First off thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read More Things Japanese this year. Though the blog has been going since 2010, it really jumped forward this year after moving to its new domain (morethingsjapanese.com) in January, and with my vast increase of posts (from once in a while to every day for a while). I’ve scaled back to around once a week since that hectic workload gave me no time to work on my fiction. On the plus side, my first novel Samurai Awakening was published by Tuttle and the first short story in the Jitsugen Samurai Diaries is out. This year I’ve also started the websites KumeGuide.com, HaisaiEnglish.com, and MoreThingsWriting.com. Hopefully, all my endeavors will bring a little bit of Japan to you.
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All together its been a great year. I’ve striven to bring you original information on Japan with a balance between general Japan and specifics to my experiences on outer islands in Okinawa. I hope you’ve enjoyed the experiences I’ve shared and I will continue bringing you new pictures, recipes, and more from Japan in 2013. Happy New Year’s, wherever you are.
All this month on my radio show Haisai English we’ve been playing Christmas music and talking about the differences and similarities between the American and Japanese holidays. The overall theme we’ve found is that in many ways, Christmas and New Years are flipped between the two countries.
Christmas in Japan
In Japan, like many holidays, Christmas is promoted by stores as a way to sell products. Just as the Japanese version of Valentines’ Day was essentially created by chocolatiers, PR firms promote the ideals that will best sell their products. No one does this better than, of all places, KFC. KFC’s campaigns are so effective that many Japanese assume everyone eats chicken on Christmas. They dress up their Col. Sanders statues from November and have special holiday sets. They even teamed up with All Nippon Airways to serve KFC on some flights.
When I talked to various guests about their views of Christmas in Japan, many talked about how its a time for couples to give presents and go on dates. While there are decorations, and each year they grow more popular, they are still vastly limited (compared to the all out decorations in America) and usually just at stores or restaurants. There is also little connection between religion and Christmas here. Often, Christmas parties are tied in with bonenkai, a popular part of the Japanese office and work culture.
Sound familiar? Maybe not for Christmas, but how about New Years? In America, New Years is often a time for friends and dates rather than family. People ring in the new year with noise and fun, just as Christmases in Japan tend to be more for friends than family affairs.
New Years in Japan and Okinawa are far more solemn events than American New Years. It is a time for families to join together, eat traditional foods, and visit shrines (the religious element). Instead of Christmas Turkey or ham, families in Japan eat special boxed meals prepared in advance called osechi. Instead of cookies, they often make mochi. Just as presents are given for Christmas in the West, Japanese children often receive gifts (of money) on New Year’s day from their relatives.
While the traditions are certainly separate between different cultures (they’re different even between families in the same cities), there are definite similarities that help lead to a better understanding of both holidays.
New Years is perhaps the biggest holiday in Japan. In a lot of ways it is like Christmas in the states. It is a holiday for families to come together, eat special foods, and even pray. Last year I experienced variations on New Years celebrations and there are a lot of things families can do. This holiday is so important because it marks the change between new and old. December then, is the time to prepare for this important season. One way most households prepare for the new year is cleaning. In order to start the new year fresh, many families do the deep cleaning that westerners call spring cleaning. Families also order osechi special New Years bento boxes of food so that no one need cook.
For many years one of the biggest parts of the New Years holiday has been contacting family and friends. The majority of this is done via special New Years post cards (Hagaki) called Nengajo. If you haven’t already ordered specially made Hagaki from the post office, it is probably too late. There is an option for latecomers though!
If all you need to know is how to address your Hagaki, see this post from last year, otherwise, you can get blank Hagaki from the post office and create your own special design featuring pictures or drawings! If you go this route you might want to have some design experience under your belt, but it is easy to do with Word or PowerPoint!
1. Pick up Hagaki
Blank Hagaki are available for 50yen each at the post they come in several colors. There are also a few with designs at the bottom so all you have to add is a message or picture. Some post offices will also give you a small gift for purchasing Hagaki there! When you buy the Hagaki you don’t have to worry about postage. It is already included.
2. Design your Hagaki
Set your page size in Word, PowerPoint, or your favorite design software to 4″x 6″ or whatever size your printed Hagaki actually is. Use insert text box to add messages in your favorite font. If you want to go Japanese try “Akemashite omedetougozaimashita!” which is a polite version of Happy New Year!
Next, include some pictures or design elements. If you’re like me and you can’t draw, you can find stock photos online, or just include pictures of yourself or your family to share with your friends. Since it’s the year of the snake you’ll probably want to include a snake of some kind. Here’s what I came up with for this year!
(note the snake character is from istockphoto.com)
3. Print and Address
Once you have your design finished, you will want to print your Hagaki. Select boarder-less printing and the correct paper size. Make sure you put the blank Hagaki in the feeder so that it will print with the top towards the end with the zip code boxes on the other side.
To address your Hagaki you can either hand write them or print them. See my post on New Years Cards from last year for more details!
I work at several schools, but on a fairly regular schedule, so while I don’t get calendars for each week, I usually know where to show up and for how long. I’ve been in Japan over 3.5 years so I’m usually ready for the events and holidays.
I should mention that while I have lived in Okinawa-ken the whole 4+ years, I used to be on an island settled by people from near Tokyo, and am now on an Island 400km west. This island is much older, has closer ties to Chinese culture, and is very Okinawan (of the Ryukyu variety).
So at school it took me a few minutes to figure out it was a short period schedule. I did my usual work. Later, I started overhearing conversations about lunch (I usually don’t pick up conversations unless I try, but I was getting hungry, so lunch! was on my mind). Then I thought I heard about how there wasn’t any today. Huh?
Then my fourth period class ended and kids started packing up… like to leave.
I went down to the teachers room as usual and started editing while waiting for lunch to come so I could help set it up as usual… Lunchtime came and went.
Then I got a call. And eventually I figured what was going on and was invited to share another unique experience with a friend.
The 16th Day
Although today is February 7th (in 2012… 2013′s is on 2/25) in the modern calendar, it is the 16th of the first month in the old Kyureki calendar. Here I found out this day is the spirit/ancestor/heaven New Years’. From what I was told, and hopefully I understood things correctly (not always the case now that a lot more is in Hogen, the Okinawan dialect), this is mainly celebrated on the small western islands and not so much on Okinawa itself.Families get together to make offerings to their ancestors and eat traditional foods at their family shrine (ohaka).
This translates into a half day for the students. After 4th period, the kids were packing up, because they were going home. Mothers, and other family members create the special food starting in the morning. Then, everyone meets at their home or ohaka. Some families only have shrines in their houses, others have house-like structures on family plots. These shrines can house the ashes of deceased family members, or just be symbolic places for spirits to stay.
In my case, I found my way to my friend’s family’s ohaka where we wished the spirits/ancestors Happy New Year By:
Kneeling and clapping once to call their attention
Lighting incense and clasping it in our hands, then saying “Happy New Year” etc. in Japanese. We then placed the incense sticks before the sealed opening.
Clapping one last time to finish.
Afterward, everyone began eating and talking. My friend told me that if the weather is good the family will stay until late. Today it was cold, windy, and rainy so after everyone was finished, we packed up. He also said that many families would likely congregate from nearby ohaka, and that there would be many more people if the weather wasn’t so bad.
My friend mentioned that long ago everyone would join together at one big place, but since then families had become more separated.
Presents for the Dead
Since lunch got cut short, I was invited to my friend’s grandfather’s house. There, extended family members came throughout the evening to pay their respects and give offerings to the deceased, then join with the others for food, drink, and conversation.
Just off the entrance to the house was another family shrine (butsudan). Within the butusdan was a cup of sake that some people added to and a bowl with sand for incense. In front of the alcove was also a table filled with food offerings. The newcomers would light incense sticks, and pray as we had at the ohaka. Then they would place the still burning sticks in the bowl and join the others at a table for refreshments a few feet away.
Later, when most of the family was together, the family joined together and burned a stick of incense for each person there, then they all bowed and prayed together. The fruit you see is also another offering. Generally, the family will try to provide a selection of the best fruits they can find. Unfortunately due to the weather hindering the boat, they were limited in the selection they could provide. Still ,I’m sure the local spirits were pleased.
Just after they burned a final offering to their ancestors, including paper kami money (kabijin in Hogen) for their use to progress through the afterlife, bits of the food from the table and a little sake. The kabijin was essentially like a napkin, but imprinted with symbols.
The foods prepared for the dead were not random. The traditional foods included, daikon, carrots, fried tofu, boiled combu, fish cakes, and other items. Afterward, the food was heated or served and everyone ate. When some of the family members described the offerings, they referred to them as omiyage, which means souvenir. To me it felt like the food, smoke, and sake were all there as reminders to those who had passed, as well as a reminder of the past. Food is a staple of our lives, and the act of sharing it seemed a ritualized way to remember history and those who had passed before.
Here’s a quick video of the final offerings, sorry! No sound.
It was so very nice of them to invite me (and feed me!)
All in all, it was a surprise to get the afternoon off, and a real treat to be invited to take part in a special local custom.
More on Kyureki
Explanation of the day from the Okinawa Times Calendar
The Okinawan calendar, and its accompanying holidays are fading with each generation. My friend and his brothers told me that the importance of the holidays were to bring families together. On the small islands they are the community builders, much like the New Years I experienced earlier in the year. These are also the chances, they told me, to share their culture with their children, and ensure the kids know the rest of the family.
Unfortunately, things are changing. Not so long ago the 16th was a full day off for students. They would help with preparations and have a more active part in their cultural heritage. Today, they had a half day, and only get a taste of the previous generation. Still, Okinawan culture is alive and well.
Last Week I posted an article on Mochi for New Years, and before that, one on Hagaki. In Japan, New Years is just too big an event(s) for even two posts, so here is a third. Coincidentally, this was my third New Years in Japan. My first two years, I was living on Kitadaito Island and was warmly welcomed by a local family. That island had a unique mix of mainland Japanese and Okinawan culture as it was settled by people from Hachijo (near Tokyo) more than one hundred years ago.
Now I’m on an island on the other side of Okinawa Honto. This time I got a straight Okinawan New Years (with a slightly stronger Chinese influence perhaps). Of course this isn’t Kyu-shougatsu or the New Years based on the lunar calendar (the traditional New Years) which will take place next month.
Like on my previous island, I was warmly welcomed for New Years Eve dinner with their family. We ate, watched the New Years concert specials on TV, and talked. This lasted well into the evening. The next morning I got up before sunrise and went with another family to a local shrine, where we watched the sunrise and made Mochi.
After the shrine, a friend of mine was kind enough to bring me along as he took his son to their various relatives. In Japan, kids get money from their relatives for New Years. It can often amount to several hundred dollars! On Kumejima, at least, that wasn’t the only thing they got.
For the most part, the Grandparents (and mothers) would be waiting for the kids and fathers to show with snacks, drinks (beer and sake for the adults even at 10am… it was New Years after all), and little envelopes for the kids.
My friends’ son would kneel across the table from his relatives and greet them (Happy New Year!) and then get a cartoon covered envelope that would contain some cash. Afterward, he would put his hands out again (this time a bit more reluctantly, the grandparents often chuckling to themselves), left over right, palms up. The relative then placed a bit of cooked pork liver with a bit of salt for him to eat. This is a traditional food here, a treat the adults eat with nostalgia and most kids try to avoid. The cash and the tradition go somewhat hand in hand. At some houses they also gave fish flakes. One of the snacks in common was a traditional sweet blue potato dish as well (though not handed out).
Most of the houses were in the same general area, allowing us to walk to each and greet each segment of the extended family, eat, chat, and share New Years wishes. I don’t know if this happens on the Okinawan mainland, but it was a special day and an amazing look into why and how such communities stay so closely knit together. I’m sure that when my friend’s son has kids of his own, he’ll enjoy the liver with the same nostalgia and chuckles at his own kids’ hesitation.
After visiting relatives, we went to a lunch party with the “young adult club” at a person’s house. The party was because the house had been completed in the previous year. It was a celebration, a thank you to those who had helped build it, and also an offering in hopes for the safety and stability of the new house for the coming year.
Of course, as a guest, I got a taste of the New Year as well…