David Raftery (Claregalway to Yamagata, Japan)

David Raftery (Claregalway to Yamagata, Japan)

 David Raftery and daughter 亜美 Ami

Claregalway native David Raftery had planned on staying for one year when he arrived in Japan to teach English. Over a decade on he has put down roots in the city of Yamagata where he is married with a daughter. All of this after coming through an earthquake and nuclear meltdown which made international headlines and saw many foreigners flee the area.

Name: David Raftery

Now living in: Yamagata, Japan

From: Claregalway


Prior to emigrating in 2004 I lived in Claregalway where I attended national school before heading on to secondary school in Calasanctius College, Oranmore, My fondest memories of growing up and living in Galway would have been playing GAA, going to watch matches and going to race meetings. The atmosphere around Galway city during race week was always something special. After secondary school I studied Arts (Public and Social Policy) at NUIG and following on from that I took a job working in Ocean Cabs in Oranmore – a hackney company in Oranmore for a year before leaving Ireland.

Oranmore was a small village back then and being the only cab office in town, everyone would know you. The transformation in Oranmore in particular has been huge! It has gone from a small village to a town and I think a lot of that had to do with having that cab office. Claregalway (where I’m from) has had a few more estates built but that’s about it. In Oranmore it seems to be still expanding. On the weekends Oranmore is buzzing and a lot of people from surrounding areas like Claregalway, Athenry, Clarinbridge all travel to Oranmore knowing that they will be able to get home afterwards. If that option was not there, it would have had the same fate as the surrounding villages. The old office use to be at the end of the village, now where the entrance to Tesco is, there is now a new office in the centre of the village called Oran Cabs.

Anyway, I decided to leave Galway in the summer of 2004 with the intention to travel Europe for a month and return to Galway. I ended up in Paris where I lived for 3 years. Then lived in Klagenfurt in Austria for a year before doing the Camino de Santiago (the way of St. James) walking 900 kilometres from France, across Spain to Santiago, where a chance encounter with someone who had taught English in Japan, lead me to Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. My intention was to spend a year before returning. This summer I will be 11 years living in Yamagata. My wife is from Yamagata and I have a 6 year old daughter who is just as proud to be from Galway as she is Yamagata. My wife’s name is 亜美 Ami. My daughter’s name is 恵礼奈 Elena.

Yamagata is a small rural city in northern Japan. People might have heard of it as a severe earthquake hit the area causing fatalities, as well as serious injuries and damage in 2011. This earthquake was also responsible for the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant which made global news in March of that year. I gave a number of updates to Galway Bay FM at the time. It was a worrying time but in general apart from some small inconveniences, like having to queue a few hours for petrol or the supermarkets not having any food everyone got on with their daily lives. I was working at a Senior High School at the time and after 3 days off everyone was back to school and working as normal. At the time many foreigners left here but I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my friends and colleagues behind. Also the foreign media, even reliable sources like the BBC over dramatized the whole incident. The BBC were based in Yamagata for a while as it was as close as they could get to the disaster area and they talked about an apocalypse and of course this made many people from Ireland tell me to leave and return home. The Japanese media just reported the facts without the drama, so locals were not as worried as people living outside of Japan. An Irish example would be during the troubles, Americans thought everyone in Ireland lived in fear of being bombed, when of course that was not the case. During the whole episode I resisted many calls to return home at the time. I saw Yamagata as my home. It didn’t feel right to ‘escape’ back to Galway when my friends and colleagues had nowhere to go. I stayed and met my wife soon after the earthquake.

Yamagata reminds me of my childhood in Galway. People leaving their keys in the car (or still running) when they go into the shop, children walk to school alone and play in groups at the local park without adult supervision. It is very safe and the people are extremely friendly and always helping each other. The climate and scenery is very different to Galway (I don’t miss the rain somehow!) but the atmosphere reminds me of a Galway past.

I think the biggest cultural difference between Japan and Ireland is that Japanese people don’t address things directly, even if someone is doing something that annoys them. In the Japanese eyes it is more important to maintain harmony within the group. Normally it will be addressed later but not directly by the 2 parties involved. An example would be that a neighbour continues to put their rubbish out on the wrong day. A number of neighbours may notice this and may even have a pleasant conversation with the offending neighbour as they are putting their rubbish out on the wrong day. The neighbour will not tell the offending neighbour that they are putting out their rubbish on the wrong day. The neighbour’s thinking would be if the offending neighbour is unaware that what they are doing is wrong, it will cause embarrassment for the offending neighbour to highlight this. If the offending neighbour is aware that what they are doing is wrong, then it could be confrontational to address it directly with the neighbour. So what will usually happen is that the neighbour will tell the head of the neighbours association and the head of the neighbours association will send out a notice to all the neighbours to remind them of the garbage days. I suppose in Ireland we would just say, “you’re putting your rubbish out on the wrong day” and take it from there, not considering how the other person might be thinking. We would probably just address it with a bit of humour!

I now work for a private English conversation school as a Regional Manager. I have passed level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are 5 levels. Level 5 being the lowest and level 1 being the highest, so I have one level to go but in my opinion I will never be fluent. When I lived in France, I could speak with a native French person and maybe 10 minutes into the conversation, they might ask, “oh you are not French?” For me that is fluency. But in Japan, because of my appearance that will never be the case. It will always be obvious that I am not a native speaker no matter how hard I study the language.

As a family we get back to Ireland quite regularly. Sometimes it can be 2 or 3 years but more recently due to weddings and family health issues we have been home even more. When we are back at Christmas I see the Christmas market as being a great addition to the city… if only we could get the weather to cooperate! We don’t have any plans to return to Galway on a permanent basis but maybe when I retire it would be nice to go back.

With my daughter I also want her to be aware of her Irish roots so we have tried to return home more often since she was born. One thing she always enjoys when we are home and something I always took for granted is seeing sheep, cows and horses in the fields where ever you go! She loves the wide open space of the countryside, taking the dog for a walk down small boreens. She is unable to do that living in a city in Japan.

She also has a 100% record for Galway wins. She was there the day Galway beat Kerry in Croke Park and the day Galway won the Leinster final down in Thurles. Obviously when she returns to Japan, she loves telling her kindergarten friends about all the things she did in Ireland.

The good old Irish staples of sausages and brown bread are some of the things I miss from Ireland while a drive around the beaches in Connemara on a sunny day is a something I both remember and look forward to fondly. A summers day in Galway…there are few better places.