In early 2004, armed with a degree in pharmacology, Sam Baldwin found himself working as a research laboratory technician, a decided improvement over his former job as a faceless administrator toiling for the British government. Yet he was increasingly unhappy with not only the job but his life as well. A few casual words from his boss about his bright future with the company served as the catalyst: it was time to make a change. With no clear destination in mind, Baldwin turned to the emails he’d been receiving from a friend living in Japan. He applied to and was accepted by the JET Program as an assistant English teacher.1 By July he was on his way to Ono, a small, remote town in Fukui Prefecture.2
When Baldwin tried to learn more about his new home from English-language travel guides, he discovered that impressions of Ono weren’t exactly stellar: in The Rough Guide to Japan, Simon Richmond simply commented, “Little reason to linger here.”3 Additional reading only reinforced the message: from all accounts, Fukui seemed to be populated by unfriendly, surly people, possibly due to the fact they lived in the shadow of no less than fifteen nuclear reactors as well as near a rocky section of coastline famous for suicides. In spite of this less-than-encouraging information, Baldwin approached both the region and his town with admirable optimism and a subtle sense of humor, both of which served him well during his two year stay. The result, in addition to changing the direction of his life, is an honest and very entertaining memoir entitled For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan. Avoiding many of the stereotypes that often plague such chronicles, Baldwin deftly straddles the line between subjective and objective reporting, allowing readers to share his experiences while also drawing their own conclusions about the people and culture.
As the editor of a publication emphasizing the arts, perhaps the section of the book to which I was most drawn was Baldwin’s encounter with Umeda Shuji, one of Japan’s few remaining togishi, or sword sharpeners. Far more than a basic service, Umeda’s work is an art form, requiring many years of training and a high level of skill. His primary role is the reconditioning of ancient swords and the sharpening of new ones, both of which require many steps and great patience as it can take as long as two weeks to complete each sword. While meeting with Baldwin, Umeda reflected on what one of the swords in his care may have experienced, noting, “This sword is 600 years old. It has definitely killed someone.” Despite the history of their practical use, in the present day, these swords are seen not as weapons but as incomparable works of art. Umeda tells Baldwin, “The power of the sword is in its beauty, because people are drawn to it. Born from sacred water and fire, a Japanese sword is imbued with human spirit.” Among the many genres of traditional Japanese art, there are few about which such words may be said.
Baldwin had many such opportunities to interact with Fukui’s culture during his two years in Fukui, and though he’s not had the chance to return since leaving in 2006, the thought is never far from his mind. Now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, Baldwin is editor of the Japan Society of Scotland newsletter, allowing him to maintain a connection to the country that opened his eyes and changed the course of his life.
Those interested in reading the book or finding our more about Baldwin can visit his website, http://forfukuissake.com/.
Baldwin, Sam. (2011). For Fukui’s Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan. Baka Books, Kindle edition.
1 The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme is funded by the Japanese government with the goal of promoting grass-roots international exchange between Japan and other nations. About 90% the program participants are Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), as Baldwin was, who native English speakers sent to public schools to assist with English-language courses; the other 10% are bilingual Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs), who assist local government offices with exchange activities; with a very few acting as Sports Exchange Advisors (SEAs), who promote internationalization through sports. For more information, see http://www.jetprogramme.org.
2 Fukui lies directly south of Ishikawa Prefecture, and the two areas share a history of fishing and traditional craft.
3 Cited in Baldwin (2011), ch. 1, sect. 2, para. 3.