Life can veer abruptly, in mere seconds, from the way it was to the way it is. Occasionally, change occurs so gradually that metamorphosis is under way before you can even detect the unfamiliar wind.
In John Potter’s life, both types of change shaped his life in Japan.
Potter, author of the definitive English book on Okinawan music, “The Power of Okinawa,” never planned a life in root music; indeed, the author admits he’s never methodically planned anything in his life. “The thing about me is I never had any great ambition or big plan in my life. I have kind of drifted into things without any master plan. It has always worked out, so I recommend it.”
Coming to Japan was just such a “nonplan.” Born and raised in Norwich, England, a trained elementary school teacher specializing in alternative education, Potter took a break after several years in the conventional classroom to work at Summerhill School in Suffolk.
Summerhill, established in 1921 by A.S. Neill, is famous for its unconventional ideas on education. “I taught at Summerhill for a couple of years . . . after that, I didn’t want to go back to the ordinary, state school system so much, because my ideas had changed a lot about education. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go abroad to teach, while I thought about what to do next.”
It was 1984, and Potter, then in his mid-30s, considered international teaching jobs from Colombia, Peru, Kenya, and Japan. The only marked difference in the teaching packages was time: “The places I was offered in South America were three-year contracts, but Japan offered a two-year contract, and at that time, I thought, ‘three years is too long to be away from England,’ so I chose Japan.”
Those two years have stretched to over 20 years in Japan, and although teaching has remained a constant occupation, a vocation also gradually unfolded with Potter’s enthusiasm for music.
Again, nothing was planned.
“In 1988, I met an editor of (the English-language magazine) Kansai Time Out at a bar in Kobe by accident. We were talking about music, and she asked me if I wanted to write something, as I had written one thing previously published in England about music.” The positive reception he received from that first piece led to a steady writing gig. “Almost every month, I was writing about all different kinds of music, pop music from England and America, mostly.”
Potter had moved from the international school in Kobe, St. Michael’s, to various university teaching positions by 1986. Meeting his future wife, Midori, changed his time-frame for Japan. His life, focused now on living and teaching in Japan, was moving along in tune with the music articles he continued to publish.
The winds of change had approached, but Potter was not yet aware of their significance.
“My wife had a friend who was briefly a member of Shokichi Kina’s band, Champloose, so she had a tape of their music, which she had never played,” he recalls. “One day I was listening to some Irish music, and it suddenly reminded her of the tape, because she thought there were some similarities. I played Champloose, and I liked it so much, I was quite annoyed she she had not told me about it before.”
Soon after that, Kina came to the mainland for a tour, and Potter naturally interviewed him for Kansai Time Out, collecting his music, and listening to other Okinawan artists as well. “I wanted to listen more and more. I had not liked any Japanese pop music much, so this came as a revelation, something unique, so I gradually changed the type of music I was writing about, focusing more on the island music.”
Potter inevitably visited Okinawa and met more musicians, fueling his growing passion for the Ryukyu Islands sound during vacations from teaching. In 1994, he even acted as a guide for Kina in England, when the musician played a concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
It was like a harmonious melody, writing about music, teaching, pursuing a Masters in Alternative Education from Antioch, through distance education, to provide more teaching options in Japan — until it was disrupted by the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
“It is just an enormous, life-changing experience, because I tend to think of things in terms of what happened before and after the earthquake,” he recalls.
Jan. 17, 1995, 5:46 a.m., and Potter’s life is jolted along with the magnitude 7.3 quake. “The day is of course, awful, but afterwards is even worse . . . there’s so much damage. We had to live six months in our damaged house, holes and cracks and water coming in, but there’s no one to fix it because other people are in a so much worse situation.”
Potter, with his wife and young son, struggled on, but it became difficult to find a full-time university position in the area. “I didn’t want to leave Kobe, and I turned down one offer because it would mean moving away. I finally decided to take the second offer, in case no more offers came in.”
Although Potter and his family moved to Mie Prefecture, he continued writing about music for Kansai Time Out, as he started work as an associate professor at Kogakkan University in 1998. “Kogakkan is a very traditional Shinto university — one of only two in Japan — but they wanted to start a new department for social welfare at a new campus in Nabari, Mie Prefecture.” For an unplan, it was a good fit. Later, he was made a full professor.
His passion for the roots music of the Ryukyu Islands grew into a book, “The Power of Okinawa,” first published in 2001.
Potter acknowledges the changes wrought in himself as well: “The discovery of roots music and traditional music sort of led me into my own culture in England, because I now listen and am far more interested than ever in English Folk music and traditional music . . . World music generally has become a very important thing for me, and that’s through discovering Okinawa.”
Potter and his wife decided to make Okinawa their permanent home a year ago, when Kogakkan University offered all its professors with over 10 years’ experience an early retirement package. Potter now enjoys the time to put his vocation first in life, writing about the islands while teaching only twice a week at Okinawa University.
“I’ve managed to write a second edition of the book, published in March. It’s been nine years since the first edition, and a lot has happened in music, so I wrote a lot of new chapters, and updated all the old ones to make it a much better book.”
Since moving to Okinawa, Potter found even more reasons to admire the island population: “They are a different people — it was only in the late 19th century that the Ryukyu Kingdom became part of Japan — but they are often not given the credit they should be given. They were treated quite badly throughout history, by both Japan and by America, and previous to that, they were almost a part a China.
“So historically, they’ve been constantly in the middle of these bigger powers, pulling in each way. They have taken a lot of influences from different Asian countries, from America as well. That’s why Kina-san’s band is called Champloose — it means to mix everything together, and it is also the name for a popular dish here. Okinawa is very accepting of people from outside, despite the sad history.”
When not writing about the music, Potter spends his days interacting with the locals, talking about everything from the native dialect, uchinaguchi, to how to play the sanshin, Okinawa’s version of the shamisen.
Potter is trying to learn. “Most Japanese think the shamisen was first, but actually it was the opposite. The three-stringed sanshin was borrowed from China by the island people, and later made it to the mainland, as the shamisen.
Potter’s home rests at the tip of the Odo coast, near Itoman and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, an area made infamous by the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, where about 100,000 islanders lost their lives. “There are quite a few monuments and memorials near our house, for the people who died. I don’t have any problem with that, and feel quite honored to live here . . . it was not the Okinawan people’s fault, and it’s a lovely, rural town.”
But as Potter is quick to point out, Okinawa is not a utopia: “There is a danger, sometimes, because a lot of Japanese just see Okinawa as a tropical paradise, but there are other things going on that are not always so nice . . . the burden of the U.S. military bases is very real, planes, helicopters, electrical services interrupted because of interference . . . there are environmental problems as well, and not just from the bases but from unnecessary building projects. It is the poorest prefecture, with the most unemployment and the highest divorce rate in Japan.”
The breeze shifts: “I love living here, but sometimes I wonder if Okinawans themselves appreciate their islands. Living such a long way from England, you start thinking more objectively about your own past and your own country . . . through the discovery of the music I became interested in other things as well, to do with the culture generally and history and politics and the food and everything. I became more interested, naturally, about the things the songs talk about.”
True to form, Potter shares only vague plans about the future. “We have a big garden that’s an absolute wilderness at the moment, and I have no idea what to do about it; must decide that next, I suppose.” Maybe one day, the flowers will reach full bloom.
For more information on John Potter, visit his Web site at www.powerofokinawa.com