Valerie Landers is easily one of the most memorable people I have met in Japan.
As a six-foot, bold and outspoken African American woman with dreadlocks, she provides a stark contrast from the homogeneity of the Gunma countryside. And she always has something to say, be it nonsensical or heartfelt.
Last week, I traveled out to Tomioka, Gunma to sit down and pick her brain on what it means to be such an iconoclast. We discussed the sights of Gunma, life among other anglophones, being black in Japan, and how expectations work out (or don’t)
Come sit down and hear her what she has to say!
If you had to give an elevator pitch for yourself, what do you think you would say?
I don’t know if it’s a good pitch, but I am a “Goose-Mouse-Princess.” A goose because I’m ridiculous, a mouse because I am small and scared a lot but still try anyways, and a princess because I pretty much think of myself as a princess in my own world. And part of that ties into being rescued because I am as scared as a mouse.
Perhaps a strange combination, but I find it works for me.
Then I have to ask, where did you rule before you came to Tomioka?
Before coming here, I ruled in the DMV, which means D.C.-Maryland-Virginia for any non-locals. I generally tell people that I am from D.C. because most people haven’t heard of Prince George’s County, the suburban Maryland area where I grew up.
But now I’m in Tomioka, Gunma, the best town in the best prefecture in all of Japan. It’s definitely underrated, but since August 2016 I have been working to put it on the map.
So was Gunma on your radar when you first applied to the JET Program?
I have to admit that when I first got my placement, I had to look it up. Even as a Japanese major, I had never heard of this place. Now I know though, and I want everyone else to know where Gunma is!
If people ever ask me, I just tell them “Smack dab in the middle of Japan.”
I actually was unaware that you had studied Japanese in college. What was that like?
My majors were Japanese and Linguistics, but you wouldn’t know it because I barely speak Japanese, though I do try very hard to speak it when I do! I don’t want all my studies to go to waste!
I have always really liked learning languages. Not necessarily learning them to communicate, but learning their mechanics is really fun. During university, Japanese was just the next language on my list, so I decided to dig into it.
My Japanese wasn’t all that great, so I thought I would never be able to use it again after college, be it using the language or coming to Japan or something. But then I heard about JET, I applied, and made it in!
You said that Japanese was “next on the list.” What preceded it?
Well French was my first “second language” in high school, and after that I studied Spanish independently. In my first year of college I took Modern Greek which was a lot of fun, but now I can’t say anything in it besides the standard “hello, thank you, where’s the bathroom?” type stuff.
Then as college continued I eventually took Japanese and I also took on Spanish as my minor so I could finally study it in a more formal way.
I’m actually a little salty about that because my grandparents spoke Spanish, but it was never something that I was immersed in while growing up. So I was a little bitter that I had to pay to learn the language, but it was still a great experience!
Besides those languages I have many more on my Duolingo list, that up until now I have only had a chance to dabble in.
So it’s safe to say that you have learned a fair amount of languages. I also know that you have a bit of the travel bug. Where have you been in Japan over the last couple years?
Well Gunma is the best, so I have done the most travel of all here. As for prefectures outside of Gunma I have been to Okinawa, Shiga, Kyoto, Tokyo, Yamanashi, Yokohama, Saitama, Nagano, Kanazawa, and Tochigi.
I’d like to go to more, but I kind of play it by ear when it comes to travel in Japan.
Well it doesn’t appear that it was all in Gunma.
Well no, but it really has mostly been in Gunma. There is so much to do here! I even have a whole list of things I want to do/have done!
What are the Top Five things on that list?
Oh that’s a hard to decide, but I’ll give it a shot. This isn’t in any particular order, but these are some of my favorites.
- Lockheart Castle – Everyone always hears me tell this story. This Japanese guy basically saw a Scottish castle and said, “I want that.” So he bought it and then they broke it down, shipped it across Russia brick by brick, and then reconstructed it here in Gunma. It’s a beautiful castle, it has a giant Santa Claus collection, and it’s the perfect place to feel like the princess I think I am.
- Mt. Myogi – A beautifully jagged mountain near Tomioka and the view from the top is incredible. It’s also so much fun to drive on, not that I drive dangerously on it! It’s all safe and legal, but it’s still a blast to drive down.
- Mt. Haruna – It’s a dormant volcano, so it’s still alive, which is super cool. There’s a beautiful lake there too, and it was actually the first mountain I climbed after I came to Japan so there’s definitely some sentimental value there too.
- Shikishima Koen – It’s a big rose garden in Maebashi, a gorgeous place to be. I highly recommend visiting in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.
- Kusatsu – If you know anything about onsen then you have heard about Kusatsu, and this place is probably at the top of your to-go list. I think I’ll leave it at that since the place speaks for itself.
Wow, so you’ve definitely done your research on Gunma’s sights! What kind of places do you want to see outside of Gunma?
I want to go back to Kanazawa, and I also have a friend living in Fukui, so I would love to visit her. They also have the Dinosaur Park there, so I really want to go visit that since I love dinosaurs. Hyogo is also on the list to finally see Himeji Castle, as is Hiroshima.
The Nara-Kyoto-Osaka triangle also sounds like a really fun experience, and so does Fukuoka to visit another friend and try some of the famous ramen I have heard about from her. I’d also like to go to Okoyama and to visit Shirakawago, which is famous for its thatched roofs.
Those are the major ones in Japan at least.
And what about outside of Japan?
Outside I especially want to go to Thailand as well as Vietnam and Singapore. Maybe I would like to just do a road trip through all the countries but I’m not sure. I’m not ballin’ like that quite yet.
At the very least those three, especially to visit my friend Jiasui. She’s from Singapore and she used to teach here in Tomioka, so it would be great to see her again.
Well I hope you can make that into a reality. I’m sure you two will have a lot to talk about!
Oh definitely. We’ve had a lot of great times together in Tomioka, and I would love to have some great ones in Singapore!
Sounds like you have made a lot of great memories here. Which ones have you found to be the most meaningful to you? What has made it all worth it?
It feels like a cop-out answer, but my students are definitely #1. Just working with this phenomenal group of kids has been such a privilege, and the same goes for my coworkers. The teams of teachers I have worked with have been fantastic, and they have really helped me grow as a teacher and a person.
And working here in Tomioka with the other JETs feels a lot like a team too. I teach high school and the rest teach elementary or middle school, so we have a real team dynamic when it comes to teaching each other’s mutual students.
Surprisingly, my interactions with anglophones from other countries has also been super meaningful to me. I certainly wasn’t expecting this at first, but I had never had friends from places like New Zealand, Australia, or the UK. Listening to their points of view has expanded my own.
To put it not-so-eloquently, living here has reinforced that not everyone knows the same stuff. And the person-to-person connections are what have made me realize that the most.
Since the person-to-person connections have been so meaningful, what have you found works to create or develop them? I’m sure it can be tough when you’re a foreigner.
One very simple rule: Just say yes!
I didn’t come here to stay the same, and the key to that is always trying new things. Obviously you can say no sometimes, but being open to trying anything and everything has really been an especially wonderful way to make friends.
Of course just going out to bars or more local events can be good for that. The other Tomioka JETs and I are regulars here at Chakichi, and because of that we are now friends with the owner and we really feel at home here.
Nice to see that you have not let the barriers stop you! But I doubt it has been smooth sailing the whole time. What kind of challenges have you faced as you have lived here?
Well being an East Coast black American woman, the culture shock has really been the biggest challenge so far. But not from the Japanese, but the other foreigners here, which I know sounds really strange.
My area back home in Maryland is majority black, so I’m really used to that sub-culture. The difficulty of explaining and unpacking the subtleties of how this community works to other anglophones has been something I really didn’t expect. It certainly shouldn’t be expected for everyone to know it, and I do keep that in mind, but sometimes explaining certain aspects of my culture can be frustrating and a little exhausting.
I don’t mind so much if someone’s attitude is one of curiosity, which it usually is, but every so often there’s an air of condescension to their questions. On those rare occasions it feels like there is a bit of a foreigner hierarchy, which can be tough to wrestle with.
When I came here I didn’t expect to have some arguments or discussions like back home, such as those concerning race or other social issues. A good example of this that I have found is a sort-of pushback that I may find from other foreigners. We will be talking about something race-related, but then the other person, usually a guy, will give off a vibe that he is questioning my authority to address the topic or answer a certain question.
With Japanese people I don’t get that nearly as much, perhaps because they have less of a frame of reference, but once in a blue moon I will get some pushback from foreigners, which can admitedly grate on my nerves a bit. If anything, when I speak with Japanese people, their default assumption is that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to life in America.
But I’m also happy to have these challenges in front of me, because I think that having those kinds of tough conversations is something that we are lacking back home in America. It’s really been eye-opening, and some of the viewpoints I have heard have really helped me to scrutinize and improve myself.
Like I said earlier, I’m learning that there are other ways to view the world as I live here.
That’s really the best thing about travel. You can meet people from all over the world and hear a million different ways to view it.
Yeah it’s really been a fun game to see how my expectations have been played with while I have been here.
I actually wanted to ask you about that. In what ways have your expectations been subverted or exceeded here and what has been completely unexpected?
Oh that’s a tough one, but I’ll give it a shot.
- Subversion – For me the whole punctuality thing has been the most surprising. Outside of Japan you hear all about how trains are always on time and people start work, meetings, etc. right on the dot. However, I seem to have made friends with many Japanese people who are not as prompt as they could be, and I have experienced many delayed trains and meetings here. This definitely makes me feel a little better since I am not as prompt as I could be, and this has been a great way to connect with new people.
- Exceeded – The nature of Gunma has really blown away my expectations. Back home I took all of the parks and mountains around me for granted, but since coming here I have climbed many mountains, walked through parks, and come to love nature in a very special way. Now when I go back home, I’ll definitely check out the National Parks!
- Unexpected – Honestly I had no idea how much I would care about my students. I don’t even know all of their names, but I would take a bullet for them in a heartbeat. Even though I’m just teaching them English, which can only go so far, I still feel responsible for helping prepare these kids for everything else about adulthood. I think a big part of that is because I teach high school, but regardless I really want to do the best I can for these kids.
It’s always nice to see how your plans and expectations can be played with, and it sounds like yours have been too. Do you feel that where you were before Japan factored into your expectations?
Where I was, personally, before coming here is such a stark difference from where I am now. Before, I didn’t have much ambition career-wise and I was very involved with church and volunteering in the community, but now it’s so different.
I’m also single for the first time in a very long time, and the world is so different from 12 years ago that finding my footing in that way has been a unique challenge. However the same values are still informing who I am, and I do my best everyday to remain true to them.
Now for the Last Word: What does the future hold for you?
I really love it here in Gunma, so I would like to stay here a bit longer. Whether or not that happens with JET or maybe some other form of work remains to be seen though. There isn’t anywhere else I would like to be in Japan.
I want to become the best teacher I can possibly be for my kids, so I am thinking of going for my CELTA so I can teach my kids more effectively. And alongside that goes studying more languages, be it Japanese or some other ones.
Simply put, I just want to keep learning languages, traveling to new places, and keep making connections with people. I know that sounds vague, but beyond that I’m really not sure.
I’ll just figure it out when I get there!
I’m not sure that anybody absolutely knows how to live their best life, but if anybody does figure it our I’m sure it will be Valerie.
Be it sassy commentary, heartfelt conversations, or learning through broken Japanese she will always be there to make the most of each connection she has.
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Song of the Week
“My Shot” performed by Lin Manuel Miranda in Hamilton
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!