This is how the revolution will start in Japan - with 'Good morning'

TOKYO —

If you have lived in Japan for some time now, and never had a conversation with a complete stranger at the park, then you are missing out. After recently quitting my high stress job and moving to Tokyo, I spent my mornings near Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, wondering how I would eat the next day, and welcoming the chance to enjoy some sunshine. This is a story of one man who changed my life. He sat down on the rock next to me and said, “Good morning.”

There is temple nearby where I like to do my studying while I sit on the rocks and listen to the morning bells. One morning I was studying like any other day when an old Japanese man sat next to me and asked what I was doing in perfect English. I showed him my textbook and figured he would leave, but instead an interesting conversation began.

“Do you see those young people over there?” he asked. “Look. They are all in a group – they are always like that. Us old people always walk alone, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t friendly you know.”

I nodded and grunted a bit, unsure of where he was going with his observations. I had a feeling this was going to be one of those “conversations” where I do most of the listening. My hunch wasn’t too far off as our chat would last well over an hour.

“This is just the opinion of old people in Japan,” he said, “but despite walking around in a group, most of those young people are really lonely. I feel sorry for them. Do you know why?”

I shrugged a bit and drank more of my tea.

“They don’t communicate. They are actually hurting inside because they can’t relate to other people. There are some young people who have lived in this area for 10 years and they never leave their house to talk with others. They are afraid. Why should people be so afraid to talk to each other?  Does this happen in your country too?”

I recalled my own neighborhood where we hardly know each other’s names, much less say hello. “I think it’s a problem everywhere – not just in Japan,” I answered.

“The problem is that there is no communication. I went shopping yesterday and not one person around me said good morning. That’s not such a hard thing, no?” He rubbed his chapped hands a bit. “And when us old people try to talk to these young people, they think we are crazy. They throw stones at us and tell us to die. Those older than me still have scars on their faces where young people hit them. They tell me it’s still hard to enjoy their rice because their mouth hurts. I don’t blame them. Their fathers are probably horrible people and they have lots of anger because they never express it with others.”

He looked into the distance and pointed. “Do you know near Fukushima? There is a statue there to remember a 16 year old boy. He committed suicide not long ago, but we still wonder why. My own relatives too have done the same. Everyone is going crazy jumping out in front of these damn trains. If only they talked to someone then we wouldn’t have these problems! And how many people today even gave you a simple ‘Good Morning?’”

The wind was blowing strongly and it dried the sweat accumulating on my face from the heat.

He continued, “Do you know there is a high school near Ueno station here? They have a baseball team. The coach is an older man and he was training the boys to hit the ball, you know? The boys were doing really well, but the coach called them to come over and he told them ‘You need to smile!’”

“All this stress in these young people. It’s so sad. Many years ago we worked hard in the fields and planted rice. Now we live where we just press a button and things happen. Life was hard then, but there is a Japanese saying, you know, that hardship makes a good personality. Now these young people have to deal with hardship again and they don’t know how. They don’t want to. They are angry at others because they don’t have the strength to deal with it. And it will get worse. What do you think? How is it in your country?”

I thought to the OWS movement, the wars, the poverty, and the recent events my generation is dealing with. “We have the same problem,” I said, “People don’t communicate and then are frustrated because they don’t talk about their problems.”

He nodded and smiled. “And smiling! That’s so important! We old people always smile, even those who are 100 years old – if you look at them they are always smiling. What do we have to worry about? What is there to stress over? It’s very peaceful.”

Other people surely must have thought it strange for such an old man to be talking to a foreigner in perfect English, but he continued regardless.

“Do you know at that Ueno School there is a cross-guard? He is a volunteer – an old man like me. He greets the students as they come to school. He says, “Good Morning!” at least 200 times per day. And he is changing the world. This is how the revolution will happen in Japan. It will happen with ‘Good Morning!’”

We talked after that for some time. He told me I should go to Kita-Senju station and meet young people there. He said there are lots of lonely people who need someone to talk to near the entrance.

Before we parted ways he said something that will stick with me forever.

“Do you know the word ‘hataraku?’”

“Yes, it means to work,” I said.

“No. It actually is the word hata and raku. Hata means other people. And raku is a relaxed, peaceful way of living. The problem with people is that they have forgotten the hata and try to work only for themselves. There is joy in working for others you know.”

We shook hands and parted ways, and as I turned to leave he bowed deeply several times and thanked me. “I wanted to thank your country for helping Japan,” he said. “We were very lost and everyone was suffering so much. It means so much to me.”

I threw my backpack over my shoulder and walked away not really knowing where I was going.  The conversation was still repeating itself in my head for the next few hours. It’s amazing how complete strangers have wonderful things to say, but most of us will never know. It takes sitting down next to someone and saying, “Good Morning!” I agree with the old man; this is how the revolution will happen – not just in Japan, but in my home as well.

Author Infomation

David Christian
David Christian
Writer, Japanese to English translator, kindergarten teacher, and social activist. Bent on the revival of Japanese agriculture and drinking far too much coffee while doing so.
  • 6

    SimondB

    Sounds like a lovely and wise old man.

  • 6

    Seiryuu_Dan

    Great story, really an eye-opener!

    The wise, old man, what he said is very meaningful.

    thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

  • 5

    zenkan

    A fine anecdote. As usual with this kind of story, I find myself feeling sorry for the younger generation who have lost, or never had, the ability to be resourceful and imaginative. So much has been handed to them on a plate. Everyday tasks can be completed at the flick of a switch. Above all, so much can be done without resorting to human contact! Technology is a part of human development and, on the whole, can be very helpful. However, we shouldn't forget the "human" aspect of human development.

  • 12

    tkoind2

    In over a decade in Japan I have been approached by strangers on the street less than ten times. Two of those were other foreigners. On occasion, in a line at a shop an older person will talk with me. But I have never had a single male Japanese stranger under 60 talk to me randomly.

    A recent trip to my home city, a place I have not lived for over 20 years was revealing. People on the street, teens in shops or restaurants, the person waiting in the waiting room, a random person in the grocery all kicked off conversations. In two weeks time I had four times the casual conversation encounters that I had experience in Tokyo in an entire decade. Sad.

    I am friendly. I smile, I say good morning. Japanese guys usually flee or pretend not to hear. Japanese ladies respond with either terror and either freeze or flee. Enough to make me start thinking I must be terrifying. My wife assures me that I am pretty harmless looking. Yet....

    My Parents In Law assure me that this is a new problem. That in their generation people talked to each other. I worry for people in Tokyo who cannot connect to other people. Imagine all the missed friendships, ideas, opportunities to share thoughts and possible discoveries that are lost every day that people shut themselves off to others.

  • 8

    hotbertaa

    If you travel away from the crowds there are plenty of people ready to say good morning. Its a big city thing.

  • 4

    fds

    i think this may be more a problem with tokyo than japan in general. in tokyo its just so crowded that people have become jaded to the practice of common courtesies like saying good morning, good day, excuse me, thank you, etc. which is why you get all the pushing and shoving on the train or in the store and which begets more of the same. outside of tokyo its not unusual for someone to say good morning to a complete stranger.

  • 3

    FightingViking

    I never had this problem in Tokyo, and even less here in a suburb of Yokohama ! But maybe the secret is being "owned" by a dog... It's not, however, only the other people being owned by dogs ! We have many friends now since moving here nearly three years ago ! I'm very often the first to say Ohayo gozaimasu ! If there's no reply, or a "grumpy face" I usually add "shitsurei itashimashita !" But luckily, I don't need to say that too often !

  • 5

    tmarie

    I'm glad to see that others are aware of this problem and are doing something about it. Just recently I met a lovely young mom while studying at a coffee shop. Her son was staring at me and she apologized for it. I told her not to worry that as a baby at his age, he was just noticing the differences. We sat and chatted for about 30 mins and it was the highlight of my week. - more so when I saw her at the same place the next day and she sat down and chatted again - all in Japanese which was nice. I know I went back hoping to see her and kind of hope she was doing the same thing. Shall go back again around the same time. Smiling and saying hello won't kill anyone but it seems many just can't do it.

  • 3

    japan_cynic

    I have never had a single male Japanese stranger under 60 talk to me randomly.

    Really? I got another random unprovoked "uea ah yu furommu?" just the other day. While rinsing my hands in a public toilet :-)

    I don't really mind, but I do wish they would find something a little more interesting to ask about.

  • 6

    Jack Stern

    I suppose the older folks in Japan deserve a pat on the back for being friendly while the youngsters today have a lot to learn from them.

  • 0

    skroknog

    Nice story, but a rare scenario IMO. Usually people who talk randomly to foreigners are either 1. nuts, 2. want a free English lesson or 3. want to give you a lecture about how bad foreigners are...which is why I never talk to strangers anymore.

  • 0

    lachatamber

    can't stand random strangers trying to talk to me. that's why Japan is great, no hassle and everyone minds their d*mn business!

  • 4

    kuri_king

    Sounds like you ran into a pretty open-minded guy!

    When I lived in Japan, I had experiences where random strangers would come up to me, give me obvious direct eye contact, and initiate conversation.

    Some were very pleasant to talk with. Some truly wanted to talk to somebody, with no ulterior motive, and for me, it was refreshing. I was in a time of my life where I was comfortable and open to strangers and their opinions on life.

    And, that reminds me. Now that I'm back in America, I should be a little more friendly to the daily stranger. Thanks for this story!

  • 2

    Pattie Inoue

    Thanks david, lovely piece. Such a wise old man.

  • 2

    kdotson1965

    Thank you - we tend to forget too easily about the wisdom that is supposed to come with age

  • 1

    zichi

    Just like when the Japanese are visiting the museums it will also start with a bento first and then if there's any time then they'll start the revolution. Took me a few years to realise when we visit a place we eat first, the opposite of us Brits. Probably, we would want to get the revolution started so there's still enough time to make it to the pub?

  • 0

    Joshua Mutunga Mutua

    This is exactly true to the point. One of the older generation she told me that she has nothing to get scared by talking to a foreigner but the young folks  they only communicate with their mobile phones human relationship skills are totally lacking.

  • 0

    Saul Schimek

    I work in the tech industry and while some of us are on the non-communicative side, we were not aware it was this bad in general society. Latchkey kid syndrome?

  • 1

    Terry Tibbs

    Excellent story. I had a similar experience with an old man in Kyoto a few months ago. Smiling can open doors your life you would have never thought existed and simple morning greetings can make all the difference to someone's day.

  • 0

    ebisen

    Indeed, a very good story.

  • 0

    parsboy

    Nice story . A lesson for all of us . " No man is an island " !

  • 0

    Suzette Aguilos

    Smile and say Good Morning... Those are simple things but can make a big difference to others

  • 0

    Ali Khan

    when i came to japan from my home country, where we have a close family system, knowing every body with their faces and with their names in the village/town, neighbors are like a family members. walking in the town for some time you will say good-mooring many times, chat with senior citizens, where they give you always good advice and prayers, chat with your friends/same age group full of jokes and sharing your feelings, kidding with children in the street and many gatherings in the times of happiness or sadness.

    with all these habits, i used to do the same thing in japan, hello to the people in the park, some time in the shop or to the people setting close to me in the train, kidding with the children, offering my seat to the senior citizens. while doing all these stuff i got a cold response from the other side, or some time a strange look, of-course their was some warm heart responses but the over all experience was disappointed. after some times i realized that what i am doing here looks strange or may be stupid, so now i am behaving like the rest of the people, now i am looking straight while walking, watching my cell phone while setting or seating in the train like a statue.

Login to leave a comment

OR

More in Opinions

View all

View all