Entries in New Years in Japan (2)


No Show Gatsu

   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 eat o-sechi or nana-kusa gayu?"

   "Did you decorate your homes with shimenawa and kadomatsu?"

   "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.



Ebisu Giveth

   On Saturday I took my brood to the Tōka Ebisu Festival to pray to Ebisu, the god of wealth, fishermen, fortune, and merchants. (And if that isn't already large enough portfolio for one god, Ebisu is also said to be the guardian of the health of small children.)

   As I have written before, one of the highlights of the four-day-long festival is a lucky drawing (福引, fukubiki) for Ebisu goods--calendars, large paper fans, daruma dolls, lucky mallets, giant paper-maché fish, and so on. In past years, I've "won" all sorts of prizes, big and small, but last year elder son and I arrived too late and missed the drawing altogether. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I made sure we left home nice and early Saturday morning, the last day of the festival.

   My son wanders off alone in search of a Kyōryūja mask. (I'll write about that one of these days.)

   My son finds a lucky drawing stand, instead. There are all kinds of pellet guns on display.

   "Lucky drawing! Everyone's a winner. Lucky drawing!"

    "I want this one," he says to me.

   "This isn't a shop. You don't buy these. You have to buy a raffle ticket."

   "I want this one," he says again.

   My son has become rather persistent when he wants something. Usually it's junk, overpriced junk, but he wants it all the same, and wants it NOW.

   A few weeks back, the two of us popped into a convenience store. As I was withdrawing some money from the ATM, my son wandered about the aisles looking for candy and toys and found an Anpan Man Camera.

    “I want this,” he said, placing the toy on the check-out counter.

   "What is it?"

   "Anpan Man Camera."

   "I don't have any money," I said.

   "You have money."

   "Yes, but not for this," I said, picking the camera up. "How much is it, anyways? A thousand yen! No way!"

   "I want it . . ."

   A tantrum threatening to erupt, I scooped up the boy and headed straight for the door. We were going a German restaurant that was about a twenty-minutes' walk away and I'll be damned if my son did not keep saying, "I want Anpan Man Camera! I want Anpan Man Camera!" the entire distance.

   "You have a camera. I nice digital camera."

   "It's broken!"

   The battery had died, but I had since recharged it and emptied the storage. It was working nicely again.

   "It's not broken," I replied. "I fixed it the other day."

   "I don't want Daddy to fix it! I want Anpan Man camera." 

   He finally calmed down by the time we reached the German restaurant, but having carried the 20kg kicking and crying boy the entire distance, I was thoroughly exhausted.


   "You don't understand," I tell my son. "You have to buy one of these tickets first. If and ONLY if you're lucky will you win the gun." 

   The old woman running the stand says, "Everyone's a winner."

   "Yeah, right," I reply.

   "I want this one!"

   I ask the woman how much one of the raffle tickets cost.

   "Five hundred yen."

   "Five hundred yen! Auntie, I think the biggest winner at this stand is you!"


   Just then a middle-aged retarded (sorry, Sarah Palin) man walks up to the booth and says he wants a gun, too. His minder tries to hold him back, but the man tries to take one of the guns, saying in Japanese, "I want this one. I want this one." The minder relents and gives the retarded man a five-hundred-yen coin.

   I tell my son: "You watch! You'll see, he won't win anything."

   Well, as luck would have it, the retarded man ends up winning the very gun my son wants. A second man in his thirties with severe Down's syndrome comes up next and also wins a gun.

   "I want one, too!" my son says.

   Well now I have no choice but to also give my son a five-hundred-yen coin and let him have a go at the game.

   Maybe it is because it's the last day of the festival and the woman has nothing to gain by cheating us, or maybe it is simply because she doesn't want to make a little boy cry, either way, my son "wins" the gun he wanted.

   "What do you say?"

   My boy looks up to the woman and very bashfully says, "Thank you."

   I tell her thank you, too. "That was awfully decent of you."

   "Lucky drawing! Everyone's a winner! Lucky drawing!"