Tag Archives: ichi-go ichi-e

Time to be gentle with each other

plum blossom

This morning on the train I annoyed a commuter. I didn’t mean to, and I suspect his day had already started badly by the time he encountered me, but I annoyed him all the same. He was around sixty and wearing a mask, since the hay fever season has started. I am fortunate to not have to face the daily crushed commute, but when I do get on a rush hour train I like to listen to music to block out everything else. Armed with my trusty iPod I squeezed onto the train and turned on some music. He immediately fixed me with an icy stare and I quickly hit stop. He looked away, so I pressed play and his eyes swivelled back to me. Music off again, he looked away. I started to listen again, and this time waited a few seconds. He fixed me with a venomous, beady-eyed stare, he was definitely annoyed with me. I turned the music off and could hear him muttering, ‘urusai’, ‘noisy’ and not wishing to incur any more wrath I stood in silence for the rest of the journey.

Now, I didn’t take out the ear buds, I was not going to surrender so easily, but as I stood music-less in the great crush of people, and looked at all the other commuters happily plugged into their smart phones and iPods I wondered what I had done to upset him so.  Maybe I was the closest noisy person. Maybe I was more easily separated from the crowd because I’m not Japanese. Maybe he had bad hay fever this morning. Maybe he hates his job. Maybe he didn’t enjoy his weekend. Maybe he doesn’t like Monday mornings. I hope I didn’t spoil his whole day.

Living in Japan it’s easy to forget how to roll with the more feisty approach to interaction I encounter in Europe. Here we are aiming for wa, harmony, and the education system inculcates this subjugation of the individual to the group. Students learn to work together, in club activities, for sports days and culture festivals. The individual who, for example, asserts his right to be hissy on a crowded train is not playing by the rules. His safety catch was off and I didn’t know what he might do next.

Standing there wondering what on earth could be going on, listing all the possible stressors, I realised that there is a tiredness in the air. We have had a cold winter and we’re ready for spring. The plum blossoms are blooming, so are the early cherry blossoms, but it’s still cold. For students and teachers it’s almost the end of the school year, bringing tests and grading with it. Tree pollen is already in the air, starting with the most dreaded of all, Japanese cedar, planted widely after the war to counter deforestation and now widely responsible for the itchy misery of millions.

Most of all, tomorrow is March 11th. The 3rd anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the M9 earthquake and the monster tsunami that devastated Tohoku.  I wrote about this last year, and it is frustrating to write that there are still 267,000 people living in temporary housing.


While we all say we have not forgotten about Tohoku, we (collectively) seem remarkably able to live with this fact and more. Of course, we don’t live with the reality. The people of Tohoku do that. On the Japan Times website there is this heartbreaking article about the children of Fukushima, unable to play outside:


and this one, about junior high school students:


So how did I get from an irritated commuter to this? I have been thinking today about a quote from the writing of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer I studied at university. I have been trying to track down the piece where the quote occurs, but so far I’ve had no luck. I think it’s somewhere in Wild Grass or A Call to Arms.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’

Are we taking care of each other? Do we see individuals in a crowd? Do we really listen to each other, really connect with each other? I am glad I annoyed my fellow commuter this morning, because it made me stand in silence and wonder about what was going on for him. Deprived of my music, the bubble I usually choose to put myself in I stood there and made a list in my head of what could possibly be upsetting him. How often do I do that? Squashed in the middle of the carriage I found myself in fact in a space to think, and it was such a gift.

There is plenty of news in Japan to distract us from the ongoing challenges in Tohoku; the economy, a right-wing government rattling its sabres at South Korea and China over territorial disputes, various members of NHK’s board of governors making outrageous revisionist statements about Japan’s recent history. We can be squashed into a crowded news cycle and not remember what life is like for the people whose lives changed on March 11th, 2011.

We need to make space, for ourselves and other people, even in a vast crowded city like Tokyo. We need to be gentle with each other every day, but as the clock ticks towards midnight and we get ready to mark another anniversary, we need to remember ourselves, three years ago. This evening the lights on Tokyo Tower have been spelling out ‘kizuna’ (絆), chosen as the kanji of the year in 2011 and meaning ‘bonds’. Three years ago there was a feeling that we were all together in the days following the earthquake. One of the most common questions we asked each other was, ‘Were you with other people?’, because I think we recognised that being alone made everything much harder to bear.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’ Is that how the people of Tohoku feel?



Right where I’m supposed to be

It seems like it’s that time in the term, that time of year, when ‘where has the time gone?’ becomes ‘how am I going to get everything done?’ and it’s all too easy to stay at home doing piles of marking or feeling guilty about not doing piles of marking. So I decided that this afternoon I would not to succumb to either hours of wielding a red pen or sitting at home casting around for what I have been reliably informed is ‘displacement activity’, but that I would go out and meet a friend for coffee. What made this post bubble up in my mind, though, was not the hours spent putting the world to rights, but the journey home.

10:30 and I needed to get back to Shibuya station to catch my train home. I briefly considered waiting for a bus, but must admit it was a flicker of consideration really, before I flagged down a taxi. It wasn’t a long journey, basically a minimum-fare trip straight down Roppongi Dori, but the taxi driver turned round several times to check where I wanted to be dropped off. Since the station is big and has a number of entrances, I told him that any would do; not a satisfactory answer. He turned round again to ask for more clarification. Just as I was starting to wonder, ‘What kind of taxi driver are you?’ he added to his apology for not being clearer about directions, ‘I’m from Tohoku.’

I asked him how long he had been in Tokyo (6 months), whether his relocating had any connection to the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake (yes), and if he had been a taxi driver in Tohoku (no). It was just a 5-minute taxi ride, but it was also a few words that stopped me in my tracks. ‘I’m from Tohoku.’ A whole life behind a sentence. I wonder what he has been through in the last 18 months.

On the train down to Jiyugaoka it was quite crowded, but not squashed. Just enough that it was a little difficult to find a strap or bar to hold onto. Twice, a woman about my age, standing with her young son, almost went flying as the train slowed down. I was tucked into a corner, but reached out and caught her. The first time she smiled but said to her son that she was embarrassed. The second time I grabbed her she laughed out loud and held onto my arm for a moment as we nodded at the perils of commuting.

A transfer at Jiyugaoka and I was almost home. At 11 the train was still full enough for some people to be standing up. Near Ookayama the lights in a university were still blazing, Tokyo seemed hours away from sleep. I walked home under a clear sky full of stars with Pizzicato 5 turned up loud on my iPod. Some days I get lost in work, today was not one of them.

This is the moment

‘This is the moment’ is one possible translation for the Japanese phrase, ‘一期一会’, or ‘ichi-go ichi-e’. It originates in 茶道, ‘sadou’ or tea ceremony, and describes the ideal way to experience the ceremony. Since we have a Tea Ceremony Club and a traditional tea ceremony house at school, it comes up sometimes and is a challenge to translate.  It’s one of those phrases that doesn’t work well when translated literally; ‘one time, one meeting’ or ‘one encounter, one meeting’. What does that mean? It means to convey the need to approach an experience as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to respect the people you meet and to honour the moment.  It was even used as the Japanese title for ‘Forrest Gump’!

My favourite translation is the one I have chosen as the title of this post, but I am going to use the Japanese original too. I included it in one of my updates after the Great East Japan Earthquake, which is the official name in English for the March 11th 2011 quake. After the earthquake, even with the stress and anxiety that became our daily life there were so many times when people showed the best of themselves, reached out to friends, to people they didn’t know, to make a connection.

Sometimes there is a moment in a day, a chance to meet someone, do something, hear something new, and it makes the day just a little bit sparkly. I’m thinking about the small things that I couldn’t have anticipated, that were really very small, but made me smile, made me feel a connection with someone, made me stop and think. I often think, I should tell someone about that, I should remember how that felt, and so now I will; here on my blog.