Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Villager in the Spotlight

Mayu Tao (my-u tau) and I sit in her living room with sweating cups of iced tea in front of us. I've asked for 10 minutes of her time to capture a little of her story for my blog. Our 10 minute chat turns into an hour long journey into her family's history with Nishiokoppe, cut short only by the fact that I have to pick up Nova at school.

In Japan you are only to call someone by their first name if invited to do so. Otherwise they are forever known to you by their family name with the respectful form of san or, if they're a teacher, sensei attached to the end. I see Mayu Tao and her husband every morning at the local convenience store. From the beginning they have felt to me like the older aunt and uncle who quietly look after you. For this reason I address them as Mr. and Mrs. Tao, an Americanized endearment they don't seem to mind.

The Taos are successful entrepreneurs and one of the village's oldest families. Mr. Tao's grandfather started the first local store here in 1919. He and his family, bravely migrated from the southern island of Shikoku to the vastly undeveloped wilderness of Hokkaido. The store they started, the first in Nishiokoppe, stands in a different location now but is still in business. Nine years ago, the Tao's decided to manage a Seicomart, part of a large franchise chain of convenience stores that dot Hokkaido roadways every 10 miles or so. The Taos also own a home heating fuel station, a car wash and a gas station.

Mr. Tao walked into the living room, which is attached to the back of their shop, and handed me a heavy picture book. We thumbed through pages of Nishiokoppe's history in photos. In many he pointed out a long-passed family member, then himself as a boy, then as young man, eventually I was able to pick him out of a crowd myself.

The Toa's love to travel. They proudly list the places they've been; Germany, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland. Mr. Toa speaks fondly of his time in Juneau chaperoning Nishiokoppe middle schoolers . He said his favorite thing about being in Juneau was "it's heart". Mrs. Tao's most favorite were her two trips to Hawaii.
Of the two, Mrs. Tao speaks the better English. With no help from my Japanese dictionary she told me she moved to Nishiokoppe 39 years ago when she was 20 after she had met Mr. Tao in Sapporo. The two were married at the local shrine. She wore a traditional kimono. She learned English grammar and writing in middle school but her conversation skills, which are impressive, came from talking with visiting English teachers over the past 10 years. The Toa's son Tsukasa, his wife Hiroko and their newborn son Ryoto live with them and help manage the businesses.

I look at the clock and can't believe an hour has gone by, my tea untouched. I've been captivated by their stories. This is the most anyone has shared with me about themselves in one sitting since we've been here. The Taos have been extraordinarily friendly and helpful to us and many of the visiting Juneau families. Every morning as I groggily shuffle into Seicomart for milk and eggs, I am grateful for Mrs. Tao's smiling face and kind words.

Thank you for sharing your story.