I have the curse of being a morning person, which has forced me to develop a talent for locating the earliest-open coffee shop nearest my home in every city I’ve lived in. It was this uncharmingly practical need that brought me to a kissaten at 7:00 a.m. one block away from my language school dorm on my second day in Kobe, completely unaware that I was about to enter my true language school and my real home in Japan.

The same customers tend to cycle in and out of the kissaten every morning, and as these regulars are rarely nervous-looking, white twentysomethings, I was the immediate target of the friendliness and curiosity that people in the Kansai region are known for. The owner approached me and asked my order, my hometown, and my field of study. The first two answers were straightforward, but I had to consult my dictionary app to answer the last one. It suggested that “mental health” be conveyed in katakana, the alphabet used for words taken from foreign languages, or more technically as seishinhoken, a combination of the characters for “energy,” “spirit,” “protect,” and “health.”

Beyond linguistic ignorance, that last question has always been difficult for me to answer, as I have never fully known what I wanted to study. I entered college hoping to become an interpreter and graduated a neuroscientist. Yet the breadth of my passions has never made more sense to me than over the past several months, as I decorate the walls of my apartment with kanji, participate in two language exchange groups, and watch a few too many hours of Japanese dating shows, all for the purpose of better understanding people. Perhaps even more than my research and fieldwork, my language study has provided the best training for the work I hope to do in the future. The patience, humility, and openness necessary to learn and communicate in another language are also the fundamental skills of any mental health professional.

I was warned that, with its reputation as a somewhat insular society, Japan is not the easiest place to gain an understanding of people. However, my experiences over the past six months have, more often than not, refuted this stereotype, from hearing my professors at Kwansei Gakuin openly critique social support for working mothers to listening to clients with HIV/AIDS describe their experiences navigating the health care system in my fieldwork at the Center for the Health and Rights of Migrants. My mentors have brought me into the extensive network of advocacy groups in the Kansai region, such that any given day might find me at a lecture on LGBTQ health care in Kyoto or at a workshop at a domestic violence shelter in Osaka. The personal nature of these conversations about health care and social welfare makes the ability to communicate effectively in Japanese all the more necessary.

Yet almost all of my Japanese language skills have developed not from the case reports and research papers I write at my placements but through my conversations with people. The owner of the kissaten now watches that nervous Californian who didn’t even know the word for her own field of study enthusiastically compare the Japanese and American health care systems with other customers. And every day, I am grateful for the few extra seconds of dictionary-searching that so many new friends have offered me. The process of getting to know someone with such shared intentionality is a rare, underappreciated gift, relevant to me as both a mental health professional and a foreigner looking for my 7:00 a.m. coffee.