Heather Willson makes her mark, keeps focused on road ahead and her Cambodia school

Fate’s path led Canadian to Kamakura

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Rarely does life offer a clear-cut crossroads, but Heather Willson, a 34-year resident of Japan, faced one squarely when she was 22 years old.

“I first came to Japan for one year during my undergraduate work in 1973, and I loved it so much I applied for an education ministry scholarship to return for graduate work,” she said.

While waiting to hear about the scholarship, Willson returned to her native Canada and settled into life there, equally loving the lively political atmosphere of Toronto.

“When I was given the scholarship, I actually turned it down at first, because I thought, if I go back to Japan, I’ll never return to live in Canada. I really felt that choice, that it would almost be dangerous for me to go back to Japan.”

Although Willson initially refused, her professor at the University of Toronto finally convinced her to accept, and her premonition proved true: Willson stayed and made a life in Japan, coauthoring a guidebook on her adopted hometown of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Even a crossroads, however, offers diverging paths, and the young Willson could never have predicted she would also some day open an English school in Cambodia.

The choice of Japan itself was unpredictable. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, Willson lived in Canada until she was 19, and then, like many, traveled across Europe and Asia before entering college.

“Although I never made it as far as China, I was fascinated by Buddhism and China, so I decided to study Chinese, but when I entered the University of Toronto, I couldn’t get into the Chinese class, so I had to take Japanese instead.”

This “accidental” introduction led Willson to modern Japanese literature and a year of study at Waseda University. She later spent time doing graduate research in Osaka and Hokkaido before going to Tokyo to work in the late 1970s.

Introduced by mutual friends, Willson also met Yasuo Iwade, a young worker at a trading company. Although their meeting was rather unpredictable, the rest of the story is familiar. The two fell in love, married and moved to Kamakura to start a life together.

“We chose Kamakura since we both liked the beach and the ocean, and we wanted to get away from Tokyo.” Willson and Iwade then had two children, prompting her to quickly adapt to life as a housewife and mother in the small community of Koshigoe on the Shonan coast.

“Fortunately, I had a lot of Japanese friends, but I also had a group of foreign women friends, and we all had kids the same age. For us mothers, it was great to have each other. We don’t have our families here, so we sort of became each other’s family, giving advice, handing out baby clothes and strollers.”

Although she taught a few private English lessons, Willson primarily stayed home with the children. Her husband worked at a variety of small companies before opening his own ecology consulting business, while Willson focused on their community. She served for several years in the school PTA and volunteered for various neighborhood committees.

With her growing knowledge and appreciation for Kamakura life, Willson started a small monthly English newsletter called The Kamakura Post. She teamed up with local neighbor Satoko Furukawa, disseminating information on Kamakura traditions or covering places of historical interest.

Willson’s work on the newsletter naturally led to a deeper involvement in the wider Kamakura community.

“I had always loved traveling and wandering around Japan, so it was kind of natural for me to do that in Kamakura. Then going to different places in researching articles — like going to the city hall to ask questions about a certain festival — it got me more involved in the city and different communities.”

In 1995, as their children entered junior high school, Willson started teaching part-time at the international studies department at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama. As their children grew, Willson was able to accept a full-time position at the university, and with over 15 years already in Japan, it seemed her early premonition had proved a happy moment of divination.

But the road diverged in fall 1999.

Willson’s husband was diagnosed with cancer and he died the following summer at 48. Six months later, Willson also lost Furukawa, her long-time Kamakura Post partner, to cancer.

Another realization hit Willson, this one eventually leading to a path of healing. More than 500 people came to her husband’s funeral: “It just struck me that what you do when you are alive is really important, that you can make a difference when you are alive. I wanted to do something that would remain, even after I am gone,” she said.

Slowly rebuilding her life, Willson set aside money and decided on Cambodia as the place where she would try to make a difference, although she had no specific plan.

“I picked Cambodia because it was one of the poorest countries in Asia, it was relatively close to Japan and it was a Buddhist country. In some Islamic countries, it is difficult for a woman to do things on her own, but I wanted to be able to do everything myself.”

Willson arranged to volunteer with the Japanese NPO Children without Borders on her first trip to Cambodia, and “things just fell into place.”

Willson met a young priest, Sovann Phon, who was running an English school out of one of the smaller, modern temples near Angkor Wat.

“I started talking to him, and everything he said was exactly what I wanted to do: build an English school in the countryside where there are no other aid organizations active, make it a free, after-school program to encourage the children to stay in their local schools. I just decided, then and there, this is what I am going to do.”

Willson was in Cambodia during the great Indonesian tsunami of 2004, planning their school. “We were in the countryside, so there was no electricity or anything, and we did not even hear about the tragedy until the next day.”

Eight months later, in September 2005, the Butterfly School opened. “We named the school Butterfly because even a small thing like a butterfly can brighten up a dismal scene, so a small thing like our school can make these kids’ lives better,” she said.

The school is near Udong in the small village of Popeae, about an hour’s ride by motorcycle north of Phnom Penh. It teaches 80 students, who range from elementary school kids to young adults.

“Hundreds of children wanted to come and we wanted to welcome all of them, but we try to keep only 20 students per class, with four classes every day in the late afternoon.” In addition to Phon, Willson hired two other young Cambodian men to teach English.

Willson visits at least once a year, but she keeps in regular email contact with Phon, who manages the school in addition to being head teacher. Apart from the occasional donation, however, the school’s sole source of financial support is just Willson, who sends monthly remittances to pay for salaries, gasoline and other daily expenditures.

Keeping abreast of the daily changes at the school helps keep her connected for when she can visit next.

“Sometimes I go just to provide teacher training; sometimes my Japanese students go or foreign friends volunteer at the school. I love going there. We don’t have running water or electricity, and our lives are so simple, yet everyone is so happy. People wear the same thing every day; there’s no materialism. Cambodia is so peaceful and they don’t need material goods to be happy and function as a family. I get more from the people there than I give, I’m afraid.”

Willson retired from Meiji Gakuin this past spring to devote more time to Cambodia and other travel plans.

Although she no longer actively contributes to The Kamakura Post, the small newsletter she started continues today with the help of a neighboring expat, under the name The Shonan Post.

Her knowledge of Kamakura led to the 2008 publication of a guidebook, “An English Guide to Kamakura’s Temples and Shrines,” coauthored with friend and fellow Kamakura resident Kenji Kamio. She insists Kamio “did most of the work,” but the book provides testimony to Willson’s devotion for her adopted country.

Although her path trespassed into tragedy with her husband’s death, Willson keeps her eyes on the road ahead: “I have always loved traveling and wandering, discovering and appreciating new places.”