There’s a lot more to the Ohtaki/Date City, Japan, twinning with the Town of Lake Cowichan than students travelling back and forth for brief visits.
A number of local teachers have spent a full year in Japan, beginning with Margaret Davis and her family, in 1989.
The Japanese twinning began in 1988, Davis said, when the local Stanley Gordon School played host to four kids and some adult delegates for four days.
“None of us in Lake Cowichan knew anything about Japan,” Davis said, adding that they lacked so much knowledge about their Japanese friends that they were unsure as to whether or not they should offer the adults alcoholic beverages.
“When they left after the four days, we were all in tears,” Davis said. “We’d just made this incredible connection even though we could not communicate.”
This initial visit was such a success that it continued the following year, with eight Lake Cowichan students and various delegates travelling to Ohtaki; a group that included Davis, who was teaching Grade 6 at the time.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” she said. “The hospitality was more than I’ve experienced anywhere else. We were treated like movie stars.”
Later that year, when Ohtaki began seeking teachers to teach their students the English language, Davis jumped at the chance, bringing along her family to Japan in June of 1989.
The Ohtaki of 1989 was a bit different from the Ohtaki of today, she said.
Since it is part of northern Japan, there has been less contact with the western world, so the Canadian family was treated like a novelty.
The education system was also a unique challenge, as Davis taught English to Japanese students without knowing any Japanese herself.
“I taught them songs, games, and I had flash cards, and taught them how to count to 10,” she said.
“The kids were very responsive, and intent on learning English. They were certainly taught to respect their elders, and to make foreigners feel welcome.”
One interesting cultural difference between Japan and Canada is with regard to their discipline.
Whereas Canadians discipline their children young, with children becoming more and more free over time, in Japanese culture, the young children are encouraged to run wild, and are made more disciplined over time.
“It’s a culture where you want them to fit in,” she said.
In addition to teaching English to students, Davis had two kids go through the Japanese education system for the year, including her high school-aged son Simon and day care-aged daughter Sarah.
For Sarah, things were the easiest.
“She had Japanese better than anything else,” Davis said. “She learned to read and write Japanese before any of us.”
Simon was a somewhat different story.
Because he didn’t know Japanese, the course work he was able to participate in was limited, though he participated in whatever he could.
“After a few months, he could get by,” Davis said.
After several different local families’ trips to Japan for a year, Lake Cowichan Secondary School teacher Craig New and his family decided to make the trip.
What made the New family’s trip to Japan unique from the others is that New’s wife gave birth to their son, Derek, while in Japan.
“Hospitals there were a different situation,” New said.
The medical care was good, New added, with his wife required to spend 10 days in the hospital following the birth. That said, technology at the hospital was limited.
Overall, much like the Davis family, New said that his family’s experiences in Japan were overwhelmingly positive.
In Japan, one of his children’s orange hair was constantly being touched, as it was considered quite unique.
“They were just a novelty,” he said.
As for the education system, New said that, although Japanese students spend more hours per year in the classroom, they’re not all academically-orientated.
With special events always on the go, he said that the actual classroom time is comparable to that in Canada.
Culture shock “wasn’t much of a shock,” he said, because he went to Japan expecting it.
The real shock was coming back home.
“You spend a year as celebrities, and to come back, you’re nobody,” he said.
Local area teachers’ annual trip to Ohtaki continues to this day, Davis said, though for the past few years teachers from the Duncan area have been thrown into the mix.