Timbah Bell: Learning from the quietness
Peace and harmony in Shimukappu highlight the value of turning down the volume on life
Studying Japanese is easier on some days than on others. It’s been a series of language-learning stutter steps since arriving in Shimukappu. Every week or so, I get a fresh burst of energy when I find a new language instruction method that works better than the last.
I didn’t expect learning Japanese to be straightforward. If anything, this slow start was my expectation. The challenge feels right, full of requests for me to step up my tenacity and practice humility. It also reminds me of the playfulness I need to bring to teaching English to keep my students inspired as learners. I bring it up because my language study is a microcosm of how wonderfully destabilizing it has been to make home here.
Each day in my new home, I am confronted by the chasm that separates the cultural norms of Shimukappu residents and folks in the U.S.
Take a step into my shoes: Every Thursday evening, as many as 15 people gather at the junior high to play basketball. On the court, you’ll find a 10-year-old, a mother of two, a woman with a physical disability, a handful of impressively talented players and a motley assortment of other basketball enthusiasts. (I’m one of the latter, for the record.) The game proceeds according to the highest standards of sportsmanship.
No one keeps track of stats, but if they did, I think this would be the most equitable game of basketball possible. Every other person plays as hard as is appropriate for the skill level of the person covering them while a digital game clock keeps track of time and score. The game is simultaneously competitive, comforting and a little disorienting. It’s precisely the sportsmanship that my elementary school gym teacher hoped we would learn in second grade, but it is radically unlike any pickup basketball I have ever played before.
My outer circumstances have changed; however, I believe that the shift in my internal landscape is more significant. This shift has helped me see how rarely I appreciate differences as inherently valuable. Several books on etiquette and culture introduced me to the concept of wa (和) while I was preparing to move. Wa is translated as peace and harmony, and is a term emphasized by Japanophiles (foreigners who love Japan) to understand and discuss the community awareness that is commonly noted as a central value in Japanese society.
Wa literally turned down the volume in my life from the day I arrived in Tokyo in November. This quietness gave space for looking closely at experiences that I usually unconsciously shy away from. The volume in busy Japanese public spaces is a fraction of what I am used to. My time in Tokyo was just the beginning of getting to know my new state of mind. Then I came north to Hokkaido, an island the size of Maine.
The clouds in Shimukappu stunned me, and their beauty clued me into the nature of the situation. I don’t think they are significantly different from clouds in Aspen, but the setting is conducive to appreciating their uniqueness because I can’t even find the volume knob here. It’s tremendously quiet and distraction-free in this rural town of 1,306 people. And the locals practice living in harmony to an extent that was previously inconceivable to me. Is this an intentional technique for heightening senses and being more connected to one’s bodily experience? I don’t know, but it has that effect on me.
I spend my time between the town’s schools and Town Hall. Here, it’s typical for a town employee or teacher to stay in a single position for just a few years. Teachers transfer to another city or town in Hokkaido; town officials transition to another department in the Shimukappu town hall.
This approach cultivates an egalitarian spirit. Friends say it means that they’re never in a position they don’t like for too long, and it develops camaraderie as the school communities and town hall offices get fresh members every time someone rotates out. It certainly creates extra work for managers when they predictably lose every senior member of their department and need to train newcomers regularly.
In stark contrast to all designs I have seen before, it keeps individuals’ egos small and reminds every member of the community that they are replaceable. This society-wide decision to minimize the significance of the individual and live quietly enough to experience the benefits is a difference worth noting.
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 the adventure so far on Instagram @beauty_noted; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.