Lost in Translation…


This is a great movie. I first saw this movie in 2006 before our first trip to Japan. I am not sure if I understood at the time what it was really about, though. I mostly watched it because it was about Japan, and an area of Tokyo where I was going to be visiting. I have watched the movie many times since, and it has become one of my go-to repeat favorites. Certainly not action-packed, but entertaining and funny. After the past 5 days here in Japan, I find myself thinking more and more about this movie — identifying with the characters — and maybe finding a deeper understanding of what the movie is about.

I was out with our relocation consultant yesterday doing an area tour to help get acclimated to the new neighborhood where we will live here in Tokyo. Ai and I on the surface don’t seem that much different. Certainly she is younger and has different features, but we dress in similar fashion, we converse in English…  not her native tongue, but she is very good at speaking English. Much better than I ever hope to be at speaking Japanese! But despite surface appearances, and despite how “westernized” the Japanese appear to be/try to be/want to be (which is it?), I have started to realize that there is a very real cultural disconnect between us. Not that this is at all unexpected or bad…  it is just not very apparent on the surface. It is just something bubbling under the surface that you begin to notice in subtle ways.

Don’t get me wrong, the people we have met here have been nothing but gracious and kind and welcoming. But sometimes I think we are puzzled by each other. I saw this yesterday when talking to Ai…  Sometimes even though she would nod her head and say “yes, yes” — or “hai, hai”, she would get a quizzical look on her face like she didn’t understand what I was talking about.  Or when I would ask about something I saw and she would have trouble explaining about it in English…  something that she couldn’t quite put into words that I (a gaijin!) could understand. Our languages don’t translate directly, of course… and the meanings and the cultural context behind the languages don’t either. A bird is still a bird, and a tree is still a tree, but our feelings and experience of those objects just does not translate completely. It isn’t easy. But it is infinitely fascinating… and sublime.

Oh…  And I did have my first “gaijin” moment yesterday. I was at Tamachi station… distracted and looking at my map… and I got on the escalator.  But I automatically stood to the right. In Japan it is reversed…  they drive on the left, they walk on the left, they stand on the escalator to the left. Big no-no…  And, maybe it was my imagination, but I don’t think so… I heard a whispered “gaijin” and realized my faux pas, moved over to the left, and several people walked past me on the right. Oops! My bad! Gotta laugh…  Yeah, I am a Gaijin. But I am learning…

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My husband and I were both born and raised in Kansas, but for the past 20+ years we have been living in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, with our children grown and out of the house, we have the opportunity to spend two years living in Tokyo. My husband will be working with the Japanese counterpart to his American company. UPDATE 2023... After 4-1/2 years in Tokyo, we returned to Atlanta. Now we are heading to London for a three year job assignment!

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