When Tom Kodiak’s grandfather offered him 2,200 head of cattle and a 17,000-hectare ranch in South Park, Colorado, he told his grandfather he’d think it over. It was his last year of college and Kodiak was afraid that if he went straight from school to managing a big cattle ranch he’d be stuck there for the rest of his life.
“The family ranch meant a lot to me, but what I really wanted to do was travel,” says the 24-year-old Kodiak. “I grew up in a hard-headed Midwestern environment and it was important for me to experience other ways of living and viewing the world.”
“The Japan Exchange and Teaching program interested me,” explains Kodiak. “My grandfather on my father’s side was Japanese and I wanted to learn more about my family background.”
Kodiak’s great-grandfather was born into an old samurai family, but abandoned the family heritage in the early 20th century to become a Methodist preacher. He immigrated to the United States with his young family in 1923, just days before the Great Kanto Earthquake. Upon arriving in California, they changed the family name from Kadoike to Kodiak.
“As a kid I was fascinated by the stories of my grandfather. He posed as a Korean during World War II and fled across the border into Mexico where he became a professional wrestler. In Mexico City he eventually reached the finals of the 1944 lightweight championships,” Kodiak recalls.
This is now his second year in Japan as an assistant language teacher and when talking about his Japan experience, Kodiak comments on the similarities between cowboy life and the traditional samurai.
“Being a cowboy is not a job,” he points out. “It is a way of life in the same way that it was for the samurai. Each lives by a code of honor that is both strict and austere.”
In Kodiak’s work as an English teacher in the junior high and elementary schools of Kuki City in Saitama Prefecture, being a cowboy is part of his teaching routine. Not only does he sometimes come to class in cowboy garb with stories of cowboy experiences, he even lets his students try their hand at roping skills.
“I want the children to appreciate the adventure and beauty of the cowboy experience,” he explains. “It’s a life of family members working happily side by side from dawn to dusk and eating and sleeping out under the stars by campfire.”
Kodiak’s first real experience of the cowboy life came relatively late in his upbringing. It wasn’t until the summer after finishing high school that he spent any great length of time on the ranch.
“I had only been in South Park for a week when my grandparents told me they were going back to their home in Michigan. They left me on my own to manage the whole ranch by myself,” Kodiak explains. “It was a challenge at first, especially working with the local ranch hands, but over the summer I began to get the hang of things.”
For Kodiak it was an experience that continued over the course of four summers during his college years and led him to begin assembling a collection of cowboy stories and legends that have become a valuable resource in his English classes here in Japan.
So what about his future plans?
“After I finish the JET program I thought I’d probably work in international agribusiness,” Kodiak explains. “But I enjoy writing and being in Japan has given me a fresh perspective on my American upbringing. By sharing my cowboy experiences with Japanese school kids I have come to a new appreciation of the cowboy heritage. What I want to do now is share that tradition with other people through my writing, before the cowboy way of life changes forever.”