You’ve got mail: the romance of the shoe box


Remember the days before cell phones and e-mail, when people actually wrote letters to each other, by hand — often pages and pages of kokoro-no toro (emotional outpouring)? Maybe it’s just me getting sentimental in my old age, but, really, there’s something to be said for the days when the sight of tegaki moji (handwritten words) from loved ones and friends brightened daily life.

For girls, school life would not have been complete without the passing around of kokan nikki (an open diary among friends). In a single thick notebook, a group of good friends would take turns writing about home, school, what they had for dinner, the new underwear they bought, what their boyfriends said or didn’t say, why they couldn’t lose weight despite kibishii daietto (rigorous dieting) but oh-I-did-have-a-chocolate-ice cream-yesterday-oops! and other confessions.

A friend of mine used to vividly recount the most erotic dreams she had the night before, usually involving the chemistry teacher and her older cousin from Aomori. Another would give us a blow-by-blow report on a huge nikibi (zit) that had suddenly appeared on her nose and, no matter what she did, would not go away. Her father worried that she had hana no gan (cancer of the nose), and we would alternate between offering sincere remedies and laughing our heads off. I’m telling you, Freud would salivate at the thought of getting his hands on one of these volumes.

But the most gratifying of all tegaki moji was the rabu reta (love letter). Traditionally, these are stashed inside the getabako (shoe box) of one’s school. Though no longer so popular, the custom still continues.

The getabako is a small wooden compartment in which uwabaki (school shoes, generally sneakers, that must be worn on the premises) are stored. Kids changed into their uwabaki in the morning and when it was time to go home, they would change out of them into tsugaku-gutsu(commuting shoes, usually black loafers or Mary Janes).

Unlike a locker, the getabako doesn’t have a key and can be opened by anyone. The twice-daily opening and closing of the getabako afforded guaranteed adrenaline rushes — you never knew when a letter would come fluttering out, causing girlfriends to squeal with glee and envy. Should this happen, the correct behavior was to coolly slip the envelope in a book bag, pretend that nothing had happened, then excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. The letter would be carefully opened in a corner stall, and depending on who it was from, the recipient would whisper “yatta (yessssss!)” or blurt “yameteyo (forget it),” then exit with dignity after flushing.

Getabako and love. The two are inextricably linked in the Japanese mind. In 10th grade, a guy in my class was walking down the hall when he spied a hananoyona onnanoko (a flowerlike girl) coming toward him. It was a genuine hitomebore (love at first sight). Immediately, he followed her to the getabako, waited until she left and checked the name written on her shoe-box tag. He then proceeded to compose the first of a total of 28 rabu reta that he slipped into her shoe box every single morning until she finally caved in. These had passages worthy of Proust — the reason I know is because the flowerlike girl showed them to me when they broke up, not long after the sotsugyoshiki (graduation ceremony).

Not since then have I witnessed such jonetsu (passion), akogare (longing) and yasashisa (sweetness) in a male missive.

Nowadays, of course, it’s all about checking mail on cell phone screens as we ride the train to work: “Konya gohan do (How about dinner tonight)?” or some such easy and casual remark. What happened to the tingling sensation and the quickening of the pulse and the utter, palpable joy of seeing an envelope pushed up against your graying, worn-out uwabaki? And the shy, painstaking first page that almost always began: “Totsuzen no kotode odoroku-kamoshiremasen . . . (This sudden letter may take you by surprise).”

How about we all ditch our computers and cell phones and put shoe boxes by our door or up on our desks?