy a specific ingredient, local people have rushed to help me. It is rare for a week to go by without being given a plastic bag full of homegrown sweet potatoes, kabosu fruit, or persimmons, depending on the season. 

So whilst life in Bungo-Ono feels like a world away from the buzzing megacities of Osaka or Tokyo, there is no shortage of kindness, community, and unexpected opportunities for cultural exchange here. I am certain that many rural JETs would agree that being placed in a smaller community is a unique and special experience. People like Kimi-san, Ka-chan, and Mitsuko epitomise the warm welcome that so many Japanese people give to foreigners, and their commitment to studying English is inspiring. I hope that in years to come, they can continue attending the eikaiwa group and building friendships with future JETs.


Before moving to Japan, Kira worked as a refugee support worker, promoting intercultural exchange and supporting families to restart their lives in the U.K. She is now a first-year ALT in Bungo-Ono, Oita. Alongside volunteering at the Eikaiwa group, she enjoys exploring new cities, hiking Kyushu’s peaks, and studying Japanese.

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