A girl took me totally by surprise today and almost broke my heart.
I was sitting at my desk ramping up to go home for the day, it being shortly after 3pm. Which meant I had succesfully passed 6 hours at the office, quite an accomplishment considering I have no work and only three other teachers were in today (Side note: it often seems like all the teachers get some bulletin I miss about when to come to school, so it's like just me and two other people there in the morning and I always imagine they have some sort of early warning system I don't get, like everyone else knows the school is going to be hit by a tsunami that day or something. Side note to that note: If the Tokai earthquake hits, the school will be hit by 10 meter tall tsunami waves). So I just had to kill time for another half hour or so, then I could start slow preparations to leave. Then I could brace myself for immediate exit at 4 pm sharp, muscles tense for another 5 minutes, watching the slow revolutions of the clock.
BUT, instead I was interrupted from my vigil by an English teacher, who presented to me one female student who was apparently working on a speech for the English speech contest to be held next month, and instructed to correct it for her. Interestingly enough, though it came right before the end of my day and would make me stay late, I was somehow so touched by the idea of having actual work to do that I took it and started through it.
The girl had just returned back from a summer studying abroad in Australia, and her speech began with a conversation between her and her host father, who asked, "Don't you feel homesick for Japan?" At first, the story seemed clear, it's going to be all about her experience in Australia; she found out we're all just people, the same though appearing different, she ate vegimite and saw koalas, blah blah blah Australia. I just start correcting the grammar and explaining the problems to her.
Then I get to the end of the paragraph about her host father. Suddenly the speech shifts from "my host father was a really great guy because even though he worked hard he also did chores and talked to me" to "when I came home and compared him to my father I realized that we don't really have any sort of relationship." It was clear this was a very different kind of speech.
At this point I skip ahead and quickly read the rest of the speech, which is a single, handwritten page on notepaper. This girl explains that her father, who works for Honda, was sent abroad to Ohio when she was only 9 years old. She quickly became used to not having a father around, and didn't really feel any connection to him any more. Even when he returned, they rarely spoke, and though her mother would tell her how her father worried about her, "they had no relationship."
Upon talking to her mom about this recently, her mom remembered a letter the father had written home to the girl and her sister 9 years ago while in Ohio. In the letter, he explained that he was working hard to set up a new factory, and though he was tired, he knew he would become more successful through this work. When the girl read this letter from her father, she felt that he was "maybe a good person, perhaps the word that describes what [she] felt was 'respect.'" She respected her father for working hard to improve himself, and recognized her own work to go to Australia or to study as similar in intention as a form of self-improvement.
The end was what killed me though. Even though she felt more gratitude towards her father for allowing her to go to study abroad, she has never been able to tell him. She confessed she doesn't know what would happen with their relationship in the future. She only hoped that someday she could too become a person worthy of her father's respect, and they could sit across from each other and talk as adults. She had never been able to talk to her father about how she felt. But she invited him to the speech contest, and is hoping that by giving this speech she might somehow break through to him.
She told me this, and I was in kind of in shock. I tried to get back to correcting her paper for her. I walked her through each sentence, but the whole time I was basically trying not to get too emotional, even not to cry. We finally made it to the end of the speech. She asked me what I thought of it, and I told her, 感動した。(I was deeply moved)
She says she just wants them to respect each other, but I thought, why should that be all she can have? Is that really the most she should be able to expect from her relationship with her father, the admiration existing among peers?
I'm not trying to say this is a problem solely of Japan - clearly it is a problem that occurs in every culture and every time - but it is something reinforced or exacerbated here by murderous work hours that make it nearly impossible for even the most devoted father to spend enough time with his children and a culture that discourages any sort of open communication of emotion by men to others. It's a harrowing situation to live in, and likely part of the reason Japan has as many suicides as the entire United States despite having less than half the population; the suicide rate is more than double that of the US or most EU countries.
The point is that this lack of paternal involvement is something I have read about, even told people who asked me about the work environment in Japan. I even speculated about the effect it would have on the lives of my host family; the two young kids were only 4 and 8 but still didn't seem to see enough of their father. But hearing a 17 year old basically confess to me that everything I had heard was true...to personalize this loneliness for me and stand in front of me at once both meekly and bravely...it was hard to be so glib about the topic. To speak summarily on a topic or treat it academically always involves a sense of distance, but there was no distance from this girl. She was there, and she was so goddamn honest and open about how she felt that I had no way of not dealing with it.
I told her that this is common in the US as well, that it happens everywhere. She was not the only one who felt distance from her parents. Hers was not the only parent who could not tell their child how they felt. That I too once felt distance from my father, but we found a way to communicate with each other and now can actually tell each other how we feel. That there could be something better for her, that it doesn't have to just be too successful workers sitting across a coffee table from each other. That he's not your colleague, he's your father, and I'm sure he wants you to be his daughter as well, not his peer.
I was there until nearly 6, and today I felt like I actually might have earned my money for once.