Ink-Stained Scribe

Goodbye, Momoko

Momoko (Left), me, and Krista, on the day
when I got my apartment in Shimokitazawa.
I received an email this morning telling me that my friend, Momoko, passed away in a car accident. The message had been translated into English by someone outside her Japanese-speaking family, and I received it first thing upon coming in to work.

I moved to Japan in August, 2007, which was the whole reason I even started this blog. By October, I was thoroughly lonely, immersed in a job I wasn't good at, with coworkers who were all much older than me and always compared me to my predecessor. I was in a fairly large neighborhood where there were mostly families with young kids, where the people my age had either moved to Tokyo or college, and my coworkers only occasionally spared time for me. I'm pretty good at being alone, but more than a month of solitude was too much. I had made friends immediately in the city where I did my training, but for some reason, it was much harder in Omiya.

On one Saturday, I was sitting outside the station and an American girl approached me - she couldn't speak Japanese and was having trouble figuring out what the girl at the cell-phone kiosk was trying to say. I helped her translate with my (admittedly still bad) Japanese, explaining that the sales girl was trying to tell her she could pay her phone bill at the convenience store. That girl was also named Lauren, and a week or so later, I saw Lauren at the Starbucks and she introduced me to her new Japanese teacher - Momoko Okayama. Long after Lauren left, Momoko and I chatted. Her English was good because she had spent some time in Canada. We exchanged cell-phone numbers and hung out several times after that, talking in a mixture of English and Japanese.

Before I knew it, it was Christmas. In Japan, Christmas isn't a holiday - kids still go to school, their parents still go to work, and the celebrations are mainly held between couples, who spend Christmas Eve on dates far more elaborate than Valentine's Day or White Day. But I had only been away from home a few months, had spent my birthday with a guy who worked at the Starbucks, whose birthday was also in November, and none of my coworkers much cared that it was Christmas, or that I might be lonely.

Christmas with Momoko and friends.
But Momoko called me, told me she and her friends were having a party, and invited me to come along. She literally saved Christmas for me.

About six months later, I was looking for an apartment, and Momoko and my friend Krista came with me. Momoko helped me translate, helped me figure out what all the kanji meant and what the contract asked, and she even volunteered to cosign for me. In Japan, a lot of places require that foreigners have a Japanese citizen cosign on their lease, and Momoko was willing to do that for me. I didn't even understand what the real-estate agent had asked, but Momoko said, "Okay, I'll do it," and pulled out her inkan (name-stamp used on official documents). After that, we played in Shimokitazawa and took the picture at the top of this post.

I don't know what I would have done without Momoko. Having lived abroad herself, she understood what it felt like to be in a foreign country, how sometimes being surrounded by thousands of people makes you feel so much lonelier than simply being alone, how painful it is not to be understood, not to be able to communicate what's in your heart.

And then there are times, like now, when no language can convey the ache. I feel like someone is pinching me beneath the jaw. There's a pressure at the back of my head that won't go away, and tears keep sliding from my eyes before I even realize they're back. They skate off my cheek and soak into my shirt, disappearing like they were never there. They, like words, are too impermanent to describe my feelings. They're no relief for the knot in my chest or the guilt in my throat when I think of how long it's been since Momoko and I talked.



Rest in peace, Momoko. I will remember you always.