Ex-columnist looks back on decades of helping readers get things done

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In 2000, columnist Jean Pearce decided to call it quits and left Japan, her home for more than four decades, to return to the United States.

But the author of the popular “Getting Things Done” column in The Japan Times said the experience of responding to the hundreds of letters that came her way effectively positioned her as a bridge between foreigners and Japan.

“It was very fortunate that I was the one doing some of that work, or I should say pleasure,” Pearce, currently in Japan on a brief trip, said in an interview.

She first began writing the column, originally called “Orientations,” in 1963, and admitted that a lot of the questions she fielded back then were about material things.

“At first, there were so many things you couldn’t buy in Japan, like special foods and large-size shoes and clothes,” and the things that people wanted were often expensive, she said.

Many inquired about where they could get their shoes repaired, or how to get foreign electrical products. Others, she said, seemed to be lonesome and just wanted someone to talk to.

Her readers, and the nature of their letters, changed with the times, as Japan became more “international” and barriers between Japanese and foreigners, including language, were reduced.

“Much to my joy, the questions began to change. They were more focused on cultural differences,” she said. “Many people wanted their own unique Japanese experience, and that was very interesting for me, because through finding answers for my readers, I learned so much, both about Japan and about myself.”

Her column remained popular through the years, but Pearce admits that in the age of the Internet, she began to feel that some of the help she provided to her readers could be gotten elsewhere.

“I think, although I never admitted it, that this was one of the reasons why I was ready to leave,” she said. “It was that the service I could do was no longer necessary, as the information I had was available in so many other places.”

In many cases, Japanese, especially urbanites, may have become more open and willing to show their emotions more freely than their counterparts 40 years ago, when Pearce first began working here. But it just may be this narrowing of differences that can throw the unknowing off track by instilling a false sense of security that Japan is the same as the West.

“Westerners tend to judge by what we see on the face and actions we are familiar with,” Pearce said. “(We see these emotions and actions) and assume that everybody is the same. But Japanese feelings are very deep and entrenched, and (people) are going to make some mistakes” if they assume they are in charted territory.

So how would Pearce, who now lives in Virginia, describe Japan and its society today?

“It’s like an incredible iceberg,” she observed after pondering the question. “Not in the sense of an iceberg being cold, but that so much of it you can’t sense because it’s down under the surface.”

Japan may be difficult to really fathom “unless someone lives here, with an open mind and open eyes, and just looks, comes in and feels it,” Pearce said.

“One person can’t feel it all, but my readers were very generous in their questions, so I learned so much through them, and of course, it changed me and I’m a better person for it.”