The Letters from Japan – a true story (Cecilia Peartree)

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I happened to see a short snippet in a newspaper from someone in Japan who was looking for a British pen-pal. I was a very prolific letter-writer in these teenage, pre-email days. Hard to remember the time when people could even communicate without having social media at their fingertips. Though it was much more exciting to get an actual letter from somewhere overseas, with different stamps on it – my brother collected stamps – and a different style of handwriting, than it is to receive an email. I suppose for a while I collected pen-pals the way my brother collected stamps. I had several pen-pals from inside the UK, and during my teens I also acquired pen-pals in the USA, Russia, Pakistan and Germany as well as in Japan. I have to say the Americans were the most fun to write to – although we may be divided by a common language, it was easier to write in the knowledge that they would probably understand most of what you wrote and vice versa, and yet the teenage culture there was quite different from that in Scotland. I think that was when I first developed the almost irresistible urge to visit the USA, although I didn’t actually get the chance to do so until I was in my 60s.

I studied German and Russian at school, so I used to practise writing in those languages, while the pen-pal would write back in English. Sometimes we were picky and pointed out each other’s mistakes, but usually everybody was quite tolerant.

I still write real letters to old friends when sending out real Christmas cards, and in return most of them write to me too at that time of year. I use mail merge to start the letters and then add odd things to and subtract bits from the basic text depending on the recipient. In some cases I will have been in touch with them since the last real-life letter – via Facebook in many cases – so I don’t need to fill them in on absolutely everything that’s happened in the past year. I have never objected to receiving letters telling me other people’s successes and their family stories either. Hardly anyone ever falls off my Christmas card list once they are on it!

Anyway, all those years ago of course I wrote off to the address given in the newspaper snippet, and didn’t think anything more about it until all the letters from Japan began to arrive. I’m not sure if they came in their hundreds, or whether it just seemed like that. In any case, for a few weeks they came in such quantities that I couldn’t possibly reply to each one individually. I think even my parents, who always encouraged me to forge links with people from other countries, especially the ones we had recently (at that time) been at war with, might have grudged paying the cost of all the airmail letters. There were letters from teenagers all over Japan.

Instead of trying to reply to everybody, I chose three of the letter-writers for myself, and worked my way round my school friends to try and talk them into writing back to some – even one each – of the others. I think I had some success at this. The feedback was good, especially at first. My pen-pals often sent me lovely postcards of cherry trees in bloom, and mountains with snow on top. One of my friends received a present of a kimono from her pen-pal, and several of my friends exchanged letters with their pen-pals for some years, at least until we all left school. I myself wrote to one of my pen-pals, who was keen on art and eventually went to art college, until I was at university.

One of my friends had an unfortunate experience which reminds me of interactions you sometimes see on social media these days. The pen-pal she’d been writing to for a while without incident suddenly became obsessed with her, declared himself in love, and began to write letters full of exaggeration and in very flowery language. Towards the end of their correspondence, his heart was evidently too full for him to confine himself to English, and when he got carried away with his passion, he would write the rest in Japanese.

Which, perhaps fortunately, she couldn’t understand.

Not Japan but Edinburgh with blue skies


Sarah said…
I also had several pen pals as a teenager. When I had a gap year in New Zealand I met up with the one my aunt had matched me up with, the son of one of her friends. We only met up once, he wasn't what I expected and I was a bit disappointed, we'd written such long letters over the years, sent gifts, photos and cassette tapes.
That's a pity, especially after the long friendship through letters. I think I only ever met my two German pen-pals, and I got on well with both of them. One of them lived in a kind of student hostel run by her mother, so it was quite exciting for me as a 16-year-old schoolgirl to be suddenly surrounded by all the somewhat older students! There was dancing and tennis and a student drama production.

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