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.