You have to take a ferry to get some of your schools? The restaurant you were planning to eat at is closed, with a sign saying that the proprietors are out surfing? There’s a bright red crab scuttling across your tatami? Woop woop, welcome to island life! Surely one of the most unique JET placements, the islands in Kagoshima can offer great rewards and challenges. Your street might turn into a river during rainy season, you might go for a swim with some sea turtles, and your hair might have bleached three shades lighter by the end of your first month on the island. Whatever the case, your JET experience will be part-Japanese and part-island.
Every island in Kagoshima has a different history and culture, which makes them fascinating places to live and also to visit. Tanegashima is believed to be the first site of contact between Europeans and Japanese and, according to Google, is the world’s most beautiful site for a space center (rocket launches!). Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with ancient (around 7,000 years ancient) cedars and the tallest mountain in Kyushu. The Amami Archipelago was caught in the middle of a 600-year tussle between the Ryukyu Kingdom of Okinawa and the Satsuma Han, was governed by the USA after World War II, and only recently returned to Japanese sovereignty on December 25, 1953.
As a result of the unusual history of the islands and their diverse cultures, islanders enjoy a lifestyle that is very much like a placement in the inaka, but with a twist and some unusual challenges. Here are some tips to get the best out of your placement as an islander!
Islanders often enjoy their placements so much that they stay for three or more years! As a result, your predecessor may have become a local legend. Don’t let this intimidate you and don’t try to imitate them, just be yourself! Always conduct yourself with dignity and treat others with respect. This is very important! The local people will not be accustomed to foreigners but will know where you’re from, so your behavior will reflect on your home country here more so than other places in Japan. Don’t expect everyone to make a fuss over you, especially when you first arrive. You will certainly be noticed, but not always acknowledged. It may take a while before people feel comfortable enough to talk to you. Just smile and be friendly and don’t be afraid to make the first move! You will probably get a lot of stares. Try not to let this faze you too much and just respond with a pleasant smile or nod. Explore as much as you can. There are a lot of hidden treasures, even on small islands. Drive around, take a bus or hop on a bike!
- With island communities being so small and sharing a unique history and culture, there can be a bit of a separation between the teachers who come to the islands for just a few years and the local islanders. Make an effort to get to know some of the locals, as they can teach you more about the history of your island and invite you to festivals or events that some teachers might not have on their radar.
- Try to take part in local activities such as surfing or fishing, or join a community sports club.
- Embrace the unique aspects of your island, as they might not always be what you would think of as typical “Japanese.” A dance class might have you in a tube top and hula skirt learning Hawaiian terms for “hip roll” and “swirling wind hands” as opposed to a traditional dance in a kimono.
- Always smile and wave at the students in the street. They love the attention, especially if they are in a big class at school and cannot normally interact with you. Even do this with children you don’t teach, they’ll get really excited by the attention and will likely be less shy about speaking English with you.
- Keep track of weather reports and ask your neighbors or JTEs how you should prepare your house for a typhoon. Be aware that if a typhoon lasts for several days, food in the supermarkets will begin to disappear, starting with baked goods such as bread.
- Tackle mold in your house with some カビキラー (kabikiraa) before it takes over your walls!
- Islanders don’t tend to follow traffic rules, so stay attentive if you’re driving. Watch out for cats and elderly people on powered wheelchairs in the road, and don’t worry about the snakes and crabs.
- Sending and receiving mail can take a little longer than usual and some online stores don’t offer cash on delivery service to the islands. Also, newspapers arrive in the evening instead of morning.
- Try the local delicacies, especially the fish! Some of the local cuisine might not look appetizing to you, but people will be impressed to hear that you’ve tried them.
- If you have allergies, learn simple ways to explain them in Japanese and learn to read and write the Chinese characters (kanji) for foods you cannot eat. Local people may have less experience with your allergy, but they will be more than willing to help you!
- Always accept gifts of food, even if you cannot eat them. You can always give them to a friend!
- Making friends is important for a healthy, satisfying island life, but can be tricky at first. You can start by meeting your predecessor’s friends, but do not feel like you have to make friends with them.
- Make the time to stop and chat with anyone who speaks to you in the street. Take a simple comment like, “Atsui ne?” (“It’s hot, isn’t it?”) as an invitation to strike up a conversation, even if your Japanese is barely existent. People here will be surprisingly patient as you stumble through a few phrases, and they will definitely appreciate your effort!
- Always accept invitations to drinking parties or dinner, unless you are genuinely busy. It might feel awkward to be among people and not talk much, but your presence will be appreciated and it’s a great way to learn and practice Japanese.
- Be careful about criticizing or bad-mouthing any islanders as the communities here are pretty tight-knit, and gossip spreads quickly.
- Try to meet your JTEs outside of work. You may need to take the lead on this in the beginning.
- Keep in touch with the mainlanders you meet at Tokyo and Kagoshima Orientations.
- Don’t be surprised if people already seem to know a bit about you when you first meet them.
- Getting on and off your island is usually only a case of time. Islanders tend to save a lot of money, so it does not break the bank to visit the mainland from time to time and catch up with your mainlander friends.
- If the ferry times are not particularly convenient, try to negotiate with your supervisor to put in some extra hours at the office in exchange for extra hours of nenkyu.
- Keep an eye on the weather reports, especially when typhoons are reported. Take typhoon warnings seriously, but talk it over with someone before canceling travel plans.
- If you are feeling lonely or isolated, especially in the winter, plan a weekend trip to visit your mainlander friends to get a change of scenery.
Contributed by Silvia Lawrence, Tanegashima ALT, 2010 – 2012