Who was the last person you said goodbye to? Were they a friend? A family member? Were they from your own culture? Were they new friends in a foreign land? Did you hug? Kiss on the cheek? Bow?
I just said goodbye. In fact, as I type this, I am sitting on an airplane cruising some 35,000 feet above the Pacific, just north of Japan. In seven hours, I will have made it to Seattle, where I will change planes for the second time in this 22-hour long adventure. Though it is 10:30 p.m. back home in Japan, I know I shouldn’t sleep on the plane because I won’t be able to go to bed when I arrive at midnight to my final destination: Washington DC.
The last 72 hours of my life in Japan have been a whirlwind of emotions. Most of which I haven’t had time to sift through and sort out until now. I could go into the endless details of closing bank accounts, the countless visits to city hall to file paperwork for my leaving, or even the difficult process of selling a car. But instead, I would like to share about saying goodbye in Japan.
Having been born and raised in California for my entire life, I am familiar with what I call the "card culture." Birthday cards, thank you cards, Mother’s Day cards. You name the occasion, and there is probably a card for it. It is how Americans express our feelings during the times we identify to be a little extra special or extraordinary.
I remember when I decided to move to Japan to teach English and left my job at the University of California. Many of my co-workers gave cards with little anecdotes about their favourite memories with me, and reasons they were thankful for having had the opportunity to work with me. I don’t remember receiving gifts outside of the cards, but of course, this largely depends on the type of relationship one has with their co-workers, in conjunction, but not restrained to, the traditions of gift-giving that have been established within their organization.
The Japanese also send cards to one another; although they are usually less personal, with a general example consisting of an expression of gratitude for all the hard work you have done, and best wishes for the future. Rarely do Japanese fully disclose their personal feelings and emotions to friends and co-workers. However, they often give simple gifts to show their care and affection. It would be impossible to cover all of the occasions on which one gives gifts in Japan, as well as the special cultural implications gift-giving customs have on day-to-day interpersonal relationships.
What I experienced firsthand, though, was that most gifts I received upon leaving Japan were largely dependent on the proximity of my relationship with my co-workers. For those whom I interacted with on a semi-regular basis and exchanged greetings with in the teacher’s room, the gifts were less personal. I received several hand towels, bath soaps, chopsticks and little snacks. Maybe I taught some classes with these teachers, or we enjoyed sitting next to each other and chatting at the famous nomikais (drinking parties). Regardless, out of about 100 teachers, I would say a large majority made an effort to express their gratitude of having worked with me by giving these gifts. None of these gifts were accompanied by cards, though.
My friends and co-workers are very proud of Japanese culture, and want to make sure I don’t forget it when I leave.
In the second, smaller circle of proximity, are people with whom I spent a lot of time and consider to be friends as well as co-workers. Each person in this circle gave very personal gifts relative to the nature of our friendship. Some examples include a USB with music for my return trip home, a coffee mug from Starbucks with our prefecture’s name on it, a fan with my name engraved on the handle, and several scrapbooks with pictures taken over the years I spent in Japan. Another thing I noticed was how important it was for many of my friends to give me gifts that also displayed Japanese culture, such as traditional, hand-painted hair combs, a handbag re-purposed by a co-worker from an old kimono, and famous pottery from our prefecture, Oita. My friends and co-workers are very proud of Japanese culture, and want to make sure I don’t forget it when I leave.
While it was difficult to leave Japan, I leave feeling loved and cared for in a way I have never known. The gifts I received are a true testament to the relationships I built and hope to maintain forever. Of course, it isn’t about the physical gifts themselves. It is about the time and energy my friends and co-workers took to show me that they care about me. This is a part of Japanese culture I hope to demonstrate and incorporate into my daily life as I move forward and share about Japan with friends and family around the world.Add this article to your reading list