In recent years, I have been doing the following activity on the first class after the winter break.
I split the class up into teams and, while listening to traditional music featuring the koto or shamisen, I have the students write on the blackboard as many words as they can in rōmaji related to the Japanese New Year.
In addition to being kind of fun--not barrels of fun, mind you, but fun enough--this activity can be rather instructive.
For starters, you'll find that many Japanese students, not being proficient in the Hepburn romanization, will write things such as fukubukuro with an "h" rather than an "f" (hukubukuro) or nengajō with a "y" (nengajyo). The reason for this is that many Japanese learn simpler forms of romanization known as kunrei-shiki or Nihon-shiki. For more on this, go here. This is a good chance to briefly re-introduce the students to the Hepburn romanization and encourage them to use it in the future.
My second year English Communication majors came up with the following words:
One of the interesting things about this is that while many Japanese students will offer up words like hagoita, a decorative paddle used when playing a game resembling badminton called hanetsuki or even tako-agé (kite-flying), you shouldn't expect to see any of your neighbors playing hanetsuki or flying kites on New Year's Day. (In all my years in Japan, I have never once seen young women in kimono playing this game.)
I then tell the students to ask one another if they had done any of the things on the board.
"Did you send any nengajō?"
Of the 23 students who attended that day, twenty had eaten o-sechi, four had shimenawa at the entrance of their homes, six had gone to the hatsu-uri New Year's sales, eleven had drunk o-toso, and so on.
Erasing those items which few or none of the students had partaken of, we came up with the following significantly pared down list:
Where New Year's in Japan was once a very colorful, tradition-laden event, all that remains of it today, or so it seems, is the food, the shopping, and banal TV programs. Less than half of the students visited one Shintō shrine (hatsumōde), let alone three, during the holiday. It's kind of sad when you think about it.
Now, I'm not suggesting that we need to put the Shintō back in the Shinnen (new year), like some good Christians back home demand Christ be kept in that pagan celebration of the winter solstice also known as Christmas. But, I find it odd that the Japanese are so lackadaisical when it comes to their own heritage and culture.
Every year as Christmas approaches, I show my freshman classes "A Charlie Brown Christmas". I suspect that I have seen the special at least a hundred times by now, no exaggeration. Even though I have seen it so many times, it still hasn't gotten old for me. (Probably because of the music.) That said, this year I started paying attention more to the details of the show, such as the quality of the animation, how backgrounds are recycled, the way movement, such as walking, is conveyed. Considering that it was produced in 1965--it's older than me!--and hand drawn, it's not surprising that by today's high animation standards, it can have a somewhat amateur feel to it.
Anyways, this morning when I was watching it for the nth time, I wondered about the value of 5¢ in today's money and learned, thanks to Dave Manuel's Inflation Calculator, that 5¢ is worth about $0.38 today. Not a whole lot.
In case you were wondering what you could buy for one dollar in the 1960s, go here.
- Gallon of milk: 95 cents
- One regular size bottle of Heinz ketchup: 22 cents
- One dozen eggs: 53 cents
- One-ounce Hershey bar: 5 cents (Although the price remained the same, the size of the bar shrunk to 7/8 ounce in 1966 and 3/4 oz in 1968.)
- Pillsbury cake mix: 25 cents
- Pound of pork chops: $1.03
- Pound of sirloin steak: 85 cents
- Six-pack of Pepsi: 59 cents
- Package of ten Gillette razor blades: 99 cents
- Can of shaving cream: 59 cents
- Tube of toothpaste: 55 cents
- Can of hair spray: 47 cents
- Revlon lipstick: $1.25
- Revlon nail enamel: 75 cents for crème and 90 cents for frosted
- Generic cold relief capsules: 60 cents for two packages of 12
- Cough drops: 23 cents for three packages
- Cough syrup: 59 cents for a bottle
- Contact decongestant tablets: 77 cents for a package of ten
Because my older son’s kindergarten is Buddhist, there are no Christmas decorations or Christmas-related events. None whatsoever.
(No worries there as we already do plenty enough at home ourselves.)
The kindergarten does, however, hold New Year’s related events, such as “mochi-tsuki”.
What’s “moji-zugi”, you ask?
Mochi-tsuki (moh-chee-tsoo-kee) is the making of mochi (rice cake) by pounding steamed sticky rice with large wooden hammers for God knows how long. It is in the words of the esteemed Mr. Wiki very “labor intensive”. I think the only thing that we have remotely similar to mochi-tsuki in the US is handmade ice cream.
Now the thing with handmade ice cream is that your effort is rewarded with something that tastes pretty damn good. Mochi, on the other hand, is rather bland. Mixed with sweet beans or covered with syrup, it can be rather nice. But, again, alone it’s so hopelessly boring, it makes you wonder why the go to all the trouble.
My son has already left for school. He asked me to go too, but as only the fathers of third year students can attend—damn—I have been spared the forced labor demanded of tradition.
This evening I will be taking my boys to see the Christmas lights in Kego Park and ride the kiddie “Polar Express” train.
There are only five more days till Christmas. For some reason or another, this holiday season has just whizzed by. Last year, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This year, though, . . .
I think it’s the realization that Christmas with young boys who believe all the stories of Santa Claus, no matter how far-fetched or contradictory, won’t last forever. We’ve got perhaps five or six more years of the season’s magic. And then? Well, we will just have to find a new way to enjoy the holiday. Perhaps with a mochi-tsuki party.