“Ima, don’t go!” At the entrance to her gan, my baby girl wraps her little arms around my neck and buries her head into my shoulder. She smells of shampoo and milk. “Ima, stay!”
“Do you want to stay?” the ganenet asks me in a whisper, “because you can if you want,” and I nod and then shake my head and then shrug helplessly. Is it better to stay? Is It better to go? “I’ll stay, then go,” I decide, because making bad decisions that prolong the pain of the separation is sort of my thing. After snuggling with her on the floor in front of the blocks for 20 minutes, I stand on numbed legs and wave goodbye. She responds by grabbing my skirt and bursting into fresh tears.
The Yomim Tovim at the beginning of the year bring with them unmitigated joy, but they also shake the tentative foundations just beginning to form. For example, before Yom Tov, my daughter Gitty had loved gan, marching right through the door to place her backpack on the table alongside her friends’ and waving a cheery goodbye to me. Now, she’s clinging to my legs like a lamprey, and it’s not just her, either; this morning—the first day back at school—had been an unmitigated disaster. Chili asked me if he could stay home just one more day, trying to convince me by making extremely doubtful claims—“I won’t even make a peep, Ima! You won’t even know I’m here!”—and Baruch flat-out refused to make it on time for the tender because his socks were too sock-y, or something like that. The older girls put on their uniforms as if dressing for an execution, everyone hated the cereal they usually like, and the general morning rush had gotten drowned in a flood of tears.
Oh, and the kids cried, too.
I know I’m not the only parent who cries when my kids cry. Sometimes slightly before they cry.Who cries in general. Yes; I’m a crier.
Yes; I’m a crier. There’s no denying it; you would know if you spent more than five minutes with me that it really doesn’t take much, either. I cry when I listen to music, and I cry while reading children’s books. I cry when other people cry, and I cry when humanity triumphs over adversity, and also when humanity does things like teaching kittens how to play piano. I cry about the existence of kittens. And pianos. But ever since stumbling onto a unique piece of current Japanese culture, I have come to the realization that all of you who tease me about my waterlogged nature are absolutely wrong.
Turns out, I am not a crybaby. I am a namida sensei.
Namida means tears in Japanese, and sensei means master. Hidefumi Yoshida, a former high school teacher and school therapist, is one such namida sensei, and unlike me, he gets paid real money for it. He travels all over Japan, mostly to schools and to businesses, and teaches his students the fine art of crying.
Yoshida came to realize the power of tears when one of his former students stopped showing up for consultations after showing his honest feelings through crying real, honest tears. The crying master’s workshops are set up to illicit those tears, and consist of watching tear-jerking films, hearing sad stories, and listening to emotional music. Over the past five and a half years, he has organized activities and delivered lectures in hundreds of venues throughout Japan to help people discover the benefits of crying.
“If you cry once a week,” he says, “you can live a stress-free life.”
While I am a crier—oops, I mean, a namida sensei—I have always favored laughter over tears. I mean, why cry when you can laugh, am I right? Nope; I am wrong. At least according to Yoshida, who says, “the act of crying is more effective than laughing or sleeping in reducing stress.”
Crying therapy, as the classes have come to be called, are hailed as revolutionary in a country like Japan, where, according to Heroki Terai, a crying therapy sessions organizer, the average Japanese businessman does not allow himself to cry even at home.
The Japanese call it the “crying boom,” signifying a rise in the popularity of expressing emotions.
Crying: It’s not just for Japan Anymore
This is not actually as crazy as it sounds. An uncredited Yiddish saying goes as follows: “What soap is to the body, tears are for the soul,” and science now confirms those words, with less colorful metaphor. In the words of Junko Umihara, a professor at Nippon Medical School, “Crying is an act of self-defense against accumulated stresses.”
Tears of happiness and of sadness are believed by many experts to do just that— relieve stress. This is because the act of crying relaxes autonomic nerves by stimulating parasympathetic nerve activity, which is responsible for the body’s response when the body is relaxed or resting, basically undoing the work of sympathetic division after a stressful situation.