Making a big difference in little places

How Rachel Rawlings gave a village its window to the outside world


Rachel Rawlings was surprised when she ran into two famous Japanese comedians in the parking lot outside her local village office. The popular television stars, Shofukutei Tsurube and Kazuki Enari, were astonished, too. Why was a young Australian woman living in a fishing village in Kochi Prefecture?

They immediately decided to interview her for their NHK TV-series, “Kazoku ni Kanpai.” After the popular program was aired on Nov. 23 last year, Rachel Rawlings’ face was introduced to millions of Japanese TV viewers. For several weeks following her TV appearance, the Nakatosa village office received phone calls from people throughout Japan. There were even inquiries from local city offices in Shizuoka and Tochigi prefectures, asking how they, too, could have someone like Rawlings come and live in their community.

Rawlings, 24, is a Coordinator for International Relations at the village office of Nakatosa, which has a population of 10,000. Her job as a CIR requires her to have good Japanese-speaking skills. For the many TV viewers around Japan, the sight of the young blonde Australian speaking fluent Japanese as she guided the two comedians around her fishing village was memorable. For Rawlings, her new found fame is just one more experience that comes with her job.

“Many people who come to Japan on the JET Program as CIRs prefer to work in more prestigious jobs in big cities or prefectural offices,” says Rawlings. “But for myself, I chose to work in a small town because it allows me to really get to know local Japanese people and culture. Here, I can make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Rawlings’ duties as a CIR in Nakatosa Village are varied. Besides teaching regular English and cooking classes to local citizens’ groups, she also visits schools where she presents cultural-exchange programs in Japanese. What is remarkable about Rawlings’ experience as a CIR are her innovative community outreach programs.

During the week, Rawlings conducts a “Rent a Rachel” program. She goes to local shops, farms, schools, kindergartens and old people’s homes, where she works side by side with the local people. This is Rawlings’ own brand of grass-roots internationalization, giving local people the opportunity to interact with someone apparently different from themselves.

On weekends, she opens a stall in the local market where she and a Japanese friend sell fried noodles to passersby. “I want to meet the local people,” says Rawlings. “And I can’t effectively do that if I’m sitting around all day at the village office. The local people are shy and are not going to come to me, so it’s important for me to go out and meet them.”

Rawlings’ aim is to show her community that they can communicate and work effectively with foreign people. As a result of her efforts, many of the villagers have come to realize that her way of living is not as alien as they had first imagined.

“There are people in Nakatosa who had never met a foreign person until I arrived,” Rawlings remarks. “I’ve found elderly people here who speak a heavy local dialect and have never been outside Kochi Prefecture. Sometimes they’ll come up and touch my skin, or put their faces up to mine, fascinated by my blonde hair and blue eyes.”

Rawlings values such opportunities. They allow the University of Queensland graduate in Modern Asian Studies, who studied both Japanese and Korean, to develop her skills in promoting crosscultural understanding. Her ability to converse easily in Japanese has proven invaluable.

“It takes careful trial and error to find a common ground with some of the local people,” Rawlings explains. “They judge me by the only world they know. My job is to look for ways to communicate and build understanding within their limited boundaries. Once they realize that I eat rice, too, and enjoy katsuo, the local fish, we can often begin to share a common feeling.”

Does she think the local people’s perceptions of her as a foreign person have changed?

“Most villagers still treat me different than they do a Japanese person,” Rawlings says. “With some people, however, we have begun to relate on a deeper person-to-person level.”

Rawlings says that those most influenced by her time in Nakatosa are the children who “are the future of Japan.” She adds: “After I leave, if the children remember only 5 percent of what I am teaching them, then the door for them to live as international citizens can continue to open.”