Japanese people want the same as you and I the closest translation to “natsukashi” in English is “nostalgia”

This morning, with the dying of this summer and noticing the shortening of the hours of light in the evening, I remembered that exactly two decades ago I went with my new wife to live in the city of Kyoto, in Japan.

It became possibly the single most influential experience in and on my life. To look at a period of what became three years and see it as one complete experience (or a collection of thousands of experiences wrapped into one) is obviously unusual. But Japan is exactly that: unusual. In fact, it’s unique. Living there, I found myself sometimes saying to myself or whoever was near me, “Everything here is different. Everything!”

Of course not literally everything is, in fact, different there but that was how Japan and its people struck you, especially at first sight. Essentially, Japanese people want the very same things as you and I, and the rest of the inhabitants of the planet. We all basically want love, food, shelter, respect and satisfaction. But it often seemed that how they thought they would get these wants was a polar opposite to me, a 30-year-old male from Australia, so geographically close to Japan.

The Japanese language is unique, too, like every language, I suppose. There’s a word in Japanese - “natsukashi” - for which the closest translation in English is “nostalgia”. This translation, though, does not do justice to such a complex, nuanced word that is actually a highly emotional one.

In Japan you would find even primary school children saying this word, not just adults. I think this is because from a very young age in Japan you are taught (or at least influenced) by parents, schools, and wider society to reflect back on your actions, your experiences, and even individual moments. This is a mentality not currently in vogue in much of the Western world, partly because Japan is a very formal society.

There is a structure, a ritual, an accepted composed method and set order (and a set order of words in a phrase) for virtually every daily action the Japanese do; whether it is eating, leaving home, getting to or leaving school or work, or even how you conduct relationships with people. To my wife and I and our non-Japanese friends, for at least a year or two, this was mystifying, confusing, frustrating but eventually somehow comprehensible. Although it was quite simple to understand and learn the basics of daily routine, having relationships with Japanese people was another matter, despite the fact that almost everyone was extremely kind to us.

The multiple layers of meaning that everything has in Japan can be seen in my current nostalgic yearning feeling towards Japan through the word ‘natsukashi’.

It turns out that my understanding of this word was not quite on the mark though. After researching it, I find that this feeling is better expressed by the longer word ‘mukashiwonatsukashimu’. ‘Natsukashi is apparently a more simple term for someone or something that is dear, desired or missed.

Next month, I plan to write a follow-up article on some specific examples that illustrate the points I’ve made above about Japan, this most unique of unique places. Until then, I’ll finish with a ‘haiku’ I wrote in Japan. ‘Haiku” is the traditional 5-7-5 syllable simplified form of poetry that’s designed to recall a single moment:

Portuguese song voice

Sweet, controlled, but free and light

Heard in a night street.

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