Woman's calling: listening to strangers

“Come unload your troubles,” reads the tiny cardboard sign in Japanese. “Will listen. No charge.” And here in the middle of Tokyo’s busy Ginza shopping district, people actually sit and talk.

An hour after Judit Kawaguchi opens shop, five Japanese men and a woman wait huddled in the cold for their turn with the Hungarian native. “I have mountains of troubles,” is the typical opener.

“If you keep everything pent up inside, you become blocked. You start thinking in circles. You just rot there,” said Kawaguchi, who had a brief bout of depression when she arrived here 10 years ago after marrying a Japanese. “I know that feeling.”

Although she lacks formal credentials, the fluent Japanese speaker applied for volunteer counselor positions in Tokyo. But Kawaguchi, who does not disclose what her clients tell her, found few takers at one of the ward offices in Tokyo.

“No one comes to talk about their problems at the municipal office,” she said, explaining why she opened her booth on a street in Ginza in 1999. Kawaguchi sits there on weekends and holidays when the main street is closed to vehicles.

At first, people pause, asking if Kawaguchi is part of a religious group. Some worry they have to speak English. Kawaguchi now has a dozen regulars who visit her as often as once a month, including one woman who has bared worries ranging from run-ins with supervisors to fears of marriage.

Out in front of the Matsuya department store, passersby air everything from their day’s bargain finds to intensely personal issues.

A man in his 70s, playing with a feather in his lap, talks about the wife who ran away, and the money he has made at the racetrack.

“Maybe it’s easy to talk to her because she’s foreign,” the man said. “You’re sure she won’t judge you like a Japanese might.”

Maybe it’s Kawaguchi’s experience drawing reluctant English-language students out when she taught part time at public high schools in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Whatever the reason, people are willing to wait for Kawaguchi. The wait can be long, because she never interrupts and listens for as long as people want.

Gazing at the thousands of people walking through Ginza, she sighed. “Sometimes it’s easier to talk about problems to a complete stranger than to a loved one.”

“Never judge, and never give advice,” said Kawaguchi, holding to the tenets of the listening skills class she taught last year at the Ota Ward Mihara Community Center.

Advice from a third party does more harm than good, and is almost never heeded, she said, noting simple talk is often all people need to move from fretting to action.

“Everyone has this incredible well of strength inside to face up to their problems,” she said. “It’s just a matter of stepping back and watching them find it.”

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