Bell: The equalizing force of culture in rural Japan |

Bell: The equalizing force of culture in rural Japan

Timbah Bell
Beauty Noted

Each day, my students arrive at junior high school in uniform — they’ve got two. Most days they’re wearing a blue tracksuit with a simple red line down the side. For days with celebrations or exams, they have a navy-blue, formal suit to add to the occasion.

I’m fully convinced by the benefits: no time wasted fiddling with one’s wardrobe, a lack of ego tied up in clothing choices, and most excitingly, building a foundation of equality in the classroom.

This equality is on display with people of all ages in Shimukappu and is the result of intentionally-crafted cultural values instilled in the youngest community members. When I first arrived in town, I was struck by the apparent lack of socioeconomic inequality. Granted, some houses are bigger than others, and today there is a Lexus parked alongside economy sedans at the town hall; but visible signs of affluence and poverty are hard to find.

This is partly because of the ruralness. However, I’ve come to see the cultural value placed on modesty as the most significant contributor. Working in tandem with modesty is the fact that a comfortable standard of living is impressively accessible. My work in the schools gives me a close look at the premium placed on equality and how students are mentored in the chosen cultural values. 

Lunchtime, like uniforms, is another mechanism of social leveling. The $2 price tag makes it impossible for anyone to take issue with the cost. Students are rarely allowed to bring food from home, and 100% of the teachers and administrators eat the school lunch.

While your mental image of Japanese cuisine might be of high-end sushi, the quality of the food more closely resembles U.S. public-school lunches, just with an abundance of mussels, octopus, and marinated mackerel. With that said, the quality of the food has no relationship to the values practiced during the meal. 

For one, students are mentored in the importance of not wasting food when the cafeteria worker auctions off leftovers after everyone has been served. It feels more like the gamified food environment I have backpacking with friends than any experience I’ve ever had in a public setting. And as a result, I’ve never seen a meal in the front country with less food waste.

In addition, teachers guide students in gratitude by starting and ending with a non-religious blessing to honor where the food came from and appreciate everyone who made the meal possible.

Last is the dishwashing and painstaking recycling. All of this teaches the students meticulous attention to detail and makes lunch a shared community experience with a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

Equality is also reinforced throughout the day in class. In contrast to all of my previous teaching experience, students are not given the chance to voluntarily answer a teacher’s question by raising their hand. Teachers dictate the terms of who will speak by using games of chance or methodically rotating through every student in the class.

These predictable formats put the focus on everyone speaking for the same amount of time. The methods are consistent, and I sense quite comforting to students. With a consistency that can be relied upon, these values continue to be reinforced by the town for the benefit of all adults in Shimukappu. 

I feel the equalizing forces most clearly at the onsen, or local hot spring. Yunosawa onsen is in the forest on the edge of town and is owned by the community and managed by a for-profit contractor. Still, the entrance fee for locals is under $2.50. This commitment to keeping the town’s bathing and relaxation facility so inexpensive means that almost everyone can find the money for relaxing there.

It’s remarkable to see such a different business model than what I’m used to — the sustainable profit margin disregards my prior understanding of capitalism. The result is a place where everyone gathers on equal footing and feels a sense of belonging and maybe even ownership. 

Modesty, inclusivity, and accessibility are on display everywhere I look in Shimukappu. The interplay of these creates equalizing cultural forces that I appreciate a little more every day. They contribute to my new home feeling exceedingly foreign in the best possible way.

Timbah Bell is an English teacher in Shimukappu, Japan, where he works as part of a longstanding partnership with Aspen Sister Cities. You can find this column read aloud and photos from his adventure so far on Instagram @beauty_noted; email him at