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Friday, Aug. 23, 2002



Living like a local


Murdo Maclean is no longer shy about wearing a loincloth and jumping into ice-cold rivers. In fact, it has become an annual event for the red-haired Scot, who has just finished his second year as a coordinator for international relations (CIR) in the town of Ogata, Oita Prefecture.

News photo
Murdo Maclean (center) and fellow performers drum it out in front of Harajiri Falls in Ogata with two local Kagura performers.

Every November, dozens of townsmen wearing loincloths carry mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines) across the frigid river in a ceremony dating back nearly 800 years. Maclean is believed to be the first foreigner to have participated in the event.

"To be asked to participate in the Kawagoshi Festival has been a great privilege," says Maclean. "People here have welcomed me into their lives in a special way."

Ogata takes pride in its vibrant cultural heritage and scenic beauty. This is reflected in the town's lively celebration of local festivals and also in the care taken by residents to preserve the traditional farmhouses and picturesque old irrigation canals that carry pure water from the surrounding mountains to the rice fields.

Maclean is not the first CIR to be captivated by the beauty of Ogata. In fact, the two former CIRs who worked there were so enamored of the town they decided to settle in the area.

American Julie Hadano married an Ogata man and is now a mother of two. "I found a deep and supportive community spirit here," she says. "The attitude of the people is very warm and positive."

Despite being well prepared, Maclean experienced culture shock when he arrived in Ogata in the summer of 2000. As a Japanese-language and marketing major at the University of Stirling's Scottish Centre for Japanese Studies, his language skills enabled him to read Japanese newspapers and to debate on difficult topics. But he was not prepared for the local dialect.

"At university I debated in standard Japanese on scientific and political issues," says Maclean. "But when I arrived in Ogata, I asked myself, 'Is this really Japanese?' Being able to talk about genetics didn't get me too far with the local grandpas."

As a coordinator for international relations, Maclean's work involved teaching English at the town's elementary schools several times a week. It was also an opportunity for him to share his Scottish heritage with the community. Walking into the classrooms dressed in a kilt of his clan's tartan and teaching traditional Scottish dances and games made Maclean popular with the local children.

"For a country town, I was surprised to find everyone so naturally open and friendly," Maclean remarks. "Especially the children. Every time we met they gave me so much energy."

When Maclean discovered that the thistle, the national flower of Scotland, grew wild in the mountains around Ogata, he developed an even stronger sense of affinity with the town and its people. Last summer he escorted groups of townspeople to Scotland where they experienced home stays and joined Maclean's friends and family in traditional Scottish feasts.

At the city office, Maclean's duties included helping to promote local festivals and cultural events. He wrote a monthly column in Japanese for the local magazine and introduced town events on regional radio talk shows. In his free time, he joined a local taiko drumming group and began participating in festival events. Working, living and playing side by side with Ogata residents allowed him to quickly develop an ear for the local dialect and find a place for himself within the community.

"The mutual respect that people here have for each other is something I rarely experienced back in England," Maclean mentions. "Here I have not been treated as a foreigner. Everyone is easygoing and we can share normal conversations together."

Maclean first became interested in learning Japanese as a student at Fettes College, a boarding school near Edinburgh. Several of his classmates were Japanese, and he was intrigued by their electronic gadgets, manga and video games.

"Those guys were real colorful and outgoing people," Maclean comments. "Not like the typical image I had of Japanese as being shy and reserved."

When his new friends spoke Japanese together, Maclean was inspired to learn the language so that he, too, could one day join in their lively conversations. During his university studies, Maclean spent a semester at Kobe University.

It was an opportunity to meet up with some of his Japanese school friends who had returned home.

"They were surprised to hear me speaking Japanese," Maclean recalls. "One of them said: 'Now I realize that you are not any different from me.' I told him, 'I always knew that. Now that I speak Japanese you realize that, too.' "

Maclean will soon return to Scotland to help take care of his ailing father. Before leaving Japan, Maclean talked with his co-workers at Ogata town office about his two-year experience.

"I remarked on how meaningful it had been for me to have participated in the Kawagoshi Festival," Maclean says. "And my boss commented: 'You are welcome to come back anytime you can and join us.'

"Hearing those words touched me deeply," Maclean says. "And I'm sure someday I will return to Ogata ."


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