My First Language Exchange Partner


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Her name was Shigemi. She was 35 when I met her, but looked 10 years younger. She was not the first Japanese person I met in Japan, nor the first Japanese person I’d ever met, but she was my first Japanese friend — and my first (and longest) language exchange partner.

It was my roommate who suggested that I look in Metropolis magazine for a Japanese language exchange partner. I forgot how many people I emailed, but two responded back. Shigemi’s email handle was “redheaded,” so I assumed she’d be young, punkish, and have a streak of red in her hair.

We agreed to meet at a flower shop outside of Shinjuku Station’s South Entrance, Shinjuku Station being the busiest train station in the world. I wasn’t sure how casual or formal I should dress (Japanese people tend to be more formal than Americans) so I decided on semi-casual-khakis, a blue-button down shirt, and my brown Rockports. Here’s what I wrote in my diary several days later (on August 15th):

I was nervous leaving the apt. for the appointment + only got more nervous when the train reached Shinjuku and I headed toward the South Entrance.

I saw some flowers being sold before the gate, but it wasn’t a flower shop, while there was one past the gate. Hoping I was right (for I wouldn’t be able to re-enter the gate w/o paying if I wasn’t), I went to the actual flower shop.

My heart sank when I got there – lots of pple were waiting there. As the shop was pretty big, too, how would I know who Shigemi was? She should spot me, the only American there (+ she had a good descrip[tion] of me, too), but I did walk the length of the plant shop to see if she was any of the pple standing there and to give her a better chance of spotting me. Got nervous when I saw an older woman waiting there, too (just knew Shigemi was 150 cm tall and had short hair), but it wasn’t Shigemi.

Getting no reaction from anyone, I decided to stand near the gates leading out from the station, turning every now and then to show off my green backpack (not that my face wasn’t a visible enough feature). Finally, someone walked up to me and asked if I was Greg.

Despite her email handle and working in Harajuku, her hair was a natural black, with no red streaks to be found. Unlike me, she wore a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, though she looked more stylish in them than I would have.

She asked me if Starbucks was okay. I said it was, and we headed to one across the street without saying a word. The silence was broken when she asked if I smoked, since she didn’t like smoke and one couldn’t smoke inside Starbucks (though we ended up sitting outside, where one could):

For a while, we said nothing, then we looked at each other and laughed a few times. We started out in English, but then she wanted to speak Japanese (at which I had a heart attack). So, the rest of the time was spent asking how to say w[or]ds and phrases in Japanese…..

I learned relatives’ names, ‘high school’ and ‘university’ translated into Japanese, numbers, and a bunch of stuff in between, usu[ally] followed by a pause and nervous laughter while I thought of something else to have Shigemi teach me (she said she left her English questions at home). Also, she recommended I learn hiragana, which I plan on doing. I like her, though, and we agreed to meet again this Fri[day].

About a month later, she bought me two books: one for learning hiragana, one for learning katakana. By then, I already considered her a friend. By the end of October, I was taking Japanese lessons with a private teacher, but I continued meeting with Shigemi. We also started doing things outside of the language exchange, such as seeing a sneak preview of Elizabethtown and going to hot springs in Tokyo for the New Year (the latter with her best friend S–, who began attending our language exchanges soon after the Elizabethtown screening).

With Shigemi in front of Yu Ra Ku Onsen, Mitaka (in Tokyo), January 3, 2006

My last language exchange with her occurred on Wednesday, July 26, 2006 — at Mos Burger (the Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s, though they also have McDonald’s in Japan). We’d been meeting sporadically since April, and even more sporadically that month. Shigemi told me someone quit at her work, and she’d been working longer hours, since her boss hadn’t hired a replacement. My social life also had gotten busier. Although we ended the language exchange, we agreed to occasionally meet up and do things as friends, and if I needed anything translated, I could send it to her or S–.

I’d leave Japan less than two years later, in May 2008. The month before, I celebrated my birthday at a Korean place I’d heard about in Metropolis magazine. I hadn’t seen Shigemi or S– for a while by that point, so I was happy when they said they could come. They also proved indispensable in ordering from the menu, as my housemates and I had trouble understanding what the food items were.

Ironically, I’d picked the restaurant in Harajuku partly so that it’d be close to Shigemi’s work, but she told me she’d quit her job the previous year and now worked from home as a pattern designer — her home being far west from that location. As gifts, I received two Japanese split-toe socks from them.

Birthday dinner at Korean Organic Nabi, Harajuku, April 25, 2008

In the years since I came back home, I hardly heard from Shigemi. Even though she was on Facebook, she rarely used it. I started hearing more from S– when I found her on Facebook and began messaging her in early 2011.

In March 2012, I visited Japan for the first time since I left. One of my friends was getting married. Through S–, the three of us decided to meet at the same spot where I’d met Shigemi for many of our language exchanges — the flower shop outside the South Entrance of Shinjuku Station.

As I waited for them at the flower shop, I thought back to the first time I’d waited here for Shigemi, in 2005, and all that had happened since then. I wrote in my diary, “I could not help but be moved, and feel how much time had passed since that first meeting. I feel it now as I write this. Mono no aware indeed.”

S– arrived first. For her, too, it had been a while since she’d seen Shigemi (though not seven years). This is what I wrote in my diary about Shigemi’s arrival:

When Shigemi arrived, I noticed that she was wearing a scarf around her head….We didn’t talk about it there, though, but went to find a place to eat.

I knew what the scarf meant, but I waited until Shigemi confirmed to me that she’d had cancer instead of asking her myself. She followed it by saying, “Don’t worry.” But I worried.

I lost touch with both of them after returning to the states. Other than wishing them happy birthday on Facebook or sending them New Year’s cards (which I did every year), I didn’t keep in touch. And while they’d sent me New Year’s cards when I lived in Japan and soon after, I don’t remember receiving any from them after the wedding.

Shigemi died on December 29, 2014. She was 44 years old. I did not find out until last month, when I received a letter from her sister, thanking me for my New Year’s card and telling me the sad news. Sending my condolences to S–, she apologized for not telling me herself.

Despite being so important to me and my experience in Japan, I know very little about Shigemi.  I know she was single and originally from Fukuoka. I know she had a great sense of humor and a good laugh. Whenever I’d screw up a word in Japanese, she’d say, “Ooooohhh. You made a new word!” Once, I saw a picture of her with her family. I believe they were at her sister’s wedding (perhaps the same sister who told me of her passing).

Like most of the Japanese people I met, she was kind and thoughtful. She made Christmas ornaments for my nieces and gave them to me at my birthday party in 2008 (which they still have, just as I still have all the materials she gave me to help me learn Japanese), and even took on the task of translating multiple mangas in a weekly collection at my request (she gave up after a few panels, but she attempted it).

But there’s a lot I don’t know. I don’t know how she died. I can only assume the cancer came back. That Shigemi didn’t tell me doesn’t surprise me. She was a private person, and Japanese people aren’t ones to tell you how bad they’re doing. They don’t like to be burdens to their friends. I also don’t know why she never married. It’s common to remain single in the U.S., but it’s less common in Japan. Perhaps she enjoyed her work too much. Unlike here, Japanese women must often leave their careers once they have children.

But mainly, I don’t know what those final years were like. I hope she wasn’t in pain. I hope she was surrounded by family. I hope she received visits from her friends. Did she know, when I saw her in 2012, that it would be the last time we’d meet?

I remember her (and S–)once getting mad at me for not being honest with them. In fact, it was the only time they got mad at me. Were you honest with me, Shigemi, that last time?

I never got to tell you how much your friendship meant to me that first year in Japan, when I had few friends and no grasp of the language. I got lucky when I found you. The other language exchanges I discovered through Metropolis fizzled. You’re one of the few I kept in contact with, one of the few I wished to keep in contact with. Now I have one less New Year’s card to send out each year, and it makes me sad.

I mentioned she didn’t use Facebook much. Most of her wall is covered with birthday wishes from me. She never posted anything there, with one exception: when I wished her a happy birthday in 2011, she wrote back, “Hi Greg! ありがとう~:-)” [Thank you]

Today, a year too late, I return the sentiment.

Hi Shigemi. 本当にありがとうございました。またね。

201. At an izakaya in Shinjuku, March 21, 2012