Monday, July 30, 2012


As I was flying from Tokyo to Vancouver on a very long June 18th, I watched several in-flight movies.  One was a Japanese film entitled ハナミズキ (pronounced "Hanamizuki", which is the Japanese name for the Dogwood tree).  I am typically not someone who appreciates romantic movies, but I will admit that this one got to me.  The film follows the relationship of Sae, an ambitious and intelligent girl who aspires to move beyond the small Hokkaido fishing village she grew up in and Kouhei, an earnest and hard-working boy who hopes to one day take over the family fishing boat.

Their dreams take them in different directions, as Sae attends Waseda University in Tokyo and Kouhei must struggle to support his mother and sister after his father passes away.  Sae graduates and Kouhei recognizes that since he is in no position to follow her, he must let her go so that she can pursue an opportunity to work overseas.

Here's where the movie won me over: years pass.  The American romantic movie would likely end with a timely and dramatic "don't go", a tearful (but immediate) reunion at the airport.  Not so, here.  Sae moves to New York and becomes engaged to a photojournalist she'd known at Waseda.  Kouhei marries a local girl.  When Sae and Kouhei reconnect at a friend's wedding, there is no infidelity to her fiancee or his wife.  There is no stolen kiss.  As they part ways, they embrace, with Kouhei's sincere wish that Sae "be happy."  Again, years pass, and we find that Kouhei's wife has left him after the fishing business bankrupts--he now works on the crew of an industrial fishing boat, traveling the world.  Sae's fiancee, we learn, was killed in Iraq and she returns to Hokkaido, heartbroken.

More time passes--10 years since Kouhei and Sae first met, and Sae now teaches English to school-children in her small home-town.  Nobody has seen or heard from Kouhei since he left on the fishing boat.  The movie concludes with Kouhei walking up the driveway to Sae's house as Sae is dismissing her students.

"ただいま", Kouhei says.
"おかえり", Sae replies.

They fall into one another's arms in a passionate embrace and the credits roll (with Yo Hitoto's hit song  ハナミズキ , on which the movie was based, playing over them).  I must confess I brushed away a tear.

ただいま (pronounced "tadaima") and おかえり(pronounced "okaeri") are standard "Lesson 1" material in any introductory Japanese class.

ただいま means "I'm home", and おかえり means "welcome back".  They are some of the most commonly used expressions in the Japanese language and are spoken just about anytime anybody sets foot in the door, from school-children on up through retired おばさん and おじさん (old folks).

Here's something I love about the Japanese language that I feel is not present (or at least not as present) in English: Japanese expressions such as this one are fairly simple and spare... and as such, can carry varying amounts of meaning based on the context in which they are spoken.  They can, and often do become ritualistic, perhaps meaningless... but in that closing scene, there was something about the use of these simple, common, routine expressions after all that had befallen these two characters, after so many years, that charged the phrases with meaning, beauty and power.

ただいま... not merely hanging one's hat at the end of the work-day, but discovering that one has a place to call home, that wanderings and loneliness will cease, that separation from loved ones will end, a deep joy and gratitude for a home to return to.

おかえり... a profound gratitude and joy in the homecoming of a loved one, the end of separation and the promise of love and fellowship, delight in having one with whom to share home.

I honestly believe there are few words in the Japanese language (or any language) quite so beautiful in their simplicity, in the potential depth and weight of their full meaning.

It was my privilege to say ただいま on June 18 and live ただいま over the past 6 weeks as I've spent time with family, friends, and church in my Washington home.  It will be my privilege to say ただいま tomorrow as I return to my home in Japan.  God has blessed me so richly in providing me with two places where to travel to either feels like a homecoming.  The goodbyes sting, but they seem so minor and insignificant in the face of the promise of a ただいま , both immediate and far-off.

To my family and friends in Washington, thank you so much for giving me a place to come home to for the summer, and for all of the love, support and encouragement you show me.  いってきます。I'll leave now, and return by and by.  To my friends, colleagues, students, and "adoptive" family in Japan, I will see you soon and look forward to saying ただいま on that side of the ocean.

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