The Blessings of Illiteracy-My Time Wandering in the Tokyo Desert

A picture of a high rise behind a small neighborhood in Tokyo.

February 13, 2021

From July 2015 through July 2018 I was living in downtown Tokyo with my husband and kids. Although I spent time each day studying Japanese, throughout my time there I was essentially Japanese-illiterate. I was free from the full thrust of the advertisements around me. In addition, few stores had my size, so the temptation to go out and spend money adorning myself with clothes and shoes was non-existent. In addition, my legal status in Japan prevented me from seeking formal, paying employment.

I was free. Tokyo, one of the busiest and flashiest places on earth, became my desert. It became a place I could go out and get lost and “find” myself without the normal distractions. After I dropped my kids off at school, I would wander until I ran into a subway station. I would file into jam packed subway cars to visit temples, the Imperial palace, and gardens. I would stand in Shibuya crossing, mesmerized by the flashing lights and the massive tv screens on the sides of buildings, all advertising things I couldn’t understand and products I didn’t care much about.

It was bliss for the Japanese-illiterate American living in Japan.

In the US there is politics. At the time it was Hillary vs. Donald.

In the US there are the constant “what ifs” of consumerism. The constant push and pull for more and better. Dissatisfaction is constantly pedaled to us for the purpose of triggering the desire to obtain, to consume, and to achieve more. Tokyo has these pushes as well. However my virtual illiteracy offered protection from the normal barrage.  

I didn’t actually set out to pray during my long walks through Tokyo. I didn’t know, at first, that that was what I was doing. My mind quieted, and something filled the space. At first it was simply an awareness of a place inside myself that I hadn’t visited in quite some time. It was a fundamentally private place that I had always sensed but rarely visited. It was a place for me and God and no one else. And I started to explore.  

I started to think of this private space as an actual thing with shapes and contours. It was a place that could take a lifetime to discover. Slowly, step by step, I rediscovered myself and the woman I had become over the years.

I relished spending long periods of alone time with God. Prayer became a labor of love. I’d plan it out as an explorer would plan out his journey to a new land. Each day I’d jealously protect my time walking the streets of Tokyo with rosary beads in my hand. If something came up, I’d squeeze in the time to pray by waking up early or going to bed late, always heading outside onto the streets of Tokyo. Suddenly, this endeavor of connecting with God seemed like the most important work. Missing even one day seemed like a tragedy, something that could never be recovered.   

As we prepared to return to the US, fear gripped me. I was returning to a state of complete literacy. We were going back to the land of intense political tribalism, back to the land where I understood every single vexatious political add and alarmist medical commercial. Back to the land of dissatisfaction sold for the purpose of enhancing the economy. Back to the land of meritocracy where impossible levels of fairness are expected.

Back in the US, there would be few barriers protecting me from these influences and preoccupations. My blossoming prayer life still seemed vulnerable. There was so much more I wanted to figure out about myself before once again immersing myself in the ideology of consumerism.     

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