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.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

100 Miles From Ideal

Okay, so I have to give some credit for the title above to my brother--Ben was brainstorming good blog names a while back, and came up with something similar: 112 miles to Hope.  I'm not sure if he will end up using that as his blog name, but if he does, it will be a good choice: Ben is (as of last week) living in Kyle, South Dakota, exactly 112 miles from the city of Hope.  I tried to find Hope on a map, and couldn't... but I did notice that Kyle is 100 miles from Ideal, South Dakota (hence my title for this post).

Either way, the geographical word-play happens to sum up, to some degree, the circumstances that Ben will be working in this coming year, as he begins a two-year contract teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a placement arranged by Teach for America.

It's not ideal, and hope, indeed, appears elusive when one considers the history of this land.  Pine Ridge is home to a group of Native Americans commonly known as the Oglala Sioux.  Having attended college in Iowa, in a town called Sioux Center, in the middle of Sioux County, about halfway between Sioux Falls, SD and Sioux City, Iowa, I always assumed that Sioux was a legitimate name.  Not so--"Sioux" is, in fact, a derisive term.  The inhabitants of the Pine Ridge Reservation are actually members of the Lakota tribe; the name "Sioux", like so much else, is a battle-scar from their history, a product of the injustice and violence brought against them in the name of "Manifest Destiny" centuries ago.  The most famous incident to take place on the land was the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890, in which U.S. Cavalry opened fire on a Lakota camp, killing women and children as well as warriors and slaughtering many who were unarmed.  More than 150 Lakota died that day.

The Old West and the American Frontier are long gone, but time has not been kind to the descendants of the Lakota who endured such tragedies as Wounded Knee.  The list of societal challenges is grim, the statistics staggering: high suicide rates, low life expectancy, high diabetes rates, high alcoholism, high rates of pedophilia, not to mention high drop-out rates within the schools on the reservation... sadly, the list could keep going.

This is the situation that my brother has stepped into, and it is in the small town of Kyle, South Dakota that he will strive to be an agent of healing and at the very least, care, as he teaches 9th and 10th grade math classes.  As Christians, we live (or should live, anyway) as those who have hope.  Even when life is difficult, we can rest assured in the truth that our hope is built not on earthly success or failure, but on Christ's love and righteousness.  We also know that it's a struggle to live this way consistently, and very easy to get caught up in our own problems when things aren't going well.  Imagine, then, how very difficult it is for a person who is born into a world where the numbers predict that you're likely not to graduate from high school, likely not to have steady employment, likely to die before you turn 50... how difficult it would be to hold onto hope.

No, it's not ideal.  Yet we know that hope is not just an ideal, but a reality and a reality worth sharing.  Ben is a wise and talented guy and I know that the LORD will use him to do great things in this situation.  I invite you to join me in praying for Ben as he becomes a part of this community--prayers on his teaching, prayers on his relationship with his colleagues, prayers on his relationship to a group of people who have essentially been beaten up by history and prayers for his own spiritual walk in a challenging climate.

On behalf of Ben, thank you for your prayers!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Phase 3

It feels to me as though my time at home in Washington this summer has been divided up into three distinct phases.  Phase One revolved around my Japanese class, which consumed nearly all of my spare time and attention.  Phase Two began several days after my class wrapped up, when Ben came home.  He'd been in "Teach for America" training in Phoenix up through the first week of July, and came home for a quick rest before leaving this morning for Kyle, South Dakota, where he will be teaching this coming year.  Phase Two involved a lot of down-time (since that was what Ben needed the most while he was home), and a lot of time spent in fellowship with folks from my home-church, Wiser Lake Chapel--to be precise, a Tuesday evening potluck and discussion lead by Ben, two weeks' worth of Wednesday evening softball games/barbecues, a Wednesday morning prayer meeting and, of course, both a morning and evening service this past Sunday.  It was a relatively uneventful 10 days, but provided a chance to catch up on rest after the intensity of the class I took (and really, the end of the school-year at CAJ, which had been followed closely by my summer class).

When Ben's Ford Explorer turned out of the driveway early this morning, Phase Three began.  This will last until I fly out for Japan on July 30.  It will be a quiet phase, with my brother away, my sister working and my parents leaving for several days next week.  It will be a time of reflection on what has been, of preparation for what's to come--both my return to Japan and the impending school-year.

Summer is a precious time to me, and each year, I wonder if I am really making the most of my summers.  Recently, someone commented that I must really like taking pictures of sunsets--as a matter of fact, I will drop what I am doing to go outside and watch a summer sunset from the field behind the house.  To stay inside when such a breathtaking show is taking place would seem a waste.  So, I go outside, and I watch, and I take pictures on the off-chance that at least one of my pictures will do justice to the scene I am enjoying.

At this time in my life, I am managing to straddle two worlds with relatively little hassle: the ceaselessly interesting and rewarding career that I'm building in Japan, and the abundant natural beauty and much needed family-time of Washington.  I realize that the way things are now is likely impermanent: I doubt I'll always live a routine of Christmas and Summer breaks spent in Washington with the rest of the time in Japan--inevitably, something will change.  So, for the time, I treasure this arrangement and hold fast until the next phase begins (not just of my summer, but of my life).

Saturday, July 7, 2012


"At last, we meet again... Ganon, king of thieves!"

I am Link, the hero of time, and I have scaled snow-capped mountains, fought through dark forests and crossed a treacherous ravine high above unforgiving rapids to reach this moment, this showdown to end all showdowns.

The beast Ganon lifts his head, tongue lolling obscenely, and a taunting sneer curls his lips, revealing yellow fangs.  This intimidates me, but I approach, unwilling to let the fear conquer me.

"You have stolen the mythical Triforce for the last time, you vile pig monster.  Now draw your weapon, and meet your maker!" I draw the legendary Master Sword and brandish it.

Our 10-year old Belgian Terveuren, Tango, is not amused by the sight of her 8-year old master yelling at her and waving around a dull machete, so she trots past me and back through the stream that I just put so much effort into crossing.

"Ohoho, a coward, are we?  Come back and fight like a man!" I call after the slovenly beast, who has beat a hasty retreat and somehow cleared the ravine in 5 seconds.

"Probably dark magic from the Triforce of Power", I mutter to myself.

I have no option but to give chase.  I sprint along the ravine to the rickety rope bridge that spans the chasm, and deciding that this is no time for caution, I bound across the bridge, which sways and creaks uncertainly below me.  Far below, I can hear the rushing of the rapids, warning the brave and inviting the foolish.

The logs that I had placed across the shallow stream are, unfortunately, more IN the water than they are over the water and are, as a result, somewhat slippery.

"GAAAH!" I'm nearly across the bridge when the rope snaps under the pressure of my footfall and for a brief, sickening moment, I am in free-fall...

Then, I catch a shrub that was, most fortuitously, jutting from the otherwise bare rock-face and I climb the cliff quickly, finding the right foot-holds and hand-holds on the first try.  Hoisting myself back onto solid ground, I spy the retreating form of the despicable Ganon disappearing behind a bend in the path ahead.  

"Stop in the name of the law of Hyrule!" I bellow, and decide that this is the time for a new strategy.  I sheath the legendary blade and take my bow from across my back.  Deftly, I draw an arrow from the quiver, string it, and pulling back the arrow, I aim high above the tree line.  I adjust, noting that the wind seems to be strong today.  If my aim is true, I will stop Ganon in his hideous tracks, and have done away with the shroud of evil that has darkened the land as of late.

My bow-string is made of slightly too much barn twine, and is not at all taut.  The arrow that I'd made by whittling a point onto the straightest twig I could find in the woods falls lamely to the ground at my feet.

"Drat!  I've misfired.  That never happens--it's dark sorcery, that's what it is.  Curse you, Ganon!  Curse you from the dizzying heights of Death Mountain to the bowels of the underworld from whence you came!"

I search my pack for a tool that might just save the day... surely there must be something that I have forgotten.

"YES!  PEGASUS BOOTS!" I exclaim, retrieving the fabled footwear from my pack.  The Pegasus Boots endow the wearer with extraordinary speed.  

Using more barn-twine, I tie two cardboard wings to my muddy rubber boots and begin to run as fast as I can.

I feel as though I am flying, that my feet are like the hoofs of the winged-horse of myth.  Except, the myth has been born into glorious reality on this day, as the boots carry me swiftly across a journey that had taken oh, so many days to make the first time.  The terrain changes below me, from cliff, to moss, to marsh, to sand, to field... and then, in front of me:

"GANON!" I gasp, coming to a sudden, yet graceful halt.

Tango lazily walks in a small circle three times, and then plops down on the grass for a nap.  

The beast teeters, and collapses before my eyes.  As its bulk hits the surface of the earth, a mighty quake rocks everything around me, but when the shaking stops--stillness.  Perhaps it was the chase did him in.  Perhaps it was fear of the legendary blade, or the wrath of my bow.  Perhaps it was the power of the seven sages.  One thing, and one alone is clear: I have defeated the beast; I have defeated Ganon!

I draw my blade and wave it in the air triumphantly.

"Long live Hyrule!" I shout, and the sky seems to clear all of a sudden, the despair and gloom lifting with the demise of the grotesque Ganon.  I sheath the blade for what may be the last time and the giant, revolting carcass of Ganon disappears in a puff of smoke.  When the smoke clears, I spy the fair Princess Zelda, waking from her enchanted slumber.  I kneel before the princess.

"M'lady.  I have slain the ferocious monster, Ganon, and freed Hyrule from the grips of evil.  I do not ask for anything in return, no reward, no land, no kiss.  My sole request is that you rule with justice and with goodness."

Tango, who seems relieved that her new role involves no yelling or machete-waving, licks my face forcefully, and with no shortage of slobber.

I withdraw, revolted. 

"Uggh, Princess!  I said 'NO KISS!'"

The End.  Because it was dinner-time and I had to go inside.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

ヤッター! (...I guess?)

The good news: I completed Japanese 202 with an A!

The bad news: I'm not satisfied with an A... not really.

I guess I should be proud of the work that I did--after all, I was allowed to join the class despite the fact that I had not taken two prerequisite courses (Japanese 103 and 201), and had actually forgotten a significant amount of the grammar and kanji that I learned in Japanese 101 and 102 several years ago.  This handicap meant working extremely hard to get caught up in the early days of the class, and constantly having to do extra work throughout the course to fill the gaps in my understanding.

In this regard, I was successful, and this is what is reflected in my grades.  Not only did I relearn the kanji and the grammar that I had forgotten, I learned at least 64 new kanji (not counting the kanji that I had to teach myself in the process of catching up), as well as decent amount of new vocabulary and grammar points.  I feel like my ability to read Japanese silently improved the most, as I'm rapidly growing in my ability to decode kanji and see kana as groups of words, and not just individual characters.

However, my real purpose in taking the class was to gain a higher level of comfort in both my listening and speaking.  This is where I feel dissatisfied.  Though I know a lot more words and phrases than I did when I started the class just a few weeks ago (and can therefore recognize more words and phrases while I listen), I still sort of freeze up when I'm listening to Japanese spoken at normal conversation pace--in other words, the knowledge I've gained has not helped my confidence much.  Likewise, I am still very unsure of myself as I try to speak Japanese, still very self-conscious.  Perhaps it was the natural consequence of being the only student out of the three in the class who did not take Japanese 103 and 201, but my classmates were much more fluent in their ability to read aloud, much quicker to respond when asked questions.  My speech is filled with a high amount of stammering as I mispronounce and try to self-correct, pauses as I stop to think about which grammar to use and an air of hesitation that betrays my fear that I am speaking incorrectly.  This is very tough for me, as I pride myself on my expressiveness and fluency in the English language; I'm not used to struggling to express myself verbally.  And even though I grew in my ability to read silently, reading out loud has proved more challenging as I am so concerned about pronunciation that I still read the kana character by character and have to stop and think about which reading of the kanji I need to say (knowing what a kanji means while reading silently and knowing how to say it while speaking out loud are very different, as it turns out).

My professor was very patient and encouraging through all of this, and I appreciated her teaching style. I can't blame her for my lack of self-confidence--she created a safe and supportive environment, and I never shied away from trying to speak--I just became more aware of my limited ability.  Two weeks is a short amount of time and maybe too short to really see the fruit of speaking and listening practice, so maybe I am being overly hard on myself.  In any case, it is clear to me that simply having an A on my transcript for what now comes out to almost two years of Japanese is no guarantee that I will be able to speak or listen effectively.  I've got the knowledge--it's up to me now to USE that knowledge; to get out, away from CAJ and practice constantly; to practice enough that each conversation feels low-stake, so I do not need to panic about errors in my speaking or gaps in my listening; to constantly be asking questions and taking the steps to get back on track when understanding falls apart.

In other words, I'm going to need to be proactive.  This is so tough to do when the safety of an English-speaking community such as CAJ is so comfortable... but it's been 3 and a half years since I moved to Japan, and with each day that goes by, I become more and more embarrassed about my woeful inability to communicate and to understand in the way that I wish to.  It's time for a change in where and how I spend my time outside of school.