Teacher Ariel Matthews brings Trinidad and Tobago's culture to Japan’s Oki Islands

Ariel Matthews poses for a picture with a few of her students in Oki Islands, Japan. - Ariel Matthews
Ariel Matthews poses for a picture with a few of her students in Oki Islands, Japan. - Ariel Matthews

The Oki Islands archipelago, located in the Sea of Japan, is well known for its abundance of fresh seafood and pristine coastal scenery. Made up of a collective of 180 islands, the terrain is quite similar to that of Trinidad and Tobago. Both countries, however, still have their distinct differences and the people there had quite a lot to learn about TT with the help of English teacher Ariel Matthews.

Matthews, 28, moved to Oki Islands (also called Okinoshima) through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). She spoke candidly with Newsday about her time in Dogo – the island where she settled and spent nearly four years – and how she was able to bring a taste of her own Trini culture to the remote island.

Matthews said Oki, much like TT, is a melting pot of influences of the many travellers who have passed through.

“While learning about Oki from a friend, they explained to me how its culture is very different to most other places in Japan,” she said. “It has such a rich culture, largely due to all the other people who’ve passed through the island or have been lucky enough to settle here. Similar to TT, the variety (in Okinoshima) is as a result of our very colourful history.”

Ariel Matthews, second from right, attends a farewell dinner with firends and colleagues on Oki Islands, Japan. - Ariel Matthews

She said the islands were once designated as an area of remote exile. Over the years, emperors, nobles, and government officials were sent there as punishment.

“Of course, this is not the place I found when I got off the ferry on August 8, 2018, and met the smiling faces of my new co-workers and friends who had come to greet me on the port.”

She said the islands are now well connected with an airport and several ferries running daily. There are local supermarkets with an abundance of fresh seafood.”

She described her first few months on the island as a bit of a challenge, but quickly grew to love her new town.

“I went through all the stages of culture shock in my first couple of months here. The honeymoon phase saw me running around Tokyo and other big cities with my friends. I was amazed at how clean everything was, how mindful of each other everyone was (and) how accessible transportation was. I was having the time of my life.”

She said, however, after a while the reality of being miles away from home settled in. “It dawned on me that I was three-four plane rides away from my family. I realised that in this small island of about 14,000, I was the only one who looked like me.”

Matthews said people would often stare at her when she left her apartment to run errands, and she became paranoid leaving her home feeling she was always being watched.

“My Japanese level was also very low, and I soon became fatigued at always trying to understand and be understood. I refused to listen to anything Japanese in my home and, to soothe my discomfort, I sought out more English speakers from other prefectures to connect with.

“This lasted for only a few months thankfully. Soon after, the stares became less frequent (or I stopped noticing) and I made Japanese friends and improved in my language ability and became comfortable with being far away from my family.

English teacher Ariel Matthews poses for a picture with the Trinidad and Tobago flag at a site in Oki Islands, Japan. - Ariel Matthews

“By the one-year mark, I was very comfortable and felt like a contributing member of my community.”

She said, however, there was still a lot about TT she missed. “getting my favourite Trini foods still took some finagling. For example, I had to order things like lentil peas, channa, saltfish, and cornmeal off Amazon as I could not get them on the island.”

She said during the pandemic, when everyone was making doubles during lockdown, she had to order tamarind from a website to do the same.

“If I wanted to eat anything remotely resembling food that we have at home in a restaurant, I had to take a ferry from the island to one of the ports on the mainland and eat then spend the night at a hostel and return home on the morning ferry.”

Combining education and cultural exchange

Matthews said she had an early interest in the JET programme as she felt it was a good opportunity for someone like her who was passionate about her country, education, and cultural exchange.

After completing her Bachelor of Education with a specialisation in English language and literature at UTT, she applied for the programme. “It came down to opportunity and interest. JET makes the goal of teaching internationally reachable. To add to that, Japan’s educational system is famous worldwide.

“There are many things about the Japanese educational system that I admire and genuinely believe would be useful to our schools here in TT.”

As a JET participant, Matthews taught at several schools as an assistant language teacher, but a significant part of her role as a participant was to be an ambassador for her country and teach her students about Trinbagonian culture.

“I am so very proud of all that I have done to teach about TT here. I have given presentations to thousands of students and teachers about our food, history and culture.

English teacher Ariel Matthews says goodbye to her students on Oki Islands, Japan In March. - Ariel Matthews

“We have been able to do it all from a Carnival mask-making event at the local culture centre to cooking Trini food at the summer camp organised for junior high school children from all four islands.

“On one special day last December, students from all 13 schools ate TT lunch carefully prepared by the school lunch centre. Posters were disseminated all over the school.”

She said when she first arrived, few people had heard of TT and no one could pronounce the name but by the time she had left, most people had been introduced to some form of TT’s culture.

Matthews has taught thousands of students and worked closely with near 100 teachers across 11 schools.

“At the end of my time on Oki I was able to build strong bonds with my students that made it so difficult to leave. I genuinely enjoyed learning and teaching the children of Oki.

Tearful goodbye

Matthews left Oki Islands in March and is now an international school teacher in Tokyo where she plans to stay for at least another year.

Before she left, however, her colleagues, students and friends on Oki Island spent her last few weeks celebrating.

“The send-off that I got was nothing that I could have ever imagined. There were numerous ceremonies and parties. I met with the Mayor of Okinoshima Town Kōsei Ikeda and the Superintendent of Education Kōichi Notsu. I gave a speech about my time in Oki and thanked them for all of their support.

“On my last day of work, flags were made with the TT flag on one side and the flag of the Oki Islands on the other. Workers from all three floors of the Town Hall stood on both sides of the aisle and I was gifted two bouquets of flowers as I walked out.

"People who I have worked with, helped me and whose kids I have taught, waved to me as I walked out the building. After that, I was ushered home in the car belonging to the head of the education department of the island. I have never felt more special in my life.”

A banner for English teacher Ariel Matthews as she leaves Oki Islands, Japan to her new job in Tokyo. - Ariel Matthews

She said a few days later, she left the island on the evening ferry but not without another tearful goodbye.

“Many people came to the port bringing gifts. I had already sent one full suitcase of gifts to my new home and I (recently) received another suitcase of gifts. People came to wish me well and express their thanks for what I have done on Oki.”

She said for an hour before the boat came, she was hugged and serenaded by well wishers in the community with ribbons tied from the boat to the people on the dock.

“I was surprised when I looked down from the ferry and saw three of my coworkers and my bosses playing musical instruments and singing, ‘Cheers! Now you appear on the big, big stage of your life. You are about to walk in the long distance way. May you have great, happy day. May you have great, happy days.’

“As the ferry pulled away from the shore, the ribbons burst and we kept waving to each other until we were out of each other’s sight. I will never forget that day and I will never forget Oki.”

Matthews says she is not sure what her future holds but her ultimate goal is to learn more about different educational systems in the hopes of one day using that knowledge to positively impact and support TTs educational system.

“I would like to continue learning, then return home and support the Ministry of Education.”


"Teacher Ariel Matthews brings Trinidad and Tobago’s culture to Japan’s Oki Islands"

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