Japan & Me

Catherine Burgemeister

Name: Catherine Burgemeister
Occupation: Pre-service Teacher

Can you tell us about a place you like in Japan

A place I like in Japan would have to be Himeji, where I lived. This (recent visit) was my third visit to Japan. The first time I went on an 'Adelaide Sister Cities' exchange and did a homestay for two weeks. The second time I went on a UniSA exchange to Kansai Gaidai University and stayed there for four months.

The very first time, I stayed with a host family in Aboshi (which is not too far from central Himeji), and I caught up with them again the second and third time I went to Japan. The host families are amazing. When I first went I didn't speak any Japanese and I was very shy, so the friendships and connections that I made were really nice. It was great to visit my host family again and again, and seeing the kids my age grow up, move away and have their own kids was incredible.

There were a lot of local people there who were really willing to teach you Kansai-ben (dialect), which was nice. Other times when I was travelling and I said something that I didn't realise was Kansai-ben, people would know that I was living in the Kansai area, and I'd wonder how they knew that! I'd try to work out which word it was. You end up learning a lot just by copying things you hear while you're over there, it's really cool.

What did you do when you were living in Japan

I was living in Japan from 2012-2015 with the JET Program. I found out about that program through the JET stand at Kodomo no Hi (Japan Festival). Initially I went there for one year, but then my partner and I got engaged and married in Japan, so we stayed longer. On our wedding day I finished work early, and we rode down to the government office on our bikes and signed the marriage paperwork, which was a bit lengthy. We had to write about 6-7 pages in kanji, and we needed two Japanese nationals to witness it.

My husband was working five different jobs, including Himeji Castle Tour Guide! He loved that, because he loves history. He was already very knowledgeable about martial arts history, and this was a good opportunity for him to learn about Himeji Castle.

I was an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) teaching in Himeji. I was a municipal JET working for the Board of Education at two junior high schools and four elementary schools, and I went to two elementary schools on rotation. I spent term two with Kaya Junior High School, and terms one and three with Otsu Junior High School.

What was it like teaching the kids

Teaching the students was definitely enjoyable. I had to work out how to bring Australian culture and my interests (or theirs) into the classroom using English. Often we had tests to prepare for, so I would have to ask the Japanese teachers if I could fit in ten minutes here or there. The teachers were really happy to accommodate things, but some teachers didn't always know how, and they didn't want to get behind schedule. Other teachers allowed a broader scope and encouraged me to bring in more materials. I tried to fit in information about Australian animals, flowers and sports. The students loved looking at pictures, and touching school bags and school uniforms (the Australian Embassy in Tokyo had an 'Experience Australia' kit that you could borrow). This helped to create a good atmosphere.

In the classroom the kids looked very serious, but as soon as the bell went they would be running everywhere, mucking around and having a great time. But the students were great, they were very enthusiastic about sports, clubs and their careers. I had an elementary school student who was dead set on becoming a prosthetist (someone who makes and fits artificial limbs)! He told us the word in Japanese and wanted to know the word in English. We looked it up on the Internet and practised the pronunciation together.

Students there are similar in the sense that there's a focus on going to Uni, getting good grades and having a career, but over there if you fail tests, it's really bad. You can tell from their body language when they get a test back how important it is.

The really little ones (grade two or three) were excited to see that I was actually someone from Australia, but they didn't really have any concept of where Australia was. I would draw maps and try to explain that Australia is twenty times bigger than Japan. They thought that Japanese was spoken in Australia! On the other hand, my husband worked at an international kindergarten, so those kids spoke other languages and knew more geographically. It's especially noticeable when you work at a few different schools and when you work with a range of students that there is a broad scope.

How did you become interested in Japan

For me it was school study. I went to Faith Lutheran Secondary School in Tanunda, and they offered German and Japanese. I just love languages. I had done German at primary school, so I thought I'd continue with German and pick up Japanese, and I carried those through to year 12.

What was it about Japanese that you liked

I think it was listening and speaking that kept me most interested in Japanese. I liked learning kanji, because you can follow the stroke order and just try it, but it's also really hard because you have to write them so many times and try to remember which one is which. You can get the meaning from the picture, and there's nothing like that in English or German. I also like the 'curly' look of the hiragana.

I like Japanese stuff. My husband loves Japanese manga and anime, so if he's putting on an anime at home, I'll watch it with him and grow to enjoy that. I love origami and furoshiki (traditional Japanese wrapping cloth). In Japan, I did Ikebana (traditional flower arrangement) and a few other things, and we did kendo together off and on. If there's something going on and it seems interesting, I'll usually join in, and in Japan there are a lot of opportunities like that.

Can you tell us something memorable about your time in Japan

I spent my 30th birthday in Kobe at a restaurant where they cook the meat on a sword like a rotisserie, then cut the meat off with another sword, Brazilian style. That night the Kobe Luminarie to commemorate the Kobe earthquake was also on.

My biggest memory in terms of achievement was going to the school cafeteria every day at Kansai Gaidai and finally getting my Katsudon with cooked egg. I had been ordering pretty much the same thing for every lunch, and I had looked up how to ask for 'cooked egg'. I'd even asked some of my Japanese friends, but day after day I wasn't getting it quite right. Finally on one of my last days there, I got the language right and got what I ordered! I'll never forget how good it felt at that time to be able to communicate by myself in Japanese! So many wonderful memories!

Edited: February 2016