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


The Road Untraveled

Sometimes I feel like living in some small hideaway in some foreign land, away from the eyes of the world.  No Internet.  No phone.  Perhaps an address, so that I may still receive letters, and a typewriter, so that I may still write, but everything stripped to its elements, with little technology and little connectivity to the world at large.  A self-contained bubble, where I would live with my wife and we would raise our family and when I died, I would be put in the earth, and the townsfolk would mourn, and I would be forgotten.

I usually have these thoughts when I am in a place where nature dominates humanity, or when I am frustrated with my current situation.  Sometimes I am so caught up in the thrill of seeing nature and people, but the barest of man-made structures, that I can see myself living there, communing with nature, and never having to see a soul to be happy.

It’s this aspect of myself that loves to wander, to travel, to see the world.  Visiting places on my own, especially off-season, is a wonderful way not just to learn something of the earth and of myself, but to meet other people whom I would normally never meet.  Somehow, it’s easier to meet people when they travel in small bunches, rather than when they move in large herds.

And technology.  While I can keep in touch easier with friends than before, I don’t, because less effort is involved in writing an email than writing a letter, or connecting through Skype over paying for a long distance call.  But being connected is different from feeling connected, for of all the things my friends post on Facebook, few postings dig deep.  Emails still have the power to dig deep, but pouring one’s feelings out on a screen seems less personal than doing it on paper.

I like sun, yet I live in a city where the sun is seldom seen during the dying months of October through March.  I wake to rain and then sleep under skies cloudless and cold.   And so, often around this time, I think about moving to a little village somewhere, far from all I know.  Of course, I love my family too much to move too far away from them, as being away from them for too long in Japan was one of the reasons I returned.  For that reason, I wonder if my wanderings are over.  I am still not tied down to anything.  I have no wife, no fiancée, not even a girlfriend, which makes me wonder sometimes if I fit the temperament of this place, or if I should move to an unfamiliar place where the people are more familiar.  I can escape in books, and movies, and video games, and music, but one should not shut out the world that exists for ones that do not.  There needs to be a balance.  Woe is the person who lives without books, but woe, too, to the person who lives exclusively through them.

What I find in sleepy villages and small towns, in friendly people and gorgeous weather, in beautiful seascapes and welcoming forests, is “some small measure of peace, that we all seek, and few of us ever find” (The Last Samurai).  I hope someday that I can find and keep that peace.  Someday, I will settle down and not feel anxious, not feel the need to run away, to escape, to hide in some remote part of the world.  And that is when I will know that I am home.

Gaijin Boyfriend

She didn’t notice the first time he came in. Or rather, she didn’t remember. At some point, it just seemed like he had always been there.

She didn’t notice the first time he came in. Or rather, she didn’t remember. At some point, it just seemed like he had always been there.

He was handsome, but more because of his exotic looks than because he had a pretty face, though it was small and oval-shaped, as compared to her melon-shaped one. His nose was small but long, he had good straight teeth—which he flashed sometimes when he smiled—and he often wore a shirt and tie, though the tie disappeared on the hottest of days, and Tokyo in July could be quite hot, not to mention humid.

She did not know the man’s name, and while her name was written on her name badge, she wasn’t sure that he could read it. Kanji was muzukashii—difficult—for foreigners to learn.

Her conversations with the man were limited. He would come in to the little Internet cafe, where she worked when not helping out her parents at home (her duty as the youngest and only unmarried daughter), and get her attention. She would ask what he was there for.

“Intanetto,” he would say.

She would show him the price plan. He could pay by the minute, for three hours, or for five hours. He’d point to the minute plan. She’d give him a small clipboard with his cubicle number, printed on a sheet of paper, attached to it. He’d take it and go. Sometimes, he would come back and ask for paper and use of the printer. She’d ring up the paper for him. If there was a problem with the printer, he’d come get her, speaking in broken Japanese and making gestures for her to follow him. He never touched the manga or magazines that were on the racks, though she sometimes caught him looking at the women who adorned the front covers.

Then, one day, after finishing his session and while she was ringing him up, he said, “Sumi masen desu ga, namae wa nan desu ka [Excuse me, but what is your name]?”

“Fumiko desu,” she replied.

“Fumiko? Hajime mashite. Jahn desu.”

She responded with a quick and shallow bow, bending from the waist, and said the rest of the greeting, “Yorōshiku o negai tashimasu.”

In response, he bowed slightly, arms at his side. She told him how much he owed, writing the amount down on a piece of paper and showing it to him as she spoke. He paid. She gave him his change. He waved and said, “Ja, mata.”

She waved and said, “Bye-bye,” in that girlish way in which Japanese women infuse an American word for farewell with as much “kawaii”-ness as possible.

After that, whenever he entered the Internet cafe, he greeted her by name.

“Konnichi wa, Fumiko-san.”

To which she would reply with a short bow and an answering, “Konnichi wa.”

There was another girl who worked there. Her name was Sachiko. She was the exact opposite of Fumiko. Thin, intelligent, and beautiful. Popular with the guys and her professors, though for different reasons. She said it was because, for the latter, she’d open her books, while for the former, she’d open her legs. Much of what Sachiko said wasn’t true, however, and she had followed this statement with one of her trademark laughs. Except for the rare night out, Fumiko and Sachiko only saw each other in passing, when one of them came to relieve the other of her shift.

Some time after John had begun greeting Fumiko by name, Sachiko pulled her aside, right as Fumiko was about to start her shift, and whispered, “[Your boyfriend asked for you yesterday.]”

“[Boyfriend? I don’t have a boyfriend.]”

“Gaijin-san,” Sachiko replied, using the honorific with the somewhat derogatory Japanese word for “foreigner.”

“[Oh, him. What did you tell him?]”

“[I gave him your work schedule and cell phone number.]”


Sachiko answered with a laugh.

As mentioned before, the Internet cafe was small. So small, in fact, that it didn’t serve any drinks, unless one counted the drink machine that stood outside the front entrance of the building. The cubicles were spread out in a tiny cross pattern, which was ironic, since the sufferings of Christ often came to mind while trying to fit into one of these confined spaces. If the customer didn’t mind a loss of privacy, he or she could use one of three computers lined up near a window, which afforded the user a view of the equally cramped street below.

The door to each cubicle looked like one-half of the doors that led to saloons in the Wild West, except that the wood was smooth. Coats could be hung over a solitary peg attached to one of the cubicle’s walls.

There were twenty cubicles in all, each big enough to barely fit a computer desk and a rolling desk chair inside. On the computer desk sat a monitor, mouse (but no mousepad), and keyboard. Underneath the desk stood the tower. Speakers weren’t included, as music would disturb the other users, but headphones could be asked for at the front desk. Apparently, cigarette smoke would not disturb the other users, as smoking was allowed. While Fumiko’s dad smoked, she couldn’t stand the smell, which is why she often cracked open one of the windows or turned on the small fan behind the counter when she was working.

The final items in the cubicle were pencils and scrap paper, a wastebasket, and slippers. The slippers were optional. Unlike in certain restaurants and people’s homes, it was okay to wear shoes in here.

The cubicles were the farthest structures from the door. The closest structures to the door were the magazine racks, filled with weekly and daily manga magazines, which looked more like phone books than glossies. This cafe didn’t stock sex manga or pornography, but every other kind of manga—and magazine—filled the shelves.

The front desk was to the right of the door, facing the magazine racks. As one walked past the magazine racks, and away from the desk, one encountered manga in book form. Next to them, and perpendicular to the cubicles, were the bathrooms. But, let’s return to where Fumiko spent most of her time: the front desk.

It looked more like a counter than a desk. Only four items sat on it: the cash register, the price list (in an upright plastic case), a bell, and a money tray. The clipboards were stacked in pigeon holes attached to the wall shared by the door. Stacks of white paper, for the printer, also were behind the counter, as was a stool with a black cushion on the seat. The cushion had a tear in it, exposing the stuffing underneath. When Fumiko came to work on a cool day, she dropped her hoodie over this stool. There were also shelves underneath the counter where she kept magazines of her own.

One day, John stopped coming. Fumiko wasn’t sure what day that was, either. At some point, she suddenly noticed that he hadn’t come in a while. She thought it might be because her shifts this month were different than they had been last month (the owner didn’t think that either Fumiko or Sachiko should close every night), but even when she returned to her original schedule, he was nowhere to be found.

Since she couldn’t tell the exact date when he had stopped coming, she also couldn’t be sure of the exact date when he reappeared. All she knew is that, one day, he was there again.

“Ja-n-san, hisashiburi desune,” she said, but he just smiled at her wearily and asked for “intanetto.”

He came regularly after that, though Fumiko’s shifting schedule meant that she didn’t always see him when she was working. When she did, she noticed that his personality had changed. His habits, too. Before, he had been bubbly and cheerful, and had only stayed at the Internet cafe for three hours at most. Now, he stayed most of the afternoon, and often into the night. Before, he had asked for one or two sheets of paper per day. Now, he regularly asked for six sheets or more.

And then, one day, he began talking to her again.

“Konnichi-wa, Fumiko-san.”

“Eh? Konnichi-wa. O genki desu ka?”

“Hai. Genki desu.”

And he looked genki, too.

Soon after he started talking to her again is when it happened. It was one of those days when she had to work the late shift. She noticed him as she went around telling customers it was near closing time. Of the three people remaining, he was the last one to approach the register.

He waited until the other customers had left, then said, “Fumiko-san?”


“Shitsumon ga arimasuyo.”


What question could he have for her?

“Fumiko-san wa watashi ni kekkon shimasu ka?”


She started laughing.

“Ja-n-san wa omoshiroi!”

She continued laughing, but she stopped when he didn’t join in. Her hand, which had been in front of her mouth, stayed there, but the sound coming from her throat ceased. Her mirthful shaking ceased. The amusement in her eyes ceased.

She looked at him for a moment, then bowed.

“Sumi masen. Ja-n-san ni kekkon ga dekimasen.”

Her eyes stayed focused on the floor.

“Sō desu ka?”

“Sō desuyo. Sumi masen.”

She heard him leave, but did not raise her head.

Now she was alone.

As she went around cleaning up the cubicles and shutting off the lights, she thought about what had just happened.

She never thought her first marriage proposal would come from a foreigner, much less an American. To be honest, she had never thought she would get a marriage proposal from anyone. Not with her average looks. Not with her average personality.

One was not supposed to stand out too much in society, of course, unless one were famous. Fumiko, however, didn’t stand out at all, which meant that no one noticed her. Not her customers. Not her boss. Not even her parents.

The only person who had noticed her was this John, this foreigner who came in to her shop, a few times a week, to surf the Internet. A handsome American man had noticed her, when so many average Japanese men had not. She should have been flattered. Instead, she had laughed at him. Well, how could she have known he was serious? That wasn’t how men asked women to marry them in American movies. Were the movies wrong?

She knew so little about him, and he about her. Maybe he was rich. Maybe he worked for a large corporation. How could she have answered “no” without knowing these things? She knew many foreign men came to Japan seeking girlfriends. But how many of them came to Japan seeking wives?

She did not know his reasons for asking her, and she would never know. A week later, he told her that he was returning to America.

“Itsu [When]?”

“Ichi ni ka getsu [In one or two months].”

“Taihen desu ne [That’s too bad].”

She didn’t see him much at the Internet cafe after that, and when she did, he didn’t say much to her. He didn’t even ask for paper.

Then, after a month of infrequent visits, he was gone. Week after week Fumiko waited. Another month went by before she was certain he wasn’t coming back.

She worked at the cafe for two more years. And then, one day, she quit. Her parents were horrified at her decision, but she promised them that she’d find a new job soon. With the jobless rate the worst it had been since World War II, however, she was only able to find a temporary job, but one that paid slightly more than her former job had. That temp job led to another temp job and then another. Cherry blossoms bloomed and scattered in the wind, and Fumiko kept working.

One day during this period, a woman handed her tissues for an English language school as she was heading to lunch in Shibuya. She had received language school tissues before, but most of the schools were too expensive for her to attend. Plus, with the collapse of NOVA, learning English at one of these schools didn’t seem as glamorous as it once had.

The prices for this school, however, were not too expensive. She decided to check it out once her shift ended.

An American foreigner (all white people were American to Fumiko) was talking in English to a staff member when she arrived. The staff member was laughing. They noticed her. The staff member got up to greet her while the man headed toward a room in the back. His suit reminded Fumiko of the one that John used to wear, though the color was different. She thought memories of him had faded, but one look at the suit brought memories of him back before her eyes, this person who, a stranger to this land, had nevertheless made her feel welcome.

That day, Fumiko took her first English lesson.