May 1

News agency Kyodo News has recently been publishing monthly articles written by JET alumni who were appointed in rural areas of Japan, as part of promotion for the JET Programme. Below is the English version of the column from April 2013. Posted by Celine Castex (Chiba-ken, 2006-11), currently programme coordinator at CLAIR Tokyo.



“I do not know how much of an impact I will have on the people I have met while I have been in Japan but I do know they have had a great impact on mine. Had I not applied for the JET Programme, I do not know what my life would be today.”

Writer, director, and professor, Darryl Wharton-Rigby (Fukushima-ken, Kawamata-machi, 2005-07) hails from a family of poets and storytellers in Baltimore, Maryland. He has earned a BA in History from Ithaca College and a MFA in Film Directing from Chapman University. After being hired by MTV Films to write a screenplay based on the Japanese manga TokyoTribe 2, he moved to Japan and taught English in a small town in Fukushima. He shot his latest short film, Obon, in the town of Natori, which is one of the areas of Japan hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. He is now working on a documentary, Don Doko Don: The Yamakiya Taiko Club Story, about a group of young drummers who were displaced due to high levels of radiation in their community from the failed nuclear plant. He has earned awards and grants from the Urbanworld Film Festival, the Maryland State Arts Council, The Painted Bride Arts Center, the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and the Caucus Foundation for his work. He splits his time between Baltimore, Los Angeles and Japan where he currently lives, and credits his wife and three children as his ultimate muse.

A lifetime of happiness


One of the most satisfying and rewarding jobs in my life was working as an ALT in Kawamata in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan from 2005–2007. I have learned over the years that everything happens for a reason and that sometimes in life we are chosen to be at a certain place at a certain time.

I was 37 years old and living in Los Angeles, CA.  I was living the life of a struggling filmmaker and needed a change, a break, from my career in film, television, and theatre.  Since my first trip to Tokyo on a business trip for MTV I had been longing to return to Japan, because I knew there was more for me to learn and know about Japan. Applying for the JET Programme seemed the perfect opportunity.

From the moment I got accepted, life has moved at a rapid pace. I was placed in Kawamata, in Fukushima Prefecture, a quiet town with rice fields and rivers surrounded by mountains. My life in Kawamata was an adventure every day. I worked in two junior high schools, several elementary schools and kindergartens. It always brought a smile to my face, when I would hear students call my name, “Dariru-sensei!”  I did my best to help the Japanese teachers in the classroom with activities and games. I got to know many of the students and could tell the ones who were enthusiastic towards learning English.

Beyond the classroom, I became a part of the community. I volunteered as a teacher for the Kawamata English Circle, where we practiced English conversation, and welcomed many guest speakers from all over the world.

I was also actively involved with the Yamakiya Taiko Club. The group was nestled in the community of Yamakiya, high in the mountains of Kawamata, and practiced in the cold gymnasium of the elementary school.

Life was good, but it got even better when I met my wife, Aoi. We had a wedding ceremony in 2007 when cherry blossoms were in full bloom at Ryozen Shrine. My parents, sister, and cousin came for the ceremony along with many of the friends I had made in Kawamata. The Yamakiya Taiko Club came and performed at the wedding party.  It was an amazing turning point in my life.

Another turning point during my time in Kawamata was when I broke my finger one day while playing a game of dodge ball with a group of students at the elementary school.

I had been learning how to play taiko with the Yamakiya Taiko Club and a broken finger put an end to that. Then Megumi, the group leader, suggested that I do a documentary on the club, since I was a filmmaker prior to coming to Japan. Soon after I started filming the Yamakiya Taiko Club during performances, practices, community gatherings, anywhere I could get shots. I had no idea what my story would be, but I knew there was something special about this group of young people. Little did I know how much this project would be the foundation for something bigger.

I left the JET Programme in 2007 after two years in Kawamata to attend graduate school in Orange, CA at Chapman University, while my family remained in Yanagawa, my wife’s hometown.  After graduate school, I started teaching film at Morgan State University in Baltimore. I would return to Japan during breaks and holidays to be with my family, and visit the Yamakiya Taiko Club.

When the tragic events of March 11, 2011 happened, my family was in Yanagawa in Fukushima. At the time I was in Baltimore. The following days were some of the most harrowing of my life. I had limited contact with my wife, who was pregnant with our third child, since power and phone lines were down. I could not get back to Japan fast enough.

When I heard that the Yamakiya community in Kawamata was going to be evacuated, it broke my heart. I could not imagine what the community was going through and wanted to do something for them.

My friend Michelle Spezzacatena, who was also a former JET in Kawamata, and I managed to get funding from the Japan America Society for the TOMODACHI Initiative to invite Yamakiya Taiko Club to the USA for the 100th Anniversary of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. In April 2012, the Yamakiya Taiko Club visited the United States for the first time. They spent a wonderful time there, visiting a lot of places and meeting a lot of people interested in Japan. They performed at the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade and Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington, DC. Michelle and I were so happy to be able to give back to this community we both called home.

I am now 44 years old and I am back in Japan. I am currently working for Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia and teaching business English. I am still working on the documentary and, if things go well, I hope to have a completed cut in 2013. Looking back, I know our lives are connected in so many ways. I was in the right place at the right time. I do not know how much of an impact I will have on the people I have met while I have been in Japan but I do know they have had a great impact on mine. Had I not applied for the JET Programme, I do not know what my life would be today. Joining the JET programme is one of the smartest decisions I have ever made because coming to Kawamata literally changed my life and brought me a lifetime of happiness.

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