Every day brings a reminder of how our lives have changed in the コロナ時代 (korona jidai, coronavirus era). Despite knowing that the risk of catching the virus still looms — その危機が私自身にも迫ってきた (sono kiki ga watashi jishin ni mo sematte-kita, the crisis has crept up on me, too) — I’ve been starved for social contact. I recently met up with a former colleague who is now under 一時帰休 (ichiji kikyū, temporary furlough) due to his employer suffering pandemic-related difficulties. Don’t worry, we practiced ソーシャルディスタンシング (sōsharu disutanshingu, social distancing).

Our conversation began along the lines of “ちっともお変わりになりませんね” (“chittomo ō-kawari ni narimasen ne,” “you haven’t changed a bit”) and “お久しぶりですね、お変わりありませんか?” (“o-hisashiburi desu ne, o-kawari arimasen ka?” “Long time no see, how are you getting along?” ). 久しぶり (Hisashiburi, Long time no see) can refer to momentary or longer periods of time depending on the conversation topic. It may be a term you’ll find yourself using a lot as we return to the public sphere.

“どのぐらい会ってなかったかな?” (“Dono kurai attenakatta kana?” “How long haven’t we met up, I wonder?”) comes the reply. “3か月くらいかな?” (“San-kagetsu kurai kana,” “About three months, no?”)

Now, the real trick to these reunions is the fact that not everyone has been spending their time in self-imposed lockdown by playing Animal Crossing and trying out bread recipes. There’s a chance that some people have had a genuinely rough time. That’s why I thought it best to politely inquire about my acquaintance’s family. “みんな元気ですか?” (“Minna genki desu ka?,” “Everyone OK?”). It’s good if you hear back “元気にしてます” (“Genki ni shite-masu,” “We are fine”), but some people may just reply with “なんとか” (“nantoka,” “somewhat”), which contains the nuance of “we are just surviving.”

Touching upon the general difficulties associated with living in a pandemic situation where ill health was a concern, we agreed the 不況 (fukyō, recession) is impacting a lot of us. I wasn’t keen to broach my colleague’s work situation, but luckily he brought it up first. “3か月間の自宅待機をさせられている” (“San-kagetsu kan no jitaku taiki o saserarete-iru,” lit., “I have been forced to remain at home for three months until economic circumstances improve”), he said. In other words, 一時帰休.

Of course I was quick to respond, offering my condolences along these lines. I began with “そうだったんですか … 大変ですね” (“Sō datta-n desu ka … taihen desu ne,” “Oh, really? … That’s awful, isn’t it?”). I was careful not to use phrases such as 頑張って (ganbatte, do your best) or 元気出してね (genki dashite ne, chin up), just in case they would be construed as flippant.

Using the correct vocabulary was even more important as I knew I was a 悩みを聞いてくれる人 (nayami o kiite-kureru hito, a person to listen to his worries) or, namely, a shoulder to cry on.

Depending on your relationship with the person you’re speaking to in these unprecedented times, aka the 新たな日常 (aratana nichijō, new normal), you may want to tell them, “できることがあったら何でも言ってね” (“Dekiru koto ga attara nan demo itte ne,” “If there is anything I can do, tell me”). That would be a proper response for your friends. More formally, perhaps with a colleague, consider trying, “お力になれることがあったら、何でも遠慮なくおっしゃって下さい” (“O-chikara ni nareru koto ga attara, nan demo enryo naku osshatte-kudasai, “If there’s anything I can do to help, no matter what, just let me know”). What I’ve learned from this recent situation is that it’s always best to let people know you are available to listen, 一人で抱え込まないで (hitori de kakaekomanai de, don’t saddle yourself with these problems alone).

No matter the circumstances in which you find yourself offering condolences — ill health, a death, someone losing a job — such words will mean a lot.

Although the peak of the coronavirus pandemic is reportedly over here, many people are probably still cautious about going out and the ソーシャルディスタンシング may continue. So if you feel alone, tell your friends 連絡を取り合いましょう (renraku o toriaimashō, let’s keep in touch) and let them know, 落ち着いたら会いましょう (ochitsuitara aimashō, let’s meet up when things calm down).

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