May 192007

If you look up the word Natsukashii in a Japanese-English dictionary, you might find something like “dear,” “desired,” or “missed.” But that’s not really what it means; it’s just that there’s no way to directly translate it into English. Natsukashii is used to communicate a feeling of “Awww, I remember that! Those were such nice times, just thinking about it makes me feel so…natsukashii.”

It’s a cool feeling when you’re learning a foreign language and start to realize that there are things you can communicate more effectively in that language than in your own native tongue. Natsukashii is a simple example. But taking it a step farther, what happens when you find there are things you can’t communicate in your native language at all? Every once in awhile when a friend asks the meaning of a word or phrase, I find that I somehow can’t manage to describe it – without using Japanese.

I guess when you’re on the other side of the planet in a society with a completely different way of thinking it’s only natural that the language would develop accordingly – in a way that effectively communicates their values and thoughts, not necessarily like those around which you yourself were raised. You can study a textbook for years, but until you live somewhere and really learn how a society’s people think, can you ever hope to fully grasp their language? Is this the difference between “conversational” and “fluent?” I’d like to hope so πŸ™‚


When I was a student in Japan I used to spend entire days studying at Starbuck’s. It was my official classroom – not only are they nonsmoking, but they’ve got tons of seating, power outlets for laptops (er…when they don’t yell at you for using them), and cool people to chat with whenever you want to take a break. And although I obviously don’t have as much time to spend there now that I’m no longer a student, I still try to go every once in awhile to keep my language skills sharp. Yet I always seem to end up at the same two locations – the one on Shijo, because they have free WiFi, and the one on Sanjo-Kamogawa, because it’s enormous and I know about 50 people who go there regularly.

But last Thursday after work I made plans to purchase a used blender from someone who asked to meet at the Saiin location. The same location where I used to study regularly with Chie during my second semester at Ritsumeikan, and the location from which I’d board a train to Osaka virtually every weekend during my first. Saiin Starbucks is, as we say in Japanese, Natsukashii.

natsukashiiBut there was one thing that felt particularly Natsukashii about that Starbuck’s last Thursday. Some of you long-time readers might recall way back in November of ’05 when I had a pretty severe hard drive crash. Among the data lost was a file of notes on little/interesting things I’d noticed and hoped to eventually blog about. One of these notes discussed a sign in the Saiin Starbuck’s bathroom. It shows a picture of two penguins, one large and one small, and translates to something like this:

“To our honored guests,
For always doing us the honor of using our toilets in a clean fashion, we humbly thank you. Please honor us by using these toilets again.
-Shop Manager”

Having spent nearly two years in Japan a sign like this wouldn’t even warrant a second glimpse, but when I first noticed it sometime in early 2005 I thought it was funny enough to jot down. Then the note got lost and I haven’t thought about it since. Until last Thursday.

Why am I mentioning this? Somehow seeing that sign again really reminded me of the joy and wonder of experiencing Japan as a “Japan-Virgin.” Although I knew virtually every street and alley in Kyoto by the time I left in 2006, I never lost that passion – every time I’d ride my bike around downtown, right up until the last day, I’d feel a slight shiver of excitement. I’d look around at all of the busy streets, oddly-dressed men, beautiful women, flashing pachinko parlors, and ancient temples, and know that I was in a place that’s truly special. It’s a difficult feeling to put into words, because while some feel it loud and clear the second they step off the plane, others just don’t get it at all. I think SushiJeff did a wonderful job of explaining it in a recent article – if you want to understand why I found myself back in Japan only 8 months after leaving, I highly suggest reading it here (before continuing with this post).

But you know, this time around things feel different. I wouldn’t go so far as to group myself with the foreigners who “do nothing but bitch about this place,” as Jeff mentions – because the fact remains that I still do love living here. And I wouldn’t say that I’ve lost those “gaijin eyes” either – I think I’ve done pretty well at putting myself in new and interesting situations nearly every weekend. But I do find myself growing frustrated with their roundabout way of doing things. Between the entertaining Saturdays and Sundays, between the fun times about which I write this blog, my view of Japan as a society has been slowly but surely shifting. And although this shift has occurred for a number of fairly specific reasons that I can’t address in too much detail, I wanted to mention my feelings, even if in some vague way, so as to create a slightly more complete picture of what my life over here has become.

I feel sort of bad posting two negative-feeling entries in such close proximity to each other – first about how blogging has become a task and now this – but I somehow didn’t think it was fair to only post the glistening, excited, “This weekend was WONDERFUL” posts which represent only part of my existence in Japan this time around. It truly has been an emotional rollercoaster: craving an escape from the backwards-seeming methodologies one day, but then feeling like I never want to leave the next.

In any case, as SushiJeff suggests, I’m still out there doing my best to make the most of it; to retain my “gaijin eyes.” I don’t live in a dorm for international students, nor was my apartment provided by a full-service English-teaching school. I live in a Japanese apartment building that I found by walking into a realtor’s office; I pay my bills and my taxes; I shop at a Japanese supermarket; and most of all, I work in a Japanese company. But does this mean I have to forget what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land? To stop experiencing the Adventures in Kyoto that got me hooked on this country in the first place?

No, I don’t think it does. Blogging may have become more of a task than I’d initially hoped, just as life in Japan may have become slightly less pleasant than I’d initially dreamed. But I just have to remind myself that all I’ve done is peel back one more layer of “the giant onion that is Japan.”

  17 Responses to “Natsukashii”

  1. Yep… I know just how you feel. It’s a different experience entirely to work here in a Japanese office.

    And you know what? I am leaving. Bye bye Japan. I am glad I got the chance to live here. But I could never stay long term. It’s kind of sad, but I think it’s a good thing, overall, to integrate enough that the novelty does wear off and you can start to see the other side of things.

    I think what you’re going through is completely normal. I think all of us who were students and then came back as working people go through it.

    • Googled “natsukashii” because I was trying to explain to someone what it meant (hard to translate!) and your blog was one of the top results. Then I scrolled down and saw my own comment on it from 2007. Needless to say, it was 懐かしい …

    • Wow…ζœ¬ε½“γ«ζ‡γ‹γ—γ„γ­οΌ

  2. stranger in a strange land: adventures in kyoto. excellant description of your japanese odyssey. sounds like the title of your next book.

  3. I would say Natsukashii could be defined as “a warm feeling of sentimentality, felt when recalling or encountering something from your past”. Or something like that. I’m sure there is a singular English word for it, but can’t for the life of me remember it at the moment.

  4. Alana: Man, Ms. Japan is outta here! When are u taking off? And what’s next? Is it that big cruise-around-the-world thing u were talking about?

    Dad: Hey, don’t tell everyone my title!! ;(

    Dave: GREAT definition. But I don’t think there is quite a word for it in English…so in a situation where you might want to say “懐かしいγͺぁぁ。。。” I don’t think there’s quite a perfect way to say it. No?

  5. Thanks for the deep thoughts, well observed. I didn’t comment when I was first at this blog. Just wanted to say so.

  6. Yeah the truth is, the more you learn about Japanese culture the more you learn how much of it sucks. Like all those smiling and bowing people who are secretly flicking you off, the true underbelly of Japn is not very friendly towards its citizens OR foreignors.

  7. Yep…And it even goes far deeper than that. I’ve been debating for some time whether or not I should do a post about the TRUE Japanese culture, the one that you only see if you live here for a fair length of time and speak the language to reasonable fluency. But I’m afraid it’ll come off as super condescending.

    We’ll see, I’ll probably end up doing it one of these days.

  8. I think the english equivalent would be something like ‘nostalgic’

  9. Yep, sounds like a fair translation. Still, I think the nuance is a bit different; for instance, in a sentence like γ€ŒδΊ¬ιƒ½γŒζ‡γ‹γ—γ„γ€γͺぁ」, what you’re really trying to say is “I miss Kyoto” (because there’s no direct Japanese translation for “to miss someone/something,” as far as I know)

  10. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s written an article about the word natsukashii!

  11. Apparently not… :p

  12. […] is one of those words that can’t be easily translated into English. This blogger summed it up nicely when he wrote, β€œNatsukashii is used to communicate a feeling of β€˜Awww, I […]

  13. The right translation for the word would be to Portuguese “SAUDADE”.
    SAUDADE is a feeling of missing something that you have loved, a distant place where you had great moments, someone who died or is so far away. It is a stronger feeling than nostalgia.

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