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

Too Much to Write About

Writer’s block exists for people who only focus on one thing at a time, and try to force that creation into being. I discover it when not diversifying my projects or when my self-editor appears during the rough draft phase. Not all solutions can be solved quickly, and I often have to put a work away for an extended period and come back to it before I find writing or revising it easier than extracting water out of an ice cube frozen to the side of a polar bear, but that’s not my main problem with writing. My main problem is that I have too many things to write about.

Let’s say I only wrote about my life. To do that, I have to stop living for several moments in order to get that life on paper. To wait is to forget, which results in an entry filled with “I think”s and “I believe”s and “I’m not sure”s and where chronology is suspect. I also must set aside time to reflect and recall all the important details. If I remember details later, they arrive as footnotes marked with asterisks.

Or let’s say I only wrote fiction. To find subjects for fiction, I must read, and study, and live. Bonded to a computer is no way to write a work of art or entertainment. Poetry writes itself in the first draft, but I must come back to it when the rhythms are still fresh in my mind, and then again when they have become stale. Personal essays? Same thing: they take time, and always more time than I think they will, and when they are finished I have another idea for something to write about.

For example, I’ve thought about writing another post on copyright law, specifically international copyright law. This was spurred on by the news that rarefilmm.com, a website that streams public domain and non region-1 movies (you can watch for free, but a membership gives you more options), had its accounts frozen by PayPal, possibly due to an anonymous complaint about copyright infringement. In this article, I would’ve started out by writing about Wagner on the Web, a review website that got on the bad side of Bayreuth lawyers who didn’t realize that the site “featured” its recordings only in the sense that it featured reviews on them, and so sent cease-and-desist letters to its creator, who was not a corporation and didn’t have deep pockets to fight this injustice. The post would’ve been labeled “International Copyright Law and the Corporatization of the Internet.” Of course, with a title like that, I’d have to prove that this is the case, which would require hours of research — otherwise, I’m the same as everyone else who airs unsubstantiated claims as if they’re trumpeting the second coming of Christ. And then if I didn’t find any information on this phenomenon, I’m left with a memory of what happened to one site and a possible motive behind PayPal freezing the account of another.

And what was the effect? It prevents art from being spread to people who have no means of seeing it in the case of rarefilmm, and it leaves the reviews of various Wagnerian recordings to professionals who write behind paywalls — or Amazon.com — in the case of Wagner on the Web. Now, I’m all-for getting paid for writing, and if Wagner on the Web had been closed down due to that copyright infringement, I would’ve understood, but not for trumped-up charges. And if studios aren’t making movies available in the U.S., then why not have a website where you can see them? They aren’t hard copies and could be removed if the rights to those films were purchased over here, but glancing at most of the titles still in copyright, they aren’t going to make money for the studio, so what’s the motive? Artists want their work to be seen, heard, and read. Copyright law gets longer and more punitive, but we should be going the other way: shorter copyright times, longer public domain holdings. After all, the conceit that we own any of these ideas is a Western, writing-based society one. Pay me for the idea, but after so many years, let it go out into the world and fend for itself. And then I’ll release another idea into the world.

So yeah, I have too many things to write about, and the only time I get around to writing about them is when I sit down and write about them — as I’m doing now. 🙂

Changes to My Blog — The 2016 “Sidebar” Edition

I haven’t written on here since my move, which occurred back in August (the blog post appeared in September). I could argue I’ve been busy adjusting to my new place, but that’s not true. I could declare I’ve been too busy with other types of writing, but that is also not true. Finally, I could say I’ve been busy, and while I have been busy, I make time to breathe, and so I could’ve made time to write.

Therefore, I’ll be carving out more time for writing in 2016, which means less time for other pursuits, like including every single book I’ve read on my sidebar, particularly since they also can be found on my Goodreads page — go there if you’d like to know what I’m reading, what I’ve finished, and what I hope to read in the future. I even critique them…if I have time. That also means the Books I’ve Read Since 2013 tab will go away, once I’ve transferred those books to my “read” shelf on Goodreads.

Another sidebar feature that will go bye-bye is the “Featured Dreamscapes.” Right now, it includes a list of great blogs that I no longer read. It’s not their fault; their blogs are probably better now than when I read them, but how many of you read one of my posts, thought it was great, and then checked out one of these blogs? You might’ve done that when you started blogging (as did I, with help from Roger Ebert), but now?

Finally, I’m giving the axe to the “Currently Working On” section. There’s two reasons for this: 1. At any one time, I may be working on multiple things, 2. My “final revisions” for my novel have been posted under there for two years. They’re about as final as the next Final Fantasy.