‘There’s much more to Japan than just Tokyo’: Rob Thomson on life in Hokkaido

This article is Part 1 of a two-part series on two Kiwis – Rob Thomson and Corey Wallace - who live long term in Japan and work at universities there. Dr Rob Thomson is Associate Professor (Communications) at Hokusei Gakuen University, Sapporo and a keen outdoor wilderness enthusiast. He spoke to Dr Anita Perkins from his office in Hokkaido about what keeps him loving life in Japan’s northern-most island.

A chance friendship in Southland sparks a lifelong connection with Japan

A surprising friendship at an Invercargill intermediate school first sparked Rob Thomson’s interest in languages and cultures outside New Zealand. Rob became great mates with Kota Ando, a new student from Japan who spoke no English on his arrival in Southland. Later, when Rob was fourteen, he spent three weeks with Kota’s family in Japan. “I think that sparked my interest in the daily stimulation of being in a culture that was different to the culture I'd grown up in.” At age 16 he did an AFS exchange which really solidified his Japanese language skills.

Rob Thomson. Image: Supplied

Rob says his interest in the world beyond Aotearoa could have just as easily set his path toward another country. However, it was his experiences with the Ando family and on his AFS exchange in Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most island, which led him to a life-long connection with Japan. “It made sense that if I was going to live in a country different to the one that had grown up in it would be Japan.”

From Japan around the world and back

At the same time, Rob’s journey to living in Japan long term was not linear. After majoring in Japanese at Canterbury University he spent two years on the JET English teaching programme and a third year working at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Kysushu. At that point he became somewhat disenchanted with where he was living. “I got to the end of those three years, and I decided, I think Japan is not for me. I didn't really like the fact that it was really humid and hot in the summer, and I didn’t like some aspects of the topography such as the low mountains and compact valleys. I missed the big wide open spaces of New Zealand and really wild, natural environments.”

Rob saved up, left Japan, and travelled the world by bike and skateboard, gaining a Guinness world record in the process. At the end of that amazing adventure he ended up back in New Zealand where he was feeling suffocated by the familiarity. It was then he met his future wife, Haidee Thomson, who had experienced life in Niseko ski resort in Hokkaido. “Haidee switched me onto the fact that Hokkaido has big open spaces and proper winters.” Rob was sold and the couple relocated to Sapporo.

Hokkaido's outdoor attractions drew Rob to the area. Image: Supplied

University life in Sapporo

Following the completion of his Masters and PhD, Rob became Associate Professor of Communications at Hokusei Gakuen University. A common thread in his studies is cross cultural psychology. This includes looking at how people in different countries, particularly Japan versus the US, engage in social media as a result of different value structures. In his current role he gives lectures and seminars in English for Japanese students. He carries out research, including on different cultural responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Rob is also involved in various university committees, and hosting university open days. This includes work to attract new students to the university where the population of 18 year olds in Japan is decreasing.

Exploring the wilderness and remote corners of Hokkaido

Outside of academia Rob and Haidee share a love of the outdoors. “It gets to Thursday; we look at the weather and think ‘where are we going to go?” They climb, ski backcountry or sea kayak, often followed by a soak in a hot spring or ‘onsen.’

Rob shares newfound adventure routes on his website, HokkaidoWilds.org. He also co-created the first comprehensive backcountry ski map of Hokkaido. Rob consulted with local communities on the development of the map and received a lot of support for the way in which it helps inform skiers, including foreign visitors, about safe practices and etiquette in Hokkaido’s backcountry ski areas.

Rob is constantly amazed at the new exploration opportunities on offer. His next outdoor pursuits goal is to paddle for 5 days around the remote Shiretoko Peninsula. The Peninsula is closer to Russian land than any Japanese city. Through the mapping he has done, other people are coming to realise the adventures that can be had on Hokkaido. Rob says “If all you've known about Japan is the anime and crazy hairstyles and big cities, you would think that represents Japan. But Japan has more forested areas than New Zealand and it’s extraordinarily mountainous. I find that very normal now. That is my Japan.”

A strong love for Hokkaido

A landscape ripe for adventure, daily cultural learning opportunities and an affordable cost of living are just some of the reasons that keep Rob in Hokkaido long term. “I see myself as a kiwi obviously, but it also feels very normal living here. That partly comes with fluency in the language and culture. For example, social hierarchies are built into the language. So being able to effectively use honorific language makes whoever you're interacting with feel more comfortable engaging with you.

Rob feels at home in Sapporo. He explains, “Now, when people say, ‘Do you like Japan?,’ I say, ‘Japan is ok, but I love Hokkaido.’”

Rob Thomson is a graduate member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network.

- Asia Media Centre