Life lessons learned in a township dojo


In August this year, over 3,100 young people from 28 countries gathered at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo to participate in a Japan Exchange and Teaching orientation program. There to welcome the new JET recruits was Thabiso Kgosana, a South African working in his third year as an assistant language teacher in Fukuoka.

During the three-day orientation program, participants had the opportunity to listen to Kgosana speak on such topics as experiencing culture shock and being a JET of African descent. This is the second year that Kgosana has been invited by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations to speak at such national JET assemblies.

Kgosana’s reputation as a teacher and workshop facilitator is well-known in Fukuoka, where he has been based for the last two years. He is frequently asked by the local board of education to teach workshops for local Japanese teachers of English on how to effectively work with native English teachers. His English summer camp courses are also extremely popular with the local children.

Kgosana teaches full time at Johnan Senior High School. During class, he can be seen walking up and down between the desks, eliciting the thoughts and feelings of his students with impromptu questions and role-playing. The pace of his lessons is fast and energetic. The students welcome Kgosana’s proactive and sincere teaching approach.

“When I’m in the classroom, I try to be on the same level with the students,” Kgosana says. “If they’re being shy, I’ll try to engage them and show that I’m interested in their ideas. If necessary, I’ll talk with them in Japanese to bring them out.”

Before coming to Japan, Kgosana was a lecturer at Vista University, in Pretoria, where he graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in education. He is one of 22 South Africans participating in the JET program this year. Besides his ability to speak nine languages fluently, what distinguishes Kgosana is his link with Japan that goes back to his boyhood in Gauteng Province.

“I grew up in the infamous township of Mamelodi on the outskirts of Pretoria,” Kgosana relates. “The town is best-known for the many martyrs and unsung heroes who came together there, in the liberation struggle against apartheid, people like the late Solomom Mahlangu and jazz/fusion pianist Don Laka.

“I come from a big family: four brothers and four sisters. I’m the oldest. My mom was a teacher, but we were raised by our grandmother who made a living as a domestic worker,” he continues.

“At the local police station, they held classes in Kyokushin karate. I started when I was 11. My mom was against the idea. She still thinks that contact sports teach one to be violent. For me it was self-defense. By sitting in seiza, bowing to one’s opponent, etc., karate enabled me to also learn patience. And to think before acting. I became passionate about martial arts. I saw it as the path of the true warrior.

“I remember my first Japanese karate teacher. He came to hold a series of clinics at our dojo. This guy moved like a cat. He was quick, very smart and lethal. He was also very kind and patient. He was a true gentleman. I told myself I wanted to be like him someday.”

In 1992, when Kgosana was 17, he was invited to participate in an international Kyokushin karate tournament in Japan. He took fourth place in his weight class and ranked 11th overall in the tournament.

In 1999, while Kgosana was working as a college lecturer, he attended Pretoria University. He took honors courses in social sciences, with an interest in working to develop postapartheid business opportunities. A colleague recommended that he apply for a small and medium-scale enterprise development course that was being sponsored by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. The course would be held in Japan. To Kgosana, this sounded like a perfect opportunity to deepen his knowledge of Japanese culture, while also learning about Japanese business.

From January to May 1999, Kgosana and 11 other select participants from South Africa attended courses at the JAICA training facilities in Nagoya. The program included many field trips to visit companies, plants, management firms and government departments. “The experience taught me a lot about Japan and erased many of the stereotypes I had about Japanese people,” Kgosana explains. “I was able to develop friendships and realize that Japanese do have lives outside the workplace.”

To further deepen his interests in Japan, Kgosana joined the JET program in the summer of 2000. What has he learned from his Japan experience so far?

“Kindness has been an important lesson for me. Before coming to Japan, I was more of a selfish and insensitive person,” Kgosana says. “I’ve found most people here are quite responsive to helping each other out, even if it means just really listening with compassion and understanding. Of course, I’ve had my share of bad experiences here, but one thing that I have truly learned is how to feel and extend kindness, not only to friends and colleagues, but also to strangers.”

What are Kgosana’s plans for the future? “Three years in Japan is quite ample to learn, educate, explore, develop and have fun,” Kgosana says. “Next year I am looking to pursue graduate studies in international relations, development and diplomacy somewhere in Europe, possibly England. My long-term goal is to promote business links between South Africa and Asia.”