Thursday, March 19, 2015

Two Lessons I Learned from the Japanese (Part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote about a lesson I learned from the Japanese when I lived in Japan. I'm not re-creating the blog I kept while I lived there, but upon reflecting back, I've realized that my time there resulted in two big lessons that have persisted. Yesterday's post was about the ability to listen and be judicious with my words.

Today, I pulled out a bookmark that one of my Japanese students made for me. It lives in my desk. Even though I don't look at it every day, I think of it. I know it's there.

It says "ichi go ichi e" which can be translated (loosely) to mean "one time, one meeting." It's an idiom that expresses the cultural concept of cherishing the moment because that moment can never happen again. Even if you meet with the same person at the same park bench, something will make it different: the slant of the light, things on your mind, the conversation you have. This idea of being present, and noticing the details that make a moment special, has stayed with me. It doesn't mean I write in my journal every day or that I take tons of pictures to capture every moment; it simply means that I try hard to notice when a moment is happening and appreciate it.

I studied haiku with a haiku club while I was there too. Haiku clubs are comprised primarily of grandmas and grandpas who take walks in the park then write haiku. But the craft of haiku marries the two lessons from this and yesterday's posts. It helped me to internalize the practice of noticing details and moments, and also to be exact with words. We often teach haiku as just a string of syllables (5, 7, 5), but there are many more rules than that including volumes of specific seasonal words to be used at different times of year. The most important thing a haiku does, however, is that it takes a moment then flips it around in a surprising and transcendent way. This is really hard to do well, especially with so few syllables. I don't know whether Japan or haiku can lead to inner peace, but it's a start. If you've never felt the power of haiku (or obsessed over such a short verse), read the one below with Billy Collins's poem about his interaction with it. Collins expresses it better than I could.


  1. This post was very interesting to me. I've always enjoyed haiku and agree that it's about much more than counting syllables. I loved the Billy Collins poem. Thank you for including the link to it.

  2. The idea that 'you can't step into the same stream twice'. I love how idioms develop around the world and often there are overlaps between cultures. In the Arab world there is an idiom, 'son of a duck is a floater', kind of like 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree'. There are even a couple of books written to show the idiom in Arabic (and transliterated) with a translation. So great for ELL students!