Jamaican couple keeping culture alive in Japan
Jamaicans Candice Johnson-Rowe and Marvin Rowe have called the high-rise and fast-paced country, Japan, their home for more than 10 years.
It was Johnson-Rowe who first made the 8,035-mile journey away from her birthplace in Yallahs, St Thomas, in March 2009.
A graduate of the University of Technology, Jamaica, Johnson-Rowe began working as an insurance agent after leaving school, a job she enjoyed for only a few months before clients started defaulting on their policies, which affected her partly commission-based salary.
As a result, she began job hunting, but to no avail and decided to give in to the encouragement of her lecturer in Basic Japanese, who had been appealing to her since graduation to apply to teach English in Japan.
Johnson-Rowe was successful on her second attempt but had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that she would be leaving her family, friends, boyfriend and church family behind.
She left Jamaica with her life in two suitcases and a promise to return after a year or so. However, love pulled her back home in a couple months and she tied the knot.
Johnson-Rowe admitted that the university course did not prepare her for living in the East Asian country.
“It was difficult at first, especially with the cultural and language barriers. The Japanese culture is unique and it’s not something I’d ever experienced in all my travelling,” she recalled, adding Japan is a fascinating place to live.
Marvin relocated to Japan in February 2010 to join his wife and he, too, had a difficult transition, with the winter weather being the first unbearable experience. Next was the constant stares and pointing.
“It became overwhelming that I hardly wanted to venture outside during the day. The houses and cars are much smaller here so I would hit my head on doorways on many occasions,” he recounted.
Catching trains in massive stations where schedules were written in an unfamiliar language was another challenge he had to overcome.
Japan was where the couple expanded their family. Their union has produced three children – Asia, their eight-year-old daughter, and two sons, Asa and Alex, who are three years old and one year old, respectively.
Just before the March 2011 earthquake, the couple came across a job advertisement from a private Christian high school in northern Japan, seeking a couple or two unrelated teachers of English.
“It has been 10 years and I still get excited when I talk about that moment of seeing the ad, applying for the job, getting that interview and moving two weeks after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. We believe it was God providing, so we made the big move to Aomori,” Candice explained.
Marvin told The Gleaner that one of his greatest achievements since his relocation was paying off his student loan in Jamaica.
“We have three children and to be able to travel with them, showing them the world is such a blessing in itself because I’d never been on a plane until I was coming to Japan and I was in my 30s,” he reasoned.
Recently, on their daughter’s birthday, the family was caught in their first snowstorm, and a journey that should have lasted an hour took five.
“We got home at 1 a.m. tired and beat and our neighbour came out with his snow blower to help us get in,” the father said.
They have found family in the close-knit neighbourhood, many of whom have willingly offered to supervise the children and provide educational support.
Marvin has been the local Santa Claus for the past nine years and it is not unusual for children to point him out and say, ‘Santa San’.
The couple has sought to keep the Jamaican culture alive in various ways.
“It was easier when it was only one child, but now that they’ve outnumbered us, it is not surprising to wake up to anime or J-pop music instead of the usual reggae,” shared the mother of three.
At home, they only speak Patois as a means of getting their children adapted to it
“We play the Jamaican anthem and pledge every morning at 6:30. Every night at 7 or 8 p.m. we watch the Jamaican news on YouTube. Jamaica Information Service (JIS) videos from back home are constantly played at home,” Marvin chimed in.
“Marvin and I often laugh at the differences between our children’s school life and ours. After school, I usually look forward to playing dandy shandy, dominoes or marbles with my cousins, but our kids are playing shogi, calligraphy or playing karuta game,” Johnson-Rowe told The Gleaner.
Last Christmas, the family did not take their usual trip to south Japan to escape the freezing temperature in their hometown, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marvin baked Christmas cakes and puddings which were shared among friends, some of whom are Jamaicans, and they appreciated a piece of home.
One of the biggest hurdles the parents are faced with now is balancing their children’s education.
“I constantly worry if we are getting it right. They are at the local schools learning from a Japanese curriculum, for living in a Japanese society. But how do we keep them on par with their peers in the West in English, for living in a global society?” the mother bemoaned.
Their daughter’s first language is Japanese and she also speaks the local dialect, while their sons only speak Japanese.
Besides their parents, there are no other native English speakers around the children regularly.
On a lighter note, Johnson-Rowe has challenges finding her clothing and shoe size.
“Japan may be our home but it is not our yard. We definitely will return but when the children are a bit older,” Marvin expressed.