Ari, (40 ish) Interview conducted remotely during social distancing
I have had quite a few people ask me what it is to shelter in place, solo, on a boat during these interesting times. No matter where you are, you’re never alone unless you choose to be, and the Azores is a place with a strong sense of community.
The local Portuguese that I have met check up on me a couple times a week, send me updates about movement restrictions and suggestions of allowable activities. Yesterday Sonia, who provided an interview in the fall, sent me a link to the virtual museum tour in Angra do Heroismo. The home where I am being asked to stay is a section of empty docks where four people are living.
On these 3 docks, my home, there are 4 people, an older couple, a solo sailor and myself. There is no one language that we all speak. Despite the communication barrier, a strong sense of community has developed. If any of us are walking to the supermarket, it is now “protocol” to ask others if they need any groceries. The goal is to minimize community exposure. Patrick, who provided an interview in December, lost a nice stainless steel knife in the harbor next to his boat last week so today I dove down and found it for him. In trade his wife Ensa is teaching me the edible plants in the area and showing me where they grow. I think she has a German Easter celebration planned, where chocolate is hidden. I’m not sure where you hide things on docks and boats but I am excited to find out. There are unexpected benefits of random acts of kindness.
A person I know practices random acts of kindness is Ari. I have known her since grade school where we “won” the swing dance competition by doing “the pretzel” and shared many amazing teachers. I sometimes wonder if that sort of competition is encouraged in schools or if everybody gets a trophy. In high school Ari and I took AP science classes together. I remember Ari being somebody who enjoyed thinking. More recently Ari shared on social media that she has a difficult time killing anything, even a bug. In the bathroom in the marina there is a beetle that I encountered struggling on its back. Three times now I have come to its assistance and flipped it over, the last time stating that I hoped that the third time’s a charm. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go as far as Ari and not even be able to swat mosquitoes, but it is interesting the influence a few simple words can have on others who are willing to listen.
Ari is quite good with words and I frequently enjoy reading her thoughtful posts on social media. They often focus on something about her community. Ari and her brother are definitely individuals. They grew up north of Boulder, Colorado on a property near a river where being in touch with the land was encouraged. Their parents always had a large garden. As a child I was shocked to find out that they had no TV in their house, something I could not imagine at that time. No Saturday morning cartoons? What type of existence is that? One of the beautiful parts about getting older is that it enables new perspectives. I now attribute their unique personalities and their ability to think independently to the lack of media propaganda influence when they were young. Ari lives in Japan and is watching the Covid-19 pandemic unfold in the USA from afar. This outside looking in view seems likely to provide some unique insight which I am hoping she will share with us. Ari’s interview was conducted over video chat and her words follow.
What is your favorite part of living in Japan?
When I was young, my family was involved in a 4-H-LABO exchange program with students from Japan. It was a true exchange, so a student would come from Japan to stay during summer vacation and then the following year the host brother or sister would go stay in the home of that same exchange student, so at 14 I was able to spend a summer in Japan where I discovered that I loved the aesthetics, among other aspects of the culture. After high school I spent a year in Istanbul as a Rotary exchange student, then while at Lawrence University I studied cultural anthropology and fine art, and was fortunate to be able to spend 9 months in the associated colleges India program and then another trimester in Japan doing independent study. I went on to graduate school where I became certified in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) basically in order to be able to teach to travel, allowing me to continue to experience other cultures more deeply than just short trips would allow. After graduating I began work at the CU Economics Institute where I taught a diverse group of international graduate students.
All those years after my initial homestay, I was still curious about Japanese culture, so I applied to teach with the JET program run by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Most applicants seemed to want to work in the excitement of Tokyo but I had already learned that I did not enjoy extended city life, so I requested a rural position in the Ryukyu cultural area and was assigned to Kikaijima, a tiny island that is part of Amami-O-Shima, located to the north of Okinawa. I almost couldn’t have been placed anywhere more rural – a 12 hour ferry ride south from Kyushu in good weather. There are fewer than 10,000 people living on this island that you can easily bike around in a day, stopping to enjoy the views along the way. To me it is a paradise of beautiful white sand beaches, secret lagoons and coral reefs. While enjoying living and working there, I met my future husband, a Japanese man, and we have continued living in Japan since then.
Living here in Japan for more than 25 years, I have never stopped admiring the deceptively simple intricacies of Japanese design. The antique furniture, pottery and various other handicrafts are truly beautiful and fortunately the traditional skills to make them have not been lost. Masters still teach students and these craftspeople take pride in the most minute details. You can see this same attention to design perfection throughout Japan, not only in utilitarian housewares but also on a larger scale, such as in public gardens, traditionally built homes and even modern items like Lexus cars and Sony products.
Another aspect of Japanese culture that I admire is gaman. It is a term that excompasses endurance and self control. Japanese people try to develop self-discipline and admire others who have discipline. For example marathon running is very popular here which I attribute to this respect for gaman. The educational system here is quite rigorous and competitive and most students put great efforts into their studies and look up to classmates who do well. It is generally not cool here to be an underachiever and even less cool to be proud of it. People are also quite good about, for lack of a better term, `sucking it up` – taking criticism well when they are wrong or make a mistake, and then learning a better way to do or to think about something, making sincere efforts to improve themselves – actually thanking the critiquer for teaching them. It’s refreshing when people actually listen without pride and seriously consider diverse ideas or different ways of doing things.
A third thing I admire is that it is rare for people to answer a serious question if they have not thought about it deeply. In these cases the answer is often, “hmmm, let me think…”. There is a sense that people are responsible for their opinions and therefore are concerned for the societal impacts of stating an opinion that is not well thought out and supported. You don’t often hear people arguing about anything they are not well-informed about, and they will honestly say they don’t know enough about a topic to comment, but they will listen carefully and learn – in contrast to how I feel things are going in America.
In general people here focus on teamwork and value working together to make a better society, so they tend to be quite aware of the repercussions of their individual actions; acting selfishly or inconsiderately is seen as meiwaku – causing trouble to society. One of the reasons there is so little crime in Japan is due to the value placed on social responsibility. This concept of meiwaku is very important now in facing the novel coronavirus pandemic. There has as of yet been no government lock down during this ongoing Covid-19 crisis, yet citizens are taking things seriously so that they do not cause other people problems, wearing masks and so on. Japan has very high population density and is close to where the outbreak started, having experienced Covid-19 cases early on, yet the rate of new cases still fortunately lags quite far behind many other countries where the virus spread much later and much faster and lock down/shelter at home orders are now in place. I think this slower rate of increase is partly because of this respect for social responsibility, everyone working together for the greater good.
Japan is no stranger to tragic disasters, throughout history having experienced earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, flooding, typhoons, pandemics, economic failure and even nuclear disasters.
These have reinforced the strong sense of community. Where there is a strong sense of community, the response to disasters is known to be much better – a direct correlation. After the terrible Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster of 2011 there was no hoarding or looting, even though entire cities and much infrastructure had been wiped out. Farmers who lived in the hills helped take care of the people displaced from the ruined cities, and thousands upon thousands of volunteers arrived to help. Everyone shared resources. People across Japan immediately started to try to save electricity and so on. I think I read somewhere that pretty much overnight Tokyo was able to decrease the use of electricity by some 30%. That’s gaman on a societal level, and there was the message everywhere `Gambare Nippon!` which means something like Japan Endure!, gambare being the verb form of gaman. We`re seeing that same message rise again with the current pandemic situation. I want to say “Gambare World!” If everyone works hard together, endures together, we can get through this as smoothly as possible.
What is your least favorite part of living in Japan?
Many of the things I like most I also dislike! The lack of showing emotions or not giving an answer or opinion can be frustrating. I often ask a question to hear and learn another idea or opinion but for the reasons I have mentioned getting others to open up can be challenging. People not saying what they are thinking can make problem solving difficult, sometimes making the problem much worse. Even when there is a serious problem or issue, people tend to be reticent to share their ideas and opinions, making discussion, negotiation, finding solutions and arriving at consensus difficult.
Gaman, enduring, also has a dark side. People have been known to literally work themselves to death. The need to endure is not always necessary or beneficial. One aspect of this that is particularly frustrating to me as a woman is that Japanese women have very little power, as evidenced by the scarcity of women CEOs – something like only 8%! -, politicians – only about 10% – and so on, one of the worst scenarios in the industrialized world. Women here endure things that perhaps should not be endured.
If I were to compare the two cultures rather too simplistically, well, Americans say too much and think too little. In Japan, people say too little and think too much. There is a perfect balance somewhere in the middle. The “think a lot before acting” mentality may be useful in many situations, but it might be damaging in others. Sometimes there is a need for risk and instantaneous creativity, quick action. I feel that in this case there is no black and white answer, just a realization that there is an ideal balance between the two approaches. Western culture wants a strict dichotomy, good or bad, black or white. In reality everything is probably a shade of grey.
Do you see changes to the world where you live?
People here believe climate change is happening and think about it seriously. Japan has a very meticulous written record of the weather that has been kept for a very long time, many centuries. Comparing these records to what has been occuring over the last 20 or so years makes it apparent that there is something unusual happening. Rising ocean temperatures have been bleaching coral around Okinawa, destroying the delicate reef ecosystems. Sea currents are changing and some species of tropical fish are showing up further and further to the north, which has been having a dramatic impact on fishing. Twenty years ago few typhoons went much further north than Okinawa without losing power, but in recent years they have been blasting all the way up to Tokyo, causing serious damage and flooding even in northern Japan.
The rainy season used to be a month of gentle rains and mist, ideal for growing rice. More recently the rainy season means heavy downpours day after day, causing floods, destroying houses that are hundreds of years old as well as damaging crops. Winter is changing as well, getting warmer and drier. Japan has some world class ski areas in the north. There was almost no snow this year which impacted the tourist industry and all those people it supports. The summers are getting much hotter and the last one was the hottest in our long recorded history. Tokyo has become a heat sink in summer. Older professional gardeners among my friends are noticing things are not right, insects arriving at the wrong season and not pollinating, or that there are too many of this insect, not enough of that. Birds are confused. Japanese people are very aware of the seasons, which play an important role in culture here, so they see these changes and realize they are the effects of climate change.
How has the changing world been impacting your community?
I already mentioned my concerns about how climate change is impacting farmers, coastal cities and fisherman. I am really concerned about how the current pandemic is going to impact my local community. I now live in Beppu, a city with a population of about 120,000 that is famous for its hot springs and spa resorts. Here we have the most natural hot springs in one location after Yellowstone. Tourism is our biggest industry and many people come from China, Korea and other Asian countries as well as Europe and America to enjoy the spas, delicious food, beautiful mountains and ocean views. It is also a very popular vacation destination for people from Japan. However, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there have been almost no tourists since January when China and Korea began to lock down and Japan banned flights from those countries. Many of the local spas, traditional inns, restaurants and tourist attractions are in deep economic trouble, billions of incoming yen having been lost, and the situation is expected to get much worse as the pandemic spreads.
Can you give me an example of something you do to improve the world of your community?
I`ve taught many years in the social welfare department at the prefectural university and am currently working with neglected and abused kids, having been teaching them weekly for years now. I also do a lot of gardening and I am promoting organic gardening in a naturalistic landscape by hosting open gardens, speaking at prefectural garden-related activities, et cetera. I firmly believe that gardening – growing and tending things and getting good healthy exercise in the sun, wind and rain – can really help those who struggle in other ways. I also strive to incorporate the value of understanding different cultural perspectives into my classrooms as I believe this is the key to thriving diversity and tolerance. I am always trying to be a good example in my community, volunteering whenever possible for various activities, often focused on kids. In addition I make extra efforts to be an active member of my neighborhood, cleaning up trash, sharing garden produce and bread, and generally taking care of my older neighbors. For me, playing an active role in improving community strengths and bonds is most important.
Is there anything else you would like to ask or tell me?
I do not think large urban environments are healthy, mentally or physically. I would like to see a return to modern forms of sustainable farming. There is a lot of beautiful former farmland in Japan that is no longer being used by the aging and urbanizing population. Currently Japan only produces about 30% of its food and most farmers are older. It is an amazing place to grow things due to the climate and rich soils but most young people here are not interested in becoming farmers. But! The Tohoku tsunami and nuclear disaster has seemed to spark an awakening, causing an increased interest in agriculture, with a substantial number of young educated urbanites I-turning to live in the countryside, starting up small businesses especially in organic and niche farming, for example shiitake mushrooms here in Oita, which they sell locally or integrate into well-designed products to sell online. There are increasing U turns as well, as people are realizing living in a big city has lost its shine and head back to the countryside where they grew up. Buy Local is gaining momentum, and there is no country like Japan for using the freshest vegetables to create culinary masterpieces admired the world over, so I hope this trend with respect for nature and the efforts farmers put in to provide food continues. Science education is really great here and there is a lot of potential to see this strength applied to developing a healthier agricultural lifestyle away from crowded urban environments. I assume those left alive in big cities when this Covid-19 pandemic calms down will also be seriously rethinking the attractions of urban living.
As a teacher who interacts with students from both America and Japan I can tell you that most young Americans are really poorly educated in comparison to their Japanese counterparts, especially in math and sciences. In America the educational focus seems to be on debate and group work, which can be stimulating and thought provocative, but the understanding of supporting facts is often shallow and thus substance is all-too-often lacking. People value defending their opinion more than listening to others and learning, and have a false sense of superiority. People seem to want to take sides, which is difficult with complex issues. There is too much value placed on winning and being right, and not enough on deeper comprehension. I do see the value of being able to debate and influence others but doing so without any factual basis or deep thought seems petty at best and dangerous at worst, and doing so believing that only you can be right is even more so. A real time example of the dangers of this type of thinking in America is that groups of people refused to be aware of the coming pandemic, denying it despite the accumulating data, because it was couched as a political problem due to a strong top-down propaganda system America currently struggles under. And when trying to warn this group of people the dangers, I realized that many of them neither understand basic logarithms nor virus replication, which is quite illustrative about the level of math and science education. And now many may die because of the delays caused by this willful ignorance. I sometimes feel Americans have forgotten how to take a hard look within. A good percentage of Americans don’t have enough savings to survive for a month – I think somewhere around 40%. The propaganda system is so strong that many Americans think America is the still #1 despite survey after survey showing they are far behind in education, have poor health, high infant mortality, high rates of suicide, drug abuse…. the list goes on and on. Economic disparity! In the wealthiest country in the world a shockingly large percentage of Americans live in pretty dire poverty, as shown by food insecurity data. This is becoming strikingly clear as the unemployment skyrockets due to pandemic layoffs. I am still a patriot and still love my home country. Let me repeat that since I feel I have been quite critical in this interview and you may be doubting that. I love America and know that most Americans are hard working thoughtful people that want to help others, but the people of the United States need to look within themselves and look around at others and figure out how to fix this mess together. And it’s going to be hard work. Really hard work.
I also have a question for you, if you allow. What inspired you to leave the corporate world and do something that fed your soul?
I’ve spent most of my life in America and also love the USA. I am American and my answer was immediate. Much of this response is in my intro on this website. A sibling and close friends died young, never having the chance to live a full life. I watched my father’s heart broken after dedicating his life to a corporation only to be deemed replaceable by younger, cheaper workers. Plans with my father never materializing before cancer took him because we both got so caught up in work. It seems ironic now because we both said we were not going to be letting the lyrics of the Harry Chapin song “Cat’ in the Cradle” play out in our lives. Certainly all of this played a role in my willingness to accept the risks associated with sailing, but that really did not answer Ari’s question. Hmmmm.
After a few more days of reflection I have come up with a better answer. Probably not the final answer because thoughts should always evolve. I want to try and do some good with my remaining years on the planet and I too think that one of the most important things is to try and improve your community.
I’ve experienced a bit of the world and lived in Colorado, Utah, Michigan, Maine and California. I view the world as my community and the USA as my home. In the States people often made comments when I was about to explore and learn more about the world. People ask if I am worried about the dangers or state that people are going to do this to you there. I do take care but feel I should note that the only place I’ve ever been mugged is in a city in the US. When I was in Honduras during their coup, the locals fretted over me and took care of me. In Egypt, weeks before the Arab Spring, fathers were out playing soccer with their daughters in the square. Moms wearing burkas were encouraging their daughters to talk with me in English. I was invited to weddings and into peoples homes for dinner. Fields of school children surrounded me, eager to practice their language skills. Those Egyptians laughed easily and were eager to show me that an important aspect of their culture was helping others.
In Mexico, when families saw us camping on the beach, they invited us into their homes, cooked for us and tried to give us gifts, even though they had little to give. The world is not at all like you hear on TV. In general, the people of the world seem to want the same thing, a simple happy life with their families. I’m not some coo coo liberal and I believe all countries should have propaganda systems. All peoples should feel their country is the best, but to be unaware of the influence of these propaganda systems on your thoughts and behaviors seems unwise.
Yes, I believe we are all one people and I also believe the scientific research which suggests that the climate is changing due to a natural cycle and man’s activities. I feel human activities are the major driver. However, climate change seems like a distant concern during the current pandemic. I am fretting about many other things. Will the EU remain intact? How is the pandemic impacting developing countries with poor healthcare systems? What is going to happen to America with so many folks out of work? In three months will people be able to afford food? What is going to happen when mortgages start to default? I’ve never really bought into trickle down economics (If that really worked the middle class wouldn’t be disappearing and the income inequality growing.) Are the super wealthy going to snatch up hundreds of thousands of foreclosed properties and become super wealthier, forever ending the long time American dream of owning land and a home?
There is plenty of evidence for something much less black. I hear reports of baby chickens, yeast, flour, vegetable starts and gardening supplies being sold out in stores as people consider a more simple, frugal, self-sufficient life. I see people giving online web tutorials on home gardening, canning, building raised beds and raising chickens. Worldwide pollution levels have also rapidly declined. People are posting pictures of grey skies that are now blue. There are satellite images of cities with dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emission levels. This provides proof that as a society we can quickly make the changes required to make all of our communities better, healthier places.
The most important question bouncing around in my head is what type of turn are we going to make. Will it be a U-turn? Or will a large portion of society decide to take a once well worn path that is currently the road less traveled? We will make an “I-turn”. Billy, in my previous interview noted that people seem increasingly aware of the difference individual contributions can make. Hmmm. Which direction will I turn?