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LIVING IN A MUSEUM

Perfectly at home with the local culture

by Everett Kennedy Brown

Fame comes easy to Doug Brittain, a four-year resident of Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. Last August, the 28-year-old assistant language teacher became the grand champion in the island’s annual Akadomari Sumo tournament.

It was Brittain’s fourth year competing in the event. Toppling his opponents in seven consecutive matches, Brittain walked away from the tournament winning four big bottles of sake, four boxes of bath salts, seven coupons for stay at a local hotel, a massive trophy, a heavy plaque and a painful scratch across his right nipple.

“Though I was really quite exhausted by the fifth round, my coworkers really love it when I enter sumo tournaments because I always win a few big bottles of sake, and I don’t drink,” Brittain says.

Beyond the shores of Sado Island, the Canadian from British Columbia enjoys a much different reputation. Among participants of the JET program living throughout Japan, Brittain is known as the JET who lives in a little village museum.

“My home is not really just a museum,” Brittain explains. “It’s actually two prewar wooden buildings. It’s been a town hall, a community center, a dress shop and a private residence, but it was vacant for three years before I moved in.”

Brittain has been living happily in the Higashi Odori Kaikan since April 2001. When local Sawata city officials learned that Brittain was looking for an oversize apartment, they decided to offer him the unoccupied building rent-free. “At first it reminded me of an old schoolhouse,” says Brittain. “I had no interest in living there.”

It was only after the city offered to have the walls repainted and to replace the old tatami mats that he agreed to move in. The first thing visitors encounter when they enter Brittain’s home is the large shoe rack and coat hooks in the entranceway, reminiscent of a country schoolhouse. The former dress shop is a 60-tatami-mat room, facing the street. It is still used for community events. Brittain’s main living quarters are several comfortably furnished rooms off a dimly lit hallway that leads to the museum in the back.

Established three years ago by a local historian, the museum consists of a large first-floor room full of ethnographic artifacts from around the island. Accessed by a set of rickety stairs, the second floor houses a collection of precious antique noh masks. There are also several tables displaying fragments of Yayoi Era pottery in various stages of restoration.

“I had already asked a real-estate agent friend to find me a modern apartment large enough to host parties and events,” Brittain explains. “But stepping into the museum sold me on the idea of living here. Here are things one can usually only see behind glass in museums.”

The best time to go into the museum, according to Brittain, is when there are thunderstorms. “I like to sit and listen to the thunder and watch the lightning-flashes illuminating everything,” he explains. “It is a very contemplative place.”

Since moving into the Higashi Odori Kaikan, Brittain has frequently used the space for community events. During this year’s Sado Island triathlon, it became a temporary home for 10 triathletes from Japan and Australia. A recent Halloween party attracted 65 costumed revelers. During the Sado Island rehearsals for this year’s Niigata JET musical, 30 cast members ate and slept there. (The musical is an annual event produced by JETs living in the prefecture, which raised over 1.5 million yen this year for various NGO activities.)

Brittain is one of a new breed of assistant language teachers in Japan. Part of the Education Ministry’s reforms established this year allow assistant language teachers to extend their contracts beyond the previous three-year limit. Although the change came too late for Brittain, the town hired him as a private ALT.

“The local people have made me feel that I am a vital member of the community,” Brittain says.

In the spring of 2000, Brittain and two local Japanese teachers were asked to organize a Kids Challenge Program funded by the education ministry. The aim of the program was to introduce elementary school children on the island to English. Up to 300 children participated in these Saturday events, held twice a month. The success of the program, along with Brittain’s volunteering to teach English at local elementary schools in his free time, established his reputation within the community.

During his third year on the JET program, Brittain learned that the Sawata board of education was planning to extend English-language education to the local elementary school curriculum. A new assistant language teacher would be hired to augment the plan. A fellow organizer of the Kids Challenge Program suggested that Brittain apply. Brittain wrote a letter to the mayor asking to be considered for the job. He mentioned his Japanese language ability, his strong relations with the local community, and his educational background (he majored in elementary education at university). Through local support, which included influential local residents visiting the mayor and a petition signed by more than 1,000 local residents, he got the job.

In his present duties, Brittain designs the English curriculum for elementary school classes in Sawata town. While most JET assistant language teachers work together with Japanese teachers in the classroom, Brittain has been asked to teach by himself.

“The teachers tell me it gives them the opportunity to watch and learn and get ideas for games, skits and other activities,” he explains. “My volunteer work helped me get the job with Sawata. Any foreigner can just teach English, but ALTs who bring something else to their communities are much more important.”

What are Brittain’s plans for the future? “Ive been encouraged by local people to settle down here on Sado, but I haven’t decided anything yet,” he admits. “Right now I’m mainly looking forward to teaching my sixth-grade students to read and write in English. And then I’ll be leading a group of 15 people from Sado to Papua New Guinea to volunteer at a village school this winter.”