Letter from Japan #3

“Loneliness does not come from being alone, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important.”

Dear Bob,

This is kind of where I’m at now.

I swear it’s always the 3 month mark in any new situation where the novelty wears off and the challenges present themselves. And one of mine, it seems, will be loneliness. But not the kind that comes from being alone. I mean the kind that comes from being around other people all day long who you, for whatever reason, can’t be close to.

It doesn’t always have to be because of the language barrier, but in this case it is mostly that. And, yes, I know it’s part and parcel of the job, to be largely not understood and struggle to understand, but it got to me a bit this month.  I’m not sure why. I think it’s because I’m at the point where I’m building relationships with my students (the classes are so small) so there’s naturally more desire to connect verbally as we do non verbally, and it obviously does not come as easily.

It’s good though, the struggle. It means we’re trying. We know there’s something to try for and we know we’re far off. Like my post on self-loathing. I’m very much a people person in that I want to and need to feel close to people I spend a lot of time with, and so the trying and failing can be draining, like a negative on the social scale where at least being alone is a peaceful 0. But I must remember, this isn’t supposed to fulfill me socially  – this is my job!

Anyway, it’s ok with my adult students. We have to work at it, but we do get there eventually. My company man tries so hard to explain his work drama, the nuances of which are pretty complicated even in the same language, but he does it! Through blood, sweat, tears and translator, we did it! And we were closer after that. Only to start at square one from the next week’s lesson, but we got there and that’s what matters.

It’s not so possible with the kids though. At least not verbally. My littlest ones keep forgetting I don’t speak Japanese and I’m not sure realize quite fully that it’s a class where we come to learn English and I’m allllll the way from Canada for you, so please try. They feel comfortable with me now so are always rambling on to me in Japanese assuming I understand, and I have to interrupt them with sad eyes and “nihongo wakaranai” (“Japanese don’t understand”). Then they kind of deflate and go “senseiiiiiiiii” and I know exactly how they feel. It’s funny, if they could speak English I think I’d know what they’d say. Kids are easy like that. But the CLASSES, my god, are the most challenging part of the whole job. In order to keep the class afloat (as in not descending into total chaos) I must use shamefully cheap tricks and manipulation to get them to speak in English or to pay attention to me and I just can’t keep it up for an hour. It’s so stressful. I feel like I’m doing a bad job.

Anyway, this is my most negative view of it all and it only gets me down when I have what I am hoping is hormone imbalance. On the good days, which are most of them, I fully grasp that language is not the only important thing when it comes to making a connection and see what makes this job so fun and fulfilling. For instance, I am really enjoying trying to distill complex ideas into the simplest language possible. That’s just good practice always. Concepts and feelings are universal even if a language is not, and you don’t have to dress up your language to get them across.

One thing I’m doing now with my more advanced students is giving them Japanese words that have no English translation (that I find on the internet, or they teach me once they catch my drift) and have them try to explain/expand it in English. This is fun for all.

A few I’ve learned:

Otsukaresama desu: roughly “You must be tired from all the hard work.” said at the end of the work-day to a coworker as a goodbye. I also saw it used in a movie as a congratulations on your retirement.

Kuidaore: when a city (specifically Osaka) has a large variety of food for a reasonable price such that you spend a lot of money.

Sonnakotonaiyo: if someone accuses you of doing something wrong, but you really are innocent, you say this in protest.

Nori ga ii: to describe a feeling of good vibes between people or in a group.

Mononoaware: kind of old school, but it’s the awareness of the temporary nature of things which brings on a melancholy feeling.

Majime: If you can find the common denominator between serious, diligent, honest, earnest, reliable, and drama-free…that is majime. Doing what you’re supposed to, in a work-sense.


I had the perfect experience yesterday at the post office which was representative of this month’s frustration and release. I was trying to mail a package home and it is really not that simple. Neither I nor anyone there could speak anything useful in each other’s language, and even making do with the translator app it took a while to get that I had to write down everything that was in the package in great detail, which I did, only be told at the very end, the last item on my list, that I was not allowed to send natto. I had no time to repack so I translated that I’d come back later. The post office lady seemed truly embarrassed or something that she had put me through this for naught.  It was a bit much. Maybe she expected me to get upset, I don’t know. I wanted to tell her it’s ok, she’ s just doing her job, I’m not mad, it only took that long because we don’t speak the same language…. and then it came to me! “Shouganai”, which basically means “Oh, well. It can’t be helped; it’s out of our control; no use getting upset”  As soon as I said that, it being the only Japanese uttered during the entire charade, her and the staff who were watching collectively froze for a moment and then melted. That’s how it was. Just like that, no barrier. I understood. They understood. They understood that I understood. Etc. It was beautiful. I mean, it’s bullshit that they couldn’t just forget about the natto, but it’s not shitty of them and to get that across in one word so effectively, like a bridge from me to them, was so! Damn! Beautiful!

Ugh, I do miss instantaneous understanding. Closeness. I am so dramatic in my head and I would rather not lay it on the family here, the only English speaking people, so there’s no one here I can really tell these things to. And it’s important that I do. So thank you Bob for asking me to write these letters.  It sure takes the edge off.


P.S. This is my new favorite sweater to replace my old favorite sweater that says “Cheer Up”, which I bought ironically because it is in fact one of the most offensive things to say to someone sad. This one says “Majime” (backwards)!

6 thoughts on “Letter from Japan #3

  1. I am enjoying your letters. Our daughter spent 8 weeks in Japan some yrs ago. She knew some Japanese & visited some people who had home-stayed with us. She has many good memories of her trip.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I look forward to reading these “Letters from Japan” – they are a good combination of learning what makes us different and what makes us similar. For example, Concepts and feelings are universal even if a language is not, and my job is less about translating words and their literal meanings than the class they have before with one of the brothers, which is longer and more formal. The idea is that they come to me to be exposed to a foreigner where they are forced to use what they learn and I have to devise fun and interesting ways to get it out of them. It’s inherently absurd and I like that. Except when they don’t give a shit about my special foreigner status (as they shouldn’t…?) which paints a picture of the class itself and an insight into the mind behind the letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The current UCSB newsletter has an article on the spiritual world in Japan. Read it here. “Called “tama” or “tamashii,” spirits of deceased ancestors are considered very real in contemporary Japanese culture — a belief that goes back centuries.”

    Have you fr33wh33l run across any of this?


  4. I enjoy your Letters from Japan. The personal aspect is interesting and relatable. I find it very interesting that such a school exists anywhere, especially in a culture that has always seemed to me to be very controlled. For you .. any person .. to have come by such a job is pretty interesting too. I admire your courage to walk into, and stay in, such a huge unknown.


    • Thank you! I can’t believe my luck either. I wonder if it really is that rare or if I’m witnessing the beginning of a new education movement. As for the the courage thing…I don’t really see it like that – I think it takes more courage to commit a to person, place, or job not knowing how it will turn out than constantly changing lives, as I do. But thank you!


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