Chinmoku.

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It’s a twinkly Thursday morning, and first period is underway. As part of a ‘Through The Keyhole’-inspired task, students are busy speculating about the occupants of various different bedrooms, photos of which I have stuck up around the room. I slink about behind them, listening out for errors to pick up on later, pleased with the gentle enthusiasm transmitted through their murmurs and giggles.

I call out for group feedback, and we all gather round a photo of the squalid student digs featured in Fresh Meat. It seemed to provoke the most hilarity and the most extensive discussions. It’s a dead cert for lengthy feedback, I feel sure.

“So, who can tell me what kind of person lives in this beautiful place?”

Nothing.

“Anyone..?”

More nothing.

“I heard some great ideas about this one – please share your thoughts, people!”

The students stare contemplatively at the photo, as though expecting it to begin explaining itself so that they don’t have to. An imaginary tumbleweed rolls by.

I’m not giving in this time. The discussions I heard were sustained and competent. I know that each of them has something to say. It is a battle of wills. I will not be the first to crack.

The seconds are swollen with gallons of nothing.

There is no awkward shuffling; no nervous glances are exchanged. There is no apparent discomfort whatsoever, in fact. Not from them, anyway. Just seconds upon seconds of excruciating, silent nothing, stretching out ahead of us into the foreseeable future with no signs of let-up.

I crack. The closed questions are coming out.

“Are the people who live here young or old?”

The question hangs in the air for another long moment. Possibly sensing my inward agitation, some benevolent soul finally offers me a single syllable: “young”.

I simultaneously scream, sigh and chuckle to myself. I’ll drag this out for a minute more before getting them back to some pair work, the relative intimacy of which seems to yield far better results than plenary scenarios.

Not all classes are quite this stagnant, I hasten to add, and there are a handful of students who can usually be relied upon to ease the rest through such group feedback sessions. But I have certainly cut down on these kinds of exchanges since beginning my job here. Past students from different cultures have seemed to rely upon them for validation and/or motivation. Not the Japanese, for whom hitting the mute button at the end of an exchange seems not only permissible, but wholly preferable.

It occurs to me that, as I navigate the delights and perplexities of Japanese culture, I have unwittingly been picking up not one, but two of Japan’s native languages: Japanese, and silence.

And true to form, this abstract noun-loving language has a ready-made word for its non-verbal counterpart: chinmoku. Rather than the uneasy, frustratingly ambiguous silence abhorred by many Westerners, however, chinmoku is considered something of a virtue, connoting truthfulness rather than dissimulation. In chinmoku, we find meaning in its purer form, before it is contorted by the duplicity and inadequacy of words. For many of my students, it seems that this reverence for the unsaid is in-built, and that is why I will never win these battles for sustained verbal interaction in class; any need on their part to break the silence would have occurred long after I have fidgeted my way onto a new topic of conversation.

And I begin to think that, just as with silence, where communication lies exclusively in what is not said, so my inability to bear it says far less about any shortcoming on the part of my students, and everything about my own Western need to plaster over the cracks of conversation with empty babble. It is a sod of an insecurity at which I hope Japan is steadily chipping away. What a relief it will be to hang up my Mrs Dalloway costume at long last, to stop giving parties to cover the silence…

I would love to incorporate more chinmoku into my lessons, to allow students to dedicate many more minutes to silent contemplation of the material I present. But what with it being a speaking class lasting only forty precious minutes, I fear this might prove counter-productive… In a wider sense, however, I do feel that if we made time for a bit more chinmoku, perhaps what does emerge from our mouths might be ultimately more worth saying.

In this same spirit, I shall do away with words for the rest of this post, and leave you with a selection of snaps from the past week or two. Been a grand ol’ time 😀

Silently contemplating you all from afar! All my love as always.

X x x x x

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3 comments

  1. RachelW · June 6

    Ugh I miss Japan every single day. Your pictures are gorgeous! 😀 xx

    Like

    • kb44689 · June 6

      Oh man I am dreading the day I have to leave – gonna break my heart! Thanks for your lovely comment 🙂 X

      Like

      • RachelW · June 6

        Lol I know I cried when the plane took off 😥 Enjoy every second! ❤ xx

        Like

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