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Suffering. All life is subject to it. The first of the four Noble Truths, the shisho-tai. It is the only one of the four that I readily embrace still today. The desires which are said to cause the suffering I just can’t seem to annihilate, and hence I might not make it to that state of eternal peace we all seem to be running away from. But long ago I did embrace the fourth Noble Truth, or the attempt to efface selfishness by following the hassho-do, the Eight Fold Path. These include the rightness of belief, speech, action, effort, livelihood, resolve, thought, and meditation. And this is what led me to Japan the first time, long ago. Fate again had me placed in the Land of the Gods: Some bureaucrats placed me there in a small town in the board of education.
I left behind (planning to return, of course) a life in Paris, a future of great cheese and wine, and, well, Paris, to live in the countryside of Japan, two hours from Hiroshima, in a town on the Japan Sea coast that smelled of fish, a town of less than 53,000 (officially), in a place someone like the writer Alex Kerr would lovingly label “Lost Japan”.
The Lost in “Lost Japan”
Mr. M: “Remember!”
Mr. M: “My name!”
Me: Uh…OK. Uh…could you tell me your name first?
Sometimes teaching English in Japan can seem like you’re teaching in a madhouse. In this case the metaphor was reality; I was teaching in one. And, of course, my student-patients were more sane and pleasant and interesting than those in the unofficial madhouses labeled schools.
I can’t recall now how I ended up visiting N Hospital for the Mentally Ill a few times a month to join a therapist running an EFL class attended by people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression. Probably as a favor to someone. Certainly I was trying to follow the Eight Fold Path at that time.
You may think it strange that someone would propose it therapeutic for people especially prone to the negative impact of stress to study a second language, but someone would and did. So people who, almost by definition, have trouble with language, with social relations, with things like appropriate conversational turn-taking, were gathered in a circle for our twice-a-month English conversation class. The idea appears to be grounded in social skills training therapy. And I was very moved and happy to see that it seemed to be a positive thing for many in the group over the one and a half years or so I was able to devote to it.
I and Mr. M, who was the first person to speak to me on that very first day of our class, enjoyed those days of sticking to our rightness of effort. He didn’t speak much, but would often give me sincere questions with an earnest though at times malevolent scowl, followed by, after what he felt was an appropriate response from me, an impish grin. For example, during our second class we had this exchange:
Mr. M: “Do you have a complex about it?”
Me: Uh…about what?
Mr. M: “Being short.”
Me: Uh…now I do.
I looked forward to the two Saturdays a month I would spend at the hospital. Walking along the river in the morning and watching the fish jump and the sagi (heron) trying to catch them. My main work teaching at the town’s junior high schools was not generally something to be looked forward to, so this was my chance to enjoy my profession.
Some of the students were in a torpor at times, heavily medicated, and the others were garrulous. I couldn’t help, like any teacher, taking a liking to certain students. There was the one who promised to marry me in five years if no one would have me. And the woman who launched into her original song while playing guitar the first time she joined the class. There was Mr. D, who couldn’t come to a class because he “had been a bad boy” and wrote me a very in-depth report in very good English tying in the use of bad words in the pop culture to the economic decline. And Mr. K, an outpatient and former English teacher who played a great guitar. I sometimes saw him at a local restaurant where we chatted and both enjoyed some akaten, a kind of fish paste with some togarashi. But my favorite may have been Mr. Y, a young man who suffered from bullying in high school, partly for being smart. He stopped going to school and suffered from severe depression. I later learned that his father was in the same hospital, also depressed. He had a sweet disposition and loved to chase after information about anything. He wore unstylish glasses and a bad ponytail. In our group picture you would be forgiven for guessing he was the sensei and I a patient.
At some point my regular job teaching at six junior high schools burned me out and all I wanted to do was sleep on Saturdays. Maybe I was depressed. And so I arranged for a friend to take over the Hospital classes.
A year or so later I met Mr. Y (now without ponytail) again near a small rundown market close to the sea and we chatted briefly. He was off to his job at a fish-packing place and beginning his new life with a radiant smile and seeming confidence.
“I’m enjoying my days now. Day by day finding some moments to smile at the world instead of frowning at it.”
We shook hands and he wished me well, maybe sensing that it was I who was starting down my path of frowning at the world.
DM Zoutis is a farmer and writer in Hiroshima and Shimane Japan.