Ever dream of packing your bags and finding a new life in the Japanese countryside? In our Profile Series, we’ll find out what the San’in region is really like, straight from the intrepid souls who actually moved here.
SAN’IN PROFILE SERIES #001
NAME: Chelsea Inaba
HOMETOWN: Hilo, HI, USA
CURRENTLY RESIDES IN: Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, since 2011
OCCUPATION: ALT, Daisen, Tottori Prefecture
Q: So you grew up in Hilo?
A: Yes, I lived there for seventeen years.
Q: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A: First I wanted to be a vet. Then, a scientist. But when I got to university, I knew I wanted to study Japanese after just two weeks.
Q: Did you have an interest in Japanese culture prior to that?
A: I think when I first went to Japan with my family—my grandmother, my mother, and my uncle on my mother’s side. We went there when I was in middle school, and I thought it was such a great place. Also, when I was growing up, there was the Pokemon and anime boom, followed by the manga boom, so I loved all of that. I also liked video games.
Q: Which places did you visit in Japan those first times?
A: The first time when I was in middle school, we went all around, but first we flew into Fukuoka where we have some distant relatives, and after that, we made our way to Hiroshima and Tokyo. I also visited once in high school, and I studied abroad in university for nine months in Osaka.
Q: Where did you attend university? And what was your curriculum like?
A: University of Colorado, Boulder, and Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka. There were a lot of international students, so there was an American class schedule, and a Japanese schedule that Japanese students followed. But sometimes classes opened up to both sides. I took classes on Zen Buddhism, and Japanese literature, with writers like Murakami Haruki, and Abe Kobou, Mishima Yukio.
Q: Oh? I like Mishima’s writing, too. What did you think?
A: Mishima’s writing was intense. I recently read “Natsuko’s Adventure” in Japanese, and it was great!
Q: How did your family feel about you moving here?
A: They knew that I wanted to go to Japan, so they weren’t very surprised. They were surprised when I told them where, though. When they looked it up on Google maps and saw nothing but rice fields, they were a little worried. But when they got here, they saw it was ok. They worried that it might be too country, in the sense that it’s too isolated.
Q: Where else have you traveled in Japan so far while living here?
A: I’ve been up to Hokkaido, down to Okinawa, a lot of the Kansai area, all of Shikoku, and some of Kyushu. I want to go to Tohoku next, but I haven’t been there yet.
Q: Having traveled around Japan, what’s unique about this place?
A: One is the language. The dialect is unique. Also, I think it’s a closer-knit community than other places I’ve seen.
Q: How did you end up in this part of Tottori Prefecture, anyway?
A: I wanted to work here in Japan, and when I asked one of my cousins who was already working here if he had any ideas, he said he was working in Kurayoshi nearby, and he recommended sending my resume to my boss, who he knew. He said the area is really nice. Also, Kurayoshi has Hawai-cho, which has a sister district relationship with where I grew up.
Q: What do you like best about living here?
A: Well, the food is excellent. It’s fresh. A lot of it—even in the supermarket—is really cheap, and locally produced, too. I was surprised about that. It’s very close to the mountains, so you get a variety of wild vegetables and fruits, but you’re also close to the ocean, so there’s a lot of really fresh seafood, too. There’s the best of many worlds here!
Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching English?
A: I enjoy making jokes in the classroom, and when the students laugh at them, that’s when I know they’ve got the English down.
Q: For example?
A: I tell blatant lies and see who laughs, because I need to make sure who’s paying attention.
Q: What’s most challenging about teaching English?
A: Because they think they need to get everything correct for tests, I think some students lose their motivation, even though they actually have a lot of potential to be good at English. That’s the most challenging part—balancing test scores with enjoying English.
Q: So is the main focus on test scores rather than acquiring fluency in practical English?
A: I think that scores are the primary motivator for a lot of students. I know that a lot of them do enjoy learning English, but many get discouraged when their scores don’t improve. It is a required subject for entering high school, so there’s a lot of pressure.
Q: Describe your average work day.
A: I go to class, teach, and when I don’t have a class, I start preparing for the next class or grade papers. The Japanese teachers are in charge of preparing the lessons themselves, but they ask for my opinion pretty often. This year I’m teaching three to four classes a day. I teach at Nakayama Middle School and Nakayama Elementary School in Daisen.
Q: What do you do on weekends?
A: On an average weekend off… Saturdays are usually calligraphy class, then I coach health (non-contact) boxing for girls, or I practice boxing myself. Sundays, I’ll either sleep the entire day, or cook something, or read at a cafe.
Q: Since you’ve moved to Japan, how would you say you’ve changed personally?
A: I think maybe I’ve picked up a lot of Japanese mannerisms. I think I’ve learned to listen a little more, and try to read between the lines a little more than I did before.
Q: It’s a big cultural difference, isn’t it? Americans are really direct!
A: It is! And the way you ask questions, too… I think I’ve maybe learned how to ask questions in a more roundabout way. (laughs)
Q: Has your view of Hawaii changed at all after living in Japan?
A: Hawaii… I guess my view’s changed. Because Hawaii is a close-knit community, there’s a lot of things that we take for granted, I think. After coming here, I’ve gained another viewpoint. I guess I see now how closed off it was in some respects as a culture. It’s a very welcoming culture, but there’re a lot of things that we still don’t know, I think. Just because it’s so geographically isolated.
Q: How about your view of Japan? Has that changed since you moved here?
A: Over time, I think I’ve been able to see more individuality. Not just the public faces people wear. And I’ve actually noticed that a lot of them are more similar to us in America in general. I think Americans are just freer to show it.
Q: Any final thoughts or comments about this area?
A: I’ve really loved living here. I recommend Daisen to anyone who loves nature, and who wants to experience a lot of different things in a small area. I was surprised at how much stuff there actually is to do. I’ve climbed the sand dunes in Tottori. I’ve also climbed Mt. Daisen a few times with my school, and that was one of my most memorable experiences in Japan. Climbing Mt. Daisen to see the fireflies at the top!
Q: Was it difficult to climb to the top?
A: It’s ALWAYS difficult to climb to the top! But it’s always worth it. (laughs)