Ken Hartmann, 71, still opens doors for ladies, and still speaks with a brusque, no-nonsense New York accent even after 27 years in Japan. As founder and director of the Hokkaido Insider, he brings this gallant grittiness to Sapporo and sees his efforts with his online information service as another way to open doors for people.
“It never hurts to go in a door,” Hartmann believes. “If it’s the wrong door you can always go back out or find another way. But if you just shut the door and don’t take that chance, you’ll never know.”
Fifteen years ago, Hokkaido Insider was his way of connecting the growing foreign community in Sapporo. It started as a free email news service, sent out to the many connections he knew from teaching and working during his first 10 years here. It has grown to also include a subscription service connecting job-seekers with jobs and a notice board for selling items, acting in the last decade as a communication hub for Sapporo’s English-speaking community.
Ironically, one door slammed shut for Hartmann last year, when he was let go from his university position after over 25 years at the center of English-language teaching in Sapporo. “I was kicked out for basically getting too old, but I’m glad the university follows the rules so well,” he says with typical candor. “It gives me a chance to do things I’ve been wanting to do. Little things, important things you let slide. I want to snow-shoe more often. No long-term plans once you reach 70.”
Besides snowshoeing, Hartmann also has some new plans for the Insider, including the addition of a shopping/delivery site, expected to be completed in the next few months.
He can never completely leave the classroom, however. He teaches once a week at the NHK Culture Center. “It’s a whole different community than teaching kids. I teach a lot of businesspeople, and that’s opened some doors, led to some friendships. With those higher-level English students, we keep in touch during the week by email, as I’ll send them newspaper articles in English for homework,” he says. “I’m also dabbling again in private teaching, but I’m at the point in life where I don’t want to be bored. I only take interesting students, even interesting students with very little money, that’s OK, because then I learn a lot from them, too.”
Japan itself was the door to his “second life.” Hartmann came to Sapporo in 1985 when he was 44 years old. “I thought I had retired before we came to Japan. I had just finished a successful career in America in computers and program design. I sold my own consultant company, and had investments and property and money in the bank.” He also made a new start in his personal life: He married a Sapporo woman after he and his first wife divorced.
For Hartmann, who had no Japanese language skills to support his computer skills, finding a job teaching English was his only option. Even today, Sapporo has one of the smallest communities of foreigners anywhere in Japan. Back in 1985, foreigners were a rarity. “The first several years, I really stood out, fingers pointing at me all the time in surprise. I would even point a finger, if I happened to see another foreigner,” he recalls. “It was easy to get a teaching job, as your qualifications were your English name and blue eyes.”
He discovered that his personality and life experiences fit teaching. “I was a computer person in the past, but part of my work had been helping people to learn the systems, so I am a real people person. Even though I did a lot of sitting at the desk with coding. I do have that skill. And I also had absolutely no Japanese, so I told the students, ‘You want to talk in my class, it’s gotta be English.’ ”
Introduced by his second wife’s mother, Hartmann started teaching at a local high school. He has great memories of those early classes, and still keeps in touch with many of his former students. His reputation grew quickly within the small English-speaking community, and it became difficult for him to keep up all the scheduling at the various area schools.
After several years building up experience, he “decided to open up my own school. The timing was perfect and I thought I could do it better, basically.” He pauses, a huge grin flashing across his face. “And I did.”
At its peak, Hartmann’s school had over 120 students and three other teachers, and he became active in the Japanese Association for Language Teaching, serving as its liaison in Sapporo. But for him, teaching English was always about making connections with people. “You don’t get anything really, if you help yourself. You only get something when you help someone else. I have always been there, in that state of mind. Schools were contacting me for recommendations and individuals were asking my help to find work, so relationships just naturally built up.”
These many relationships led Hartmann to start the Insider. Once technology improved, he added a full website, thus further connecting the expat community to the wider Sapporo community. Local businesses began to advertise on his site. Yet, from the very beginning, juggling the Insider while running a school, Hartmann admits he did things “my way”: “It’s always been a one-man show. If you don’t like it, I’m from N.Y. — that’s all I have to say.”
Interconnections have been a part of Hartmann’s personal life as well. His first wife remarried a Japanese national in the United States; Hartmann’s son from his first marriage now lives in the nearby Jozankei hot springs area, running a successful photography and video company surrounding winter sports and the outdoors. His daughter, born and raised in Sapporo from his second marriage, will graduate from a Japanese university this spring.
He has helped pen pals reconnect through his site, found homes for stray kittens, spread bulletins and news for numerous local organizations that support and feed back into each other. “Everything’s connected, there’s no doubt,” Hartmann says.
Although he has watched the foreign community grow in Sapporo, he believes the city itself has not really changed. “There’s always a new building going up, but the essence of Sapporo is the same,” he says. “I read all their resumes for the Insider, and the new wave of expats coming here are so interesting, their backgrounds are amazing, what they are interested in, their education.”
Hartmann admits the job market is not as kind to foreigners as when he first arrived, but there are still chances. “I like giving people hope, but it must be realistic hope. I want to help people to do their own thing, not do it for them,” he explains. “It’s different, isn’t it, if you open the door for people? They still have to walk through and do the heavy loading on their own.”
For more information about Hokkaido Insider, visit www.ne.jp/asahi/hokkaido/kenhartmann/index.html.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.