The Japanese Language as a Catalyst for Love

The Japanese Language as a Catalyst for Love

By: Meredith Stephens

When I started university at age seventeen, I chose Japanese as one of the four subjects in the first year of my Humanities degree. I had studied Japanese for five years at high school, and was curious to learn more. In the late seventies in Australia, there was a short window when university education was free. Funding for small classes was available, and for the three years of my degree, I took Japanese five days a week. In the third year, all but three of the students had dropped out. This intensive contact with my classmates turned out to foster some strong friendships. One of my classmates was Alex. He was studying the Sciences, and I was his only Humanities friend. Alex and I were serious-minded, innocent, and shy. The main difference between us was that Alex was diligent and punctual, and I was scatter-brained and somewhat tardy. Another difference was that he loved studying kanji and spent hours studying them, and I hoped they would go away. (Our respective grades reflected this.) Our conversations centred on Japanese grammar, and of course kanji. The one exception to this was the day when Alex noticed a score I was studying for my Music course, of Mozart’s Symphony Number Forty. I explained how to read a score, and he was intensely interested. I had never known anyone who was not a musician to demonstrate such interest in a score.

After graduation we went our separate ways to pursue our careers. Alex spent a few years in Europe and Japan, and then many years in California. I spent a few years teaching in a remote steel-making mining town in South Australia called Whyalla, a few years teaching in London, and a year studying in Japan. In those days there was no internet, so we corresponded by letter and postcard from wherever we happened to be. We both enjoyed writing, so correspondence was frequent, and the only delays were the time it took for the letters to traverse the seas.

Eventually, we each found love and had our families. We lost contact with each other for thirty years. He had settled back in Australia and I in Japan. All I heard of Alex was comments from my mother, who had remembered him as a teenager and listened to him avidly when he made guest appearances on the radio. I knew him once, I used to think. He had become a respected scientist but I still thought of him as a gangly teenager.

Decades later, in 2020, I was visiting Australia from Japan during which time the pandemic hit. By that time, we both had suffered unspeakable loss and tragedy of different kinds. He had lost his wife to cancer, and my marriage had been dissolved in a family court eight years earlier. We bumped into one another, and started sharing our writing, and then walking our dogs together on the beach. We had plans to go our separate ways. I was due to return to Japan once the borders were open, and he was due to resume international travel, but the pandemic and border closure stretched on longer than we could have imagined. We continued to share our writing and walk our dogs. One day, Alex, who is an early bird, invited me over for breakfast. I am not a morning person but I made a special effort. Then Alex started inviting me over for dinner. I would leave my university student children at home, telling them I was going to see my ailing mother. When I did stay with my mother, Alex would leave his university student son at home late at night, sneak out the back door, and drive over to my mother’s house. This was a curious role-reversal of oldies’ and youngsters’ typical behaviour. We would enjoy drinks and nibbles behind an arch in Mum’s front garden. I would tell her that Alex was going to come over. She would retreat to bed before he arrived.

“I saw his headlights in the drive!” she said to me one morning in a state of vicarious excitement, having seen them from her bedroom window. Forty years ago, I had been under a curfew, but now my beau was being welcomed into the family home after hours.

I never did return to Japan, although I hope to one day. Others cleaned up my home and office for me. Alex and I no longer talk about Japanese grammar or kanji, but we do converse in Japanese every now and then and enjoy watching Japanese movies. If we had consulted a dating app, we probably would not be together, because we have some fundamental differences. The experience of studying Japanese in our youth, five days a week during the semesters for three years, may have left some imprinting, and fostered mutual trust. We didn’t fall in love with each other until forty years after those classes, but our shared fascination with the Japanese language (not to mention his appreciation of the score of Mozart’s Symphony Number Forty) was the unmistakable catalyst.

A funny thing happened on the way to class!

In the 1980’s, I was invited to join a Japanese TV show, Hana no Joshidaisei (Women’s college flowers). There were 50 junior college teachers (I was the only foreigner) and 50 women students. We were asked questions we answered anonymously with clickers. One of the questions to the students was: “Have you ever had a romantic relationship with a teacher?” A whopping 65% said they did, though it was vague as to what “romantic relationship” meant. Still, it was disturbing, an appalling crossing of lines.

But over the years, I have reconsidered. The way Japanese work closes one off from any other kind of social life, it makes sense that many teachers get married to their students (after graduation of course) since they tend to be the only people of the opposite sex they meet. I myself recently told a Japanese professor that he should marry a student I knew, who admired him and fit him perfectly, and he did. They are a happy couple now.

From C

Meredith Stephens – In 2022, with Yudai Aoki, she received the Michelle Steele Best of JALT award for Extensive Reading.

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