Hamish Downie’s Five Questions With Amy Chavez
Editor Note: Hamish has another in his series of Five Questions With…
Hamish came up with this idea because he was accumulating too much material for his Famous News Sushi column and asked if he could do these mini-interviews. Why would we say no?
Thank you Hamish for being such a trooper for us. We really appreciate all for your hard work.
Let us know what you think of these interviews in the comments below.
TGG: Could you tell us about yourself and what brought you to Japan?
AC: I was finishing a masters degree in Teaching English as a Second Language in the U.S. and through a sister school relationship came to Japan to complete my six-month teaching practicum in Okayama Prefecture. Through those connections, I found a job at a university in Okayama.
TGG: One of the rare people who are actually qualified to be teaching in Japan! Could you tell us about your recently released book?
AC: The Widow, The Priest and The Octopus Hunter: Discovering a Lost Way of Life on a Secluded Japanese Island was released by Tuttle Publishing in Japan in July, 2022 and in other countries in May. It’s an oral history of the inhabitants of Shiraishi Island in the Seto Inland Sea, where I’ve lived for the last 25 years. It covers the periods from Taisho to Reiwa, so the past century in Japan. The population is currently 430 people, and many of the old customs and traditions are rapidly disappearing. When I first moved to the island, there were 950 people and I rented a house from a WWII war widow. This started my curiosity about war widows, WWII and the lives people led on these islands during that time. I interviewed 31 people on how their lives have changed over the years, and uncovered unusual customs and manners, some of which are still in place today, but all threatened with extinction through aging and depopulation.
TGG: What was the biggest thing you learned while living on a small Japanese island?
AC: It’s a very admirable culture that is inclusive and supportive. There are very strong bonds here and to me, it seems like the ideal that so many are searching for when they dream of moving out to the countryside, growing their own food, remodeling a house, being more self-sufficient, and working remotely. I don’t understand why more people don’t live here!
TGG: You‘ve written a book on how to behave while in Japan. What’s a common faux pas you see people making, and what should they do instead?
AC: We get a lot of foreign tourists on Shiraishi Island, and as the English liaison for tourists, I felt there were many people who would be interested in having Japanese manners explained. Thus, Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan (Stone Bridge Press 2018). You have to keep in mind that when people first come to Japan, they know nothing about Japanese customs. They can’t imagine that anything would be that different from home. They think, “I’m already a polite person.” Yet, this is the biggest mistake you can make! So I attempted to write a book that was as much a cultural guide as it is a manners guide. I believe that the only reason people do rude things is because they don’t think that what they’re doing is rude. Once they know the unwritten rules, they’re usually happy to comply. Believe me, I made all the mistakes in the book when I first came here too.
Probably the biggest faux pas I see concerns the concept of time. For example, I often see people showing up late for meals. If you’re staying in a Japanese accommodation (minshuku or ryokan) that serves meals, you’re expected to eat at the appointed hour, even if it’s 8:00 a.m. for breakfast (when you’d rather sleep in), or 6:00 p.m. for dinner (when you’d hoped to watch the sunset). Many Japanese style accommodations are family run, which means limited staff and trying to accomplish chores as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they can get the rooms ready for the next guests. If you make reservations at a restaurant, however, you’re expected to be on time (if not a little early). Always check out of any accommodation on time too. If you can grasp this concept of time, you’ll be fine. But you still probably won’t be as polite as the Japanese, who will arrive or check-out five minutes before the appointed hour, just to avoid treading the deadline. It pays to know these things and you’ll save yourself lots of embarrassment!
TGG: Finally, how can we best support you?
AC: The best support you can give any author is to comment on their book on Goodreads or Amazon. It only has to be a sentence or two.
Of course, you have to get ahold of the book first, so:
You can buy my books at regular English book shops such as Kinokuniya and Maruzen in Japan (and abroad), at the Laughing Oyster Bookshop in Canada https://laughingoysterbooks.com/item/PvQT84QcBM9skLMJJUdhXQ and of course at Amazon https://amzn.to/3PDWB7c and Amazon Japan https://amzn.to/3cs07TV
Tip #1: If a bookstore doesn’t have it, you should be able to order it by giving the book’s ISBN number: 978-4-8053-1691-7 (The Widow, The Priest and The Octopus Hunter) or 978-1611720433 (Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan).
Tip #2: You can always order it at your local library and have them buy it for you. Thank you!
If you’d like to know more about Japanese manners, I give real life examples and tips on my Japanese manners Facebook Page here: https://www.facebook.com/amyonasia
And on my personal Twitter account: @JapanLite
To follow my updates about living on a small island of 430 people in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, I post frequently to this dedicated Facebook page for the book: https://www.facebook.com/DiscoverShiraishi/
For those interested in visiting the places they read about, Shiraishi Island (Okayama Prefecture) has a beautiful beach, hiking trails, a 10km pilgrimage, and a nice guesthouse called Shiraishi International Villa.
I also run a book review site and podcast called Books on Asia
Website: Books on Asia
Subscribe to the BOA podcast at https://linktr.ee/booksonasia