My First Language Exchange Partner

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


Goodbye to 5 1/2 Years of My Life

December 24, 2009 -- a few weeks after I moved in
My former home, taken on December 24, 2009

On December 18, 2009, I moved from my friends’ house to a shared house in Seattle (I mention the move in A Slight Interruption in Service, but I never did an entry on the place itself).  For 5 1/2 years, I lived at the same address.  None of my housemates at the beginning of this time were my housemates at the end, though several stayed well beyond their six-month leases.

Earlier this year, my landlord told me of his intentions to sell the house.  He’d told me of the possibility of selling the house as far back as two years ago, but competing plans made it unclear what would actually happen to the place.  Though he assured all us tenants that our leases would continue under the new owners, I was leery, and began looking for a new place, particularly when he junked a couch swing I’d saved and put in the backyard.  That to me was the death knell of my old way of life.

As you enter the front, 12/24/09
As you enter the front, 12/24/09

Or, I should say, began preparing myself to move, for I didn’t start looking until he found a buyer.  That was early in July, roughly a few weeks after he’d put the house on the market.  One of my former housemates had expressed interest — with his father — of buying the property and continuing to run it as a rental unit, but the asked-for price was too high.

Initially, the owners assured my landlord that contracts would remain the same (all of us were month-to-month, minus one person who was on a three-month lease, signed through September).  Same rent.  Same rooms.  Same arrangement.  On the day I went to look at my first rental property– with a friend and coworker of mine, whom I’d decided to become roommates with — I got a call from my landlord.  Phone reception was bad where I was, so I listened to the message on the way back home.

It was Sunday, July 19th.  The owners had changed their mind.  After a walk-through the week before, they’d come back with a non-negotiable position.  All tenants had to be out by the end of August.

Back of the house, with shed, 12/24/09
Back of the house, with shed, 12/24/09

I later found out this was illegal (Seattle law requires 60-days notice if a single-family unit is sold and the new owners no longer wish to rent it out), but by that point, I’d found a new apartment, and since no one in my house seemed to care, I took no further action.  Ownership transferred hands on August 12th, a Wednesday.  I moved out on Saturday, August 15th, with critical help from a few friends and a UHaul van.  I later went back to grab a microwave from one of my former housemates and some cleaning supplies I’d bought but had left for other tenants to use.  I found carpets ripped up, boxes and appliances piled up in the yard, and no more shed in back.

A casualty of the move -- my heavy-ass tube TV, which I left for the new owners
A casualty of the move — my heavy-ass tube TV, which I left for the new owners

No matter.  I’ve now been in my new place over a month.  Boxes are unpacked, furniture is in place, and nothing broke in the move (one DVD got dislodged from its holder, but it should be okay).  I’m surprised how easy the transition was (the transition to living in a new place, not the move itself), especially since my home in the U-District was the longest I’ve lived at one address since adulthood.  Perhaps it was time for a change.  I’d been growing stagnant and frustrated in the months leading up to the sale of the house.  Now, at my new place, I can start over, yet again.

August 31, 2015, without shed
August 31, 2015, where the shed used to be

My Japanese Adventure Began 10 Years Ago Today

Ten years ago, I arrived in Japan.  This was after the insanity of 9/11 and the shoe-bomber, but before the insanity of 3-1-1 containers for liquid.

I flew out on Wednesday, June 15 at 9:06am from Hartford to Detroit.  In Detroit, I saw the first sign of security madness then infecting our airports.  All foreign visitors were told by a TSA agent that they had to get thumb-printed before they left the country, or they might not be let back in.  Paranoia as policy.  I don’t think many of the guests complied.

Then again, the group I flew with on the plane disregarded the fasten seatbelt sign except when we were taking off and landing.  A combination of turbulence, food, and lack of sleep made me as close to plane sickness as I’ve ever come.

We were scheduled to land at 4:25 pm (12:25 am Seattle time), and I believe we landed pretty close to that time.  Customs was a breeze (as it usually is for me), but I had trouble finding my contact person, who was supposed to be holding a NOVA sign.  His name was Dan, and he had a bald head.  Others joined us, including a young husband and wife with gear that made me think they were traversing Mt. Fuji straight from the airport.  I also witnessed two friends meeting at the airport, both female: one Japanese, one American.  If I had to guess, I’d say they were high school age, and the Japanese girl was so happy that her friend was here in Japan.  I saw other reunions, too, but between Japanese men and women.

I received a packet of information at the airport, which included a phone card, preloaded with 500円.  I couldn’t get to work, so I used the computers at the terminal and sent an email to everyone, telling them I had arrived.

What followed was a long train ride from Narita Airport to my new address in Musashi Koganei. Along the way, our group got smaller, until it was only me and Dan.  When we exited Musashi Koganei Station (after transferring to another line, which I later learned was the Chuo), a light drizzle greeted us.  Dan used his cell phone once outside the station to make sure we were going in the right direction.  My bags slowed me down, and I stopped often along the way.   We also stopped at a convenience store, so that I could buy some food.  The husband of the husband-and-wife team at the airport had told me that the Japanese will change any denomination, and indeed, they changed my 10,000円 bill (roughly $100) for food that couldn’t have cost more than ten bucks.  Afterwards, Dan congratulated me on my first transaction in Japan.

I wouldn’t meet my roommate until the following morning, so I spent a lonely night in my new room, with nasty Japanese mosquitoes.  It was in a place called Birdland Koganei, reachable only by four flights of stairs.

I didn’t know it then, but at 26 years old, I was about to embark upon the greatest experience of my life.