Soubetsukai -or- What Couldn’t Be Said Last Night

26 03 2008

If you are a teacher in America and if you so desire, you can begin and end a long and rewarding teaching career in the same school. Not so in Japan. Every year in late-March, Japanese teachers wait in nervous anticipation to see who will stay at their school for another year and who will be transferred somewhere else within their ken (which is equivalent to a state in U.S. parlance). This year, my school is losing several critical staff members, and while these moves are looked upon as something of a promotion for each individual, I can’t help but be very sad to see some of them go.

The soubetsukai is one way for us to formally say goodbye to our friends and colleagues and give them a good send-off into their new lives at other schools. There are often departmental farewell parties as well as the one for all of the staff. Last night was the English Department’s soubetsukai. We’re technically only losing one English teacher, Yama-sensei, but we celebrated for two people, because we’re also losing our vice-principal, ‘Nami-sensei.

Nami-sensei (I’ve shortened his name) was the third person from my school that I met when I arrived in Miyakonojo almost two years ago. It was hot–like Okeefenokee Swamp hot–and I was uncomfortably dressed to the nines because I’d attended an important meeting in Miyazaki City that morning. I was hungry. I still hadn’t seen my apartment, and I hadn’t quite gotten past my jet lag. I was also nervous about meeting the important people at my school for the first time. All of the new JETs had been told that the first impression is everything for the Japanese, and we should try to make the best impression possible. With nearly no Japanese language skills, I was terrified of making an ass of myself in front of these important people.

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Nami-sensei speaks nearly perfect English, and at that moment in time, it was exactly what I needed. He instantly put me at ease with his kind smile and his relaxed manner. In the days and weeks that followed, when most of the other people in my office–including my supervisor!–were off on summer vacation, Nami-sensei was the one who talked to me, kept me company, and took me out to lunch. He and I formed a rapport that has only been strengthened over the past year and a half.

Last night at the soubetsukai, there were so many things that I wanted to say, but when it comes to talking about things that are close to my heart, I lose all powers of speech. My throat closes up and the waterworks start going. The only comment I could make was, “Who am I going to talk to now?” What I wanted to say was so much more, and since I don’t have to speak to transform these thoughts into virtual words, I feel it best to put them here:

‘Nami-sensei,

Years from now, when I look back on my experiences in Japan, I will remember you with fondness. Your gentle manner, your smile, and your concern have meant the world to me and have made my days here brighter. From the morning greeting to the time I say farewell every work day, your presence gives me strength and reassurance. I love to see your face light up when you talk to students and other teachers. I love that you ask me all sorts of questions about English phrases and odd quirks of grammar. It makes such a difference to have an ally and a friend I can talk to in my own language.

You have helped me in so many ways, great and small. You’re the one who came to the rescue when my friend went off to Tokyo with my apartment key, leaving me locked out at 11 p.m. on a Sunday. You’re the one who comforted and counseled me on what was, perhaps, the worst day I’ve ever had at school. You’ve negotiated auto-purchases, insurance transfers, and hospital stays. You’ve given me lovely gifts, rich in Japanese culture, and you’re always leaving post-cards or brochures or flyers about famous places in Miyazaki and beyond. You’ve been like the older brother I always wanted.

Honestly, these words are such poor payment in return, but they are all I have. For your many kindnesses, I thank you. May you enjoy success in your new position, and may you continue to be such a wonderful spark of positive energy in the lives of the people you meet. You will be sorely missed.

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One response

29 03 2008
timestep

I do hope that you are planning on putting these words into a letter to him.

He sounds like a valuable friend!

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