What two weeks in Japan taught me about walls

My wife and I just returned from a two-week vacation IMG_4284in Japan. The trip took us from Tokyo through the Japanese countryside, where we stayed in Ryokans: the small, country inns that capture the traditional essence of rural Japan. A few days later, we wound up in Kyoto – our home for a week, as we made daily pilgrimages to various shrines, temples and other must-see sites.

Japan was mesmerizing in its natural beauty, extraordinary food, deeply-textured history, and a storied culture that revealed itself in so many ways. For all of its attractions, however, something was lacking…

One evening in Kyoto, we were sitting in a tiny, out-of-the-way restaurant. It had six small tables, each accommodating only two people. We looked blankly at the menu that was entirely in Japanese and which contained a few pictures of various dishes. Our Japanese neighbor to my left looked over, noticed our confusion, and smiled. He spoke a bit of broken English and attempted to guide us through the menu.

That seemingly unremarkable moment was clarifying. I realized then what had been missing: We could communicate a bit with the Japanese, mostly in fits and starts, but couldn’t hold a significant, even a casual conversation. I had come to feel detached; even at times alone, despite the bustle that surrounded me. I had encountered “the wall.”

In short, the human element was absent, apart from the rich and vibrant experience which was Japan. What I wasn’t aware of at the outset of our trip was that I had looked forward to being able to build a few relationships over the course of our two-week adventure. But the wall got in the way.

Walls come in many forms

As I considered my unforeseen predicament, I realized that walls come in myriad forms, not just in the form of language.

Indeed, there are “good” walls, such as the dams that serve the economic and health needs of communities. There are “good fences” – walls that make for “good neighbors.” There are firewalls that help us defend against hackers.

By their nature, walls are designed to keep things apart. On the negative side of the ledger, walls take their greatest toll on relationships. Specifically, they inhibit that uniquely human connection, which is so necessary to turning strangers into friends, silence into laughter, events into stories, and moments into memories. Absent that connection we can wind up being left in the dark: isolated and uninformed; simply lessThe shapes of these walls are many and their outcomes, potentially, far-reaching:

  • There are emotional walls that can creep into the fabric of a marriage, making it difficult to stay “as one” with your spouse.
  • There are attitudinal walls that can spring up between well-meaning business associates, whose dramatically different personalities make it challenging to set priorities both people support.
  • There are ideological walls – think capitalism and communism – that make trust among nations nearly impossible.
  • There are physical walls – remember the Berlin wall? – that keep families and friends apart, tethered to political imperatives that have little to do with the hopes and aspirations of the individuals being held at bay.

What I came to see in Japan is that, on balance, walls make it impossible to see and to hear – to gain perspective and to learn. Whether visible or invisible, walls make it hard to understand and appreciate one another — who we are, what we care about, how we might find common ground, despite our differences.

What walls do you face?

Each of us faces walls every day, even though we may not be aware of them. They can show up in social situations, at work, or at home.

When you’re in the right frame of mind, take an inventory of the walls that may be part of your life. What impact are they having? How are they affecting your relationships? Most important, what can you do to break through them?

Dōmo arigatō.

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