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Michael Gilbertson - Saga (2018-2020)

Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?

I was in Yobuko, which is a small fishing/tourist destination where all the crimes are committed by boar and raccoons. Up in the north west corner of Saga Prefecture, what it lacks in access to major cities, it makes up for in blissful nature and caring people. I was here from 2018 to 2020, and left at the beginning of the pandemic. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, and whose biggest hobby was film, it was a struggle for me to adapt to living in a small, rural town. When a movie came out that I wanted to see, I'd need to take a bus, to a train, and then another bus just to get to the nearest major theater. However, with Karatsu city nearby, and the depth of natural beauty here, I found more interesting things to do much closer by. 

What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?

As an artist, I always knew that I couldn't stay in the same place my entire life. If I wanted to grow as a person, as a creator, I'd need to deeply experience another culture. Guided by Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurasawa, a love of ramen and sushi, and a deep fascination with the history of Japan, I decided teaching English in Japan was the best way for me to develop myself. JET is clearly the best way to do this, due to its constant support and ease of experience. 

What are some of the things your prefecture is known for? e.g. food, hotspots, etc.

According to my friends in Saga, the prefecture is known for its rice, sake, and beauty. However, I heard this from just about every prefecture. If I had to pick something that would stand out about Saga, it has a gorgeous charm of simple inaka living. There are plenty of onsens and ramen shops that go back generations. I really enjoyed driving through the countryside, stopping at any little shrine or temple that caught my eye. This is something I recommend no matter where you are in Japan.

Also, listen to the local radio. One time, as I was driving home from a late night of board gaming with my friends in Fukuoka, I turned on the radio to the sound of demonic voices. While I feared I was entering an episode of the Twilight Zone, I was compelled to keep listening. "Gakusei", "Oni", "Yama", I could only pick out a few words, but the voice actors were selling it like it was pure horror! When the radio came to an ad break, I learned I had in fact been listening to demons, it was the classic story of Red and Blue Oni trying to become friends with children. It made for a more than memorable drive, and something I could only have picked up driving in my small country town.

Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases? 

I absolutely did when I was there! This many years later, I have lost much of it. In the same way that English has its own personal twists and turns, I learned the personal habits of my friends and mentors in Japan. 

If you were to return to live in Japan, would you choose to live in that same prefecture? 

While I loved my time in the super-inaka, if I were to return to Japan, I would choose to live in Fukuoka city or Sendai or any of the large, non-Tokyo, non-Osaka cities. That being said, if I lived in Japan again, I would plan to spend a lot of time traveling to inaka towns and soaking in the peaceful nature and chill vibes of country living. I loved it. Want to return to it. But living there for long stretches was very hard for me. 

How has your connection in relation to Japan changed since living in Japan? 

I am significantly more aware of the ways cultural assumptions distort our ideas of what a country and its people could or should be. On the down side, I am less patient when people start talking in big assumptions about other cultures and it's people, since I am reminded of how I used to talk about the Japanese people before living there. One the bright side, I am way more curious about why people are the way they are.

One of my junior high students was one of the best table tennis players in all of Japan. He was flown out to participate in tournaments, and frequently came back having placed in the top 3. Despite all this, he refused to go to an academic high school. He wanted to take over his father's boat and be a fisherman. While it frustrated me at first, the more I got to know him and see his perspective, the better I understood his position. I still encouraged him to apply to academic schools and look at colleges outside his comfort zone, but accepted he didn't see that as a path for himself. In the same way, I've learned to be patient and understanding to others, their cultures, and their communities. Japan is now an infinitely complex place in my mind, and I love it all the more for it. 

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