ADRIAN, Mich. – Teacher by day, construction worker by night, for Donald Ball his tour of Japan has been a rewarding and continued extension of his passion for a richly rooted culture. Ball joined a team of Assistant Language Teachers in the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program following his graduation from Adrian College in spring 2011. The grueling process included multiple document submissions and interviews to distinguish his fit in the exclusive program.
“I’ve been interested in Japanese culture for most of my life, so it seemed only natural that I’d try to find ways of getting here,” said Donald Ball via email. “When I first heard of the JET Program, as a freshman [at Adrian College], I knew I wanted to apply.”
For Ball, his return to the U.S.A., after studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata City, Osaka, was a starting point for his journey back to the country he was so fascinated by.
“I knew I had to find a way to come back,” Ball notes.
On January 25th, 2011, Ball interviewed at the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit for his spot in the JET Program. By mid-April, just before his graduation from Adrian, he learned of his status as an alternate. This meant his participation was contingent on another applicant opting out. The process was further delayed when the massive earthquake and tsunami slammed the Touhoku region on March 11th, 2011.
In September 2011, Ball would learn of his upgrade on the roster, the beginning of a new journey. On October 18th, he would leave his hometown of Piqua, Ohio for Miyagi Prefecture. His schools would be located in Onagawa Town, about an hour, by train and bus, from his home setting of Ishinomaki City. For Ball, the most interesting aspect of his location is that both cities are along the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, which was heavily damaged by the tsunami.
His experiences move from classroom instruction, to student interaction and cultural exploration. His knowledge and passion for both his native country and the one in which he has surrounded himself in, make him a strong complement to a distinctive teaching experience. While his journey took a great length of time and dedication, Ball has no immediate plans to return to the Midwestern region of the US. When asked how long he intended to stay, Ball’s response was candid.
“Right now, I have to say indefinitely. The maximum amount of time you can spend with the JET Program is five years, but I can see myself staying here much longer.”
Perhaps it is the extension of Ball’s experiences beyond the classroom walls that captivates him to this culture.
“I have done a bit volunteer work for Onagawa. Another ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) and I built a haunted house for about 200 elementary school students. We started shortly after I arrived in Japan, and finished in late November.”
The endeavor consumed over 200 hours between the two volunteers. Ball and his partner would commence after the end of classes and conclude around 8:30 PM each night for over a month. The two would devote their weekends to working on the project, coming to Onagawa early in the morning and leaving around 8:00 or 9:00 PM.
Their efforts would be well worth the labor. In early November many of their students would come through, multiple times expressing their excitement and occasional fears of the entertaining attraction.
“Members of the U.S. Navy came and helped out; they assisted with guiding the students through the haunted house and added to the excitement of the occasion. The students, their parents, and the teachers enjoyed seeing them.”
Ball’s enthusiasm for the program and his impact on the students he teaches is evident. His ties to both the mission of the exchange, and his passion for the culture continue to be noted in his daily experiences. For Ball, it is more than just being a teacher, he continues to be a student, learning more than he imagined in his tour of Japan.
“I think one Japanese word, 絆 (kizuna), sums up nearly everything that I’ve learned about Japanese society,” Ball reflects. “ Kizuna means ‘bonds.’ The Japanese people are very close-knit, and I think their group-mindedness has helped them overcome the difficult times that they have faced over the last year.”
The difficulties Ball references have played out in televisions across the country. Ball notes that the rebuilding efforts in Onagawa Town have been limited.
“Onagawa Town is still in the process of cleaning up the wreckage. About 80% of the town was destroyed, so there was, and still is, a lot of work to do.”
He goes on to note that part of the delay is the collection of debris, which has to be stored; consuming what was already scarce building space. Once it is sorted, it’s hauled away to be processed at various facilities. Ball expresses that a very limited amount of debris has been processed to date.
By comparison, about 45% of Ishinomaki City was inundated by the tsunami.
“When I first arrived, many of the shops in the downtown shopping/ business district were boarded up, as were many of the side streets. Now, about 60% of them are open, or they are in the process of reopening,” said Ball. “It’s good to see the people of this region getting back on their feet again. “
Ball is open about the influences his experience in the culture has given him.
“The Japanese are very giving, even in a time when they’ve lost their homes, family members, and their livelihoods. Their selflessness inspires me to be a more giving person,” Ball says.
“In the near future, I’d like to do more volunteer work, and I’d like to raise money for this region’s recovery. There is still an enormous amount of work to do, but I’m confident that the people of the Touhoku region will work tirelessly to get back their towns and businesses.”
There is very little doubt that Donald Ball will be among them in these efforts.
To see more photos from Ball’s tour, please visit his flikr account online: http://www.flickr.com/photos/76237888@N02. To view additional photos of the disaster, Ball suggests the website of another ALT who was working in Onagawa on March 11, 2011. http://onagawaishinomakitsunami.com/