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 🙂
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.
But 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.
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.”