Journey to Japan

bajan in-01A love for adventure and an opportunity to see the vast world beyond Barbados’ shores prompted Carlene Cadogan to journey to Japan in 2011.

She made the 13,968-kilometre trip as part of a teaching exchange programme offered through the Japanese Embassy. It is a government-run initiative through which teachers from all over the world are recruited to not only teach English but also teach students about the culture in their countries.

Carlene arrived in the Fukushima prefecture of Japan a mere five months after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated an area only a few hours away from where she would be staying. Because of the extensive media coverage abroad of the impact of the earthquake, a part of her wondered if she was going to be staying in a tent. But she soon came to realize just how large the prefecture was.

In traditional Japanese dress for a graduation.
In traditional Japanese dress for a graduation.

About a year after, Carlene visited the earthquake and tsunami-hit area.

“I went to the coast, and where houses used to be is just grass. And the big pylons that are usually out to sea were just laying there inland. It was quite eerie,” she recalls.

Despite that, Carlene says she doesn’t have a fear of earthquakes, even after feeling numerous quakes during her five years in Japan. She referenced the tremor in Barbados that had Bajans scrambling in 2007 and said that would be considered a very weak earthquake in Japan.

“After the big earthquake in 2011, every quake after that for a year was considered an aftershock and there were some strong ones for a few months. If the locals ran, I ran. They were my gauge. Then over time I just got really used to earthquakes, but now they have settled down.”

She does, however, remember experiencing her first major earthquake.

“I was at the dentist,” she said with a laugh. “It was about three years ago and it was a 7.9 [on the Richter scale]. Everything started shaking and people still carried on because if it is under 4 it isn’t considered an earthquake. But it kept going and getting stronger so everyone went outside. The cars in the carpark were shifting out of position and the street lights were twisting!”

Thankfully, she has not experienced anything close to the disastrous 2011 quake.

Carlene describes her teaching experience so far as eye-opening. She initially went to Japan with the stereotype that all Asians are extremely studious, but says now that while this is the case for some students, there are still some who break the rules or seem to have no interest in school.

The school day starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m., after which students would go to after-school clubs. Following that, they would head to what is termed a “cram school” where they would work for another two or three hours before heading home.

“Students will go to school every day; even on Sundays. It is not uncommon to see a child in uniform a Sunday at 9 in the night,” Carlene said.

Carlene posing with some of her students.
Carlene posing with some of her students.
Carlene dressed up as a samurai during a study tour.
Carlene dressed up as a samurai during a study tour.

She has had the opportunity to teach at schools at every level. She has also taught special needs students, adults in night classes, and at hospital schools where classes are offered to sick children.

Carlene describes the experience as a rather rewarding one.

“It is something I truly enjoy doing. It isn’t something I intended to do. I stumbled on to it and I really enjoy it.”

The cleanliness of Japan was a big shock to her but she notes the culture of cleanliness is one that starts from the schools.

“At some schools in Japan there are no janitors. After school, the entire student body cleans the school from top to bottom – classrooms, bathrooms and teachers’ rooms. So you will not see trash on the ground because it is counterproductive, as they have to clean it,” she explains.

According to Carlene, that extends to Japan generally. She said the country is spotless despite there being few trash cans, as people will hold whatever trash they have until they find a bin.

Another shock she faced was the teaching system. She came from Barbados where she was accustomed to three terms of teaching and three different periods of vacation. That is not the case in Japan. Teachers work every day. There is no such thing as a summer vacation.

“You get about a week off at Christmas and maybe a week off in the summer, but other than that you’re at school every day. There are days off that you can take but teachers are usually too busy to take them. Most teachers get 40 days a year that you can take, including both vacation and sick days,” Carlene said.

Carlene recalls a teacher wanting to take summer vacation and before making her plans she asked all her colleagues on her level if they could cover for her.

Not only do teachers work in the classrooms but most are assigned to an after-school club. With this comes attending every practice and every event the students have. Sometimes these events happen outside the prefecture resulting in long trips for both teachers and students.

The hectic work life does not prevent Carlene from taking time out to travel, however. With Japan being a major transport hub, she has taken the opportunity to visit other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa.

“I’ve been to South Korea twice, Thailand twice, Malaysia, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Egypt,” she said.

Taking a ride on a camel by the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt.
Taking a ride on a camel by the Pyramids at Giza in Egypt.
A fun skiing trip with friends at the Inawashiro Ski Resort in Fukushima.
A fun skiing trip with friends at the Inawashiro Ski Resort in Fukushima.

But even with all her extensive travelling, she still misses home. What does she miss most?

“Mapps!” she said without hesitation, referring to the popular Eagle Hall food establishment.

She also misses being able to go to the beach anytime and not having to travel long distances to get there.

Carlene describes Japan as a very friendly place, where the locals are always willing to help. She says they are so helpful to foreigners at times it could become excessive. But she quickly adds that she appreciates the fact that they are willing to assist at any time.

Carlene has one more year left in Japan and says she will miss it when she leaves. The experiences gained from both work and travel are ones that will not soon be forgotten.

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