Unlike its neighbors, Japan celebrates New Year’s on January 1st. Everyone gets a week off, the only long vacation some people will take all year (during “Golden Week” in May, there are holidays on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday but NOT Thursday and Friday). This is so much time off for Japanese people that everyone comes back to work super happy and refreshed, excited to log 12-hour days for the rest of the year. During these nine long days, people depart the big cities for their tiny furusato, or hometowns, to reunite with their families. If a parent or grandparent died that year, the holiday is passed in mourning and black; otherwise it’s a big party. Since I’m living in one of these small towns, everyone I know just stuck around, but I’m sure my Tokyo friends could tell you about how strange the subway feels when there aren’t any businessmen in it.
I hear this New Year’s was awesome, but I wasn’t actually there, as I returned back to my own furusato, Carmel, Indiana, to pass the twelve days of Christmas with my family. It would have been fun to see the Japanese holidays firsthand, but that would have meant imposing on someone. Here’s what happened: people wrote New Year’s cards to all their friends, which the post office holds until delivery on January 1st, wishing each other good health and mentioning important events like marriage or the birth of a child. They cleaned their houses to make a fresh start and keep the demons away. People ate a lot of good food which is only cooked on this one day of the year: different sweets, fish, and vegetables (sometimes I can’t tell if I’m eating a vegetable or a fish, by the way). Everyone drank traditional New Year’s sake, too, but the kids didn’t like the taste very much. Grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles gave money to kids, who received 3 man yen (or $300) on average. Some families watched the annual New Year’s Eve singing contest between various enka (think Frank Sinatra) and J-pop stars. This year, the white team (men) beat the red team (women). At midnight at Buddhist temples, the bells rang 108 times to rid humanity of each of its one hundred eight plagues. At some point in the night, people went to shrines to pray for good luck. It snowed at the stroke of midnight here, which is good luck in my opinion. My junior high school 9th graders had a little less fun than everyone else. Their high school entrance exams are quickly approaching, so they attended cram school every day of vacation, and at some point each of them took a 90-minute trip to the shrine for the God of Knowledge in Fukuoka to pray for success.
New Year’s Day is the biggest holiday here, and it’s not hard to understand why. The Japanese calendar, and much of Japanese culture, is centered on the passage of time. First of all, years are marked not by the Western system, which could count from Jesus’s birth forward and backward into infinity, but by the number of years the current Emperor has reigned. This is Heisei 21, the 21st year of the reign of Akihito, who calls himself Heisei (becoming peaceful). I was born in Showa 61, the 61st year of the reign of Hirohito, or Showa (brightness + “wa” which means either harmony or Japan, befitting his nationalism). Heisei will not last forever: even when the Emperor was a god, he was still a man in this way. Time itself follows the rhythm of life and death.
As for the non-New Year’s holidays, there’s Seven Five Three, which celebrates children who have reached (more traditionally, survived until) those ages, Children’s Day on May 5th, and Coming of Age Day to celebrate those who have turned 20, the legal age of adulthood. Birthdays are celebrated, too, particularly the Emperor’s Birthday, which currently falls on December 23rd and is a day off of work for everyone. On Respect for the Aged Day, people visit or call their elders, and on Obon they visit the graves of the dead. The Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes are official holidays as well. In days of yore, they were big Shinto festivals, but now the passing of the seasons is cause for introspection itself. Besides these holidays, there is “Hanami,” or flower-viewing, a time for romantic picnics or introspective walks which occurs whenever the sakura blossom in your town. That should be late March here and early April in Tokyo. Sakura are predominant in Japanese art, music, and poetry, remarkable for their stunning beauty but more so for their transience. For fifty weeks of the year, you can’t tell the cherry blossom trees apart from the others. Then for two weeks they bloom, and almost as soon as they flourish their leaves are falling. Hence sakura can be a metaphor for life, or relationships, or any number of things, because everything is transient. People may not be devout Buddhists in deed but the Buddha’s attitude is well-understood in culture. Day by day, the bells ring without fail at seven, noon, and five, the birth, peak, and end of the farmer’s work.
Etiquette blooms from this concept. If our time on this earth is transient, then every moment is sacred. Every moment a person spends in your company is irreplaceable. So you must give polite greetings to everyone you encounter throughout the day, apologize for taking up people’s time when you ask them for help, arrive to everything on time, and say things at the beginning and end of each activity and each meal to formally acknowledge the value of that time. Even if you were doing something menial and commonplace, the activity was sacred because you spent time on it. Work, because a person spends most of his daylight hours there, is a sacred thing. “Otsukaresama desu,” maybe translated as “your hard work is honorable,” is overly formal to Western ears but appropriate here.
Japan, like other Confucian societies, highly valorizes old age. The young shoulder most of the workload and are unquestionably obedient to superiors. In official language, younger students have to refer to older students as “senpai,” or elder/teacher, even if the difference is only a year or two. This subservient relationship often continues for the rest of their lives. In this way, too, time spent is rewarded. I’m not sure, however, that elders in other Asian societies say “Wow, you’re so young!” with the same fervor that they do here. I’m 22, so the other teachers talk about my youth all the time, and I thought it was just politeness. Last week, though, one of the bosses at the Board of Education said to me last week, “a new year when you’re 56 is a lot less happy than a new year when you’re 22,” and one of my 14-year old 8th graders said “Wow, you’re sooo young!” to a 12-year old 7th grader, and it became clear: there is a cult of youth in Japan. In the relationship between old and young, social expectations and responsibilities are ways to cover up that the young person is the luckier one because he has so much more life ahead of him.
As an agnostic society, Japan knows only this life. Its monks, at their deaths, write haiku – and not particularly comforting ones – as their souls fade to black. The ashes of relatives are kept close at hand, often kept in shrines at each person’s home, regularly given rice and sake and treated as if people still lived in them. The national anthem, “Kimi ga yo,” reads, “May your reign / Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations, / Until the pebbles / Grow into boulders / Lush with moss,” eternity realized in this world. The most popular current song about death is “Sen no Kaze,” a translation of an American poem from a gravestone: “Do not stand at my grave and weep; I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain…” Christians, however, believe Christ triumphed over death with his resurrection, and they believe in the existence of heaven, a perfect and eternal place too wonderful to imagine. This is a beautiful and joyful thing, the most wonderful thing in the world. If it is not embraced passionately, though, it can lead to a passive assurance that God will bring us to paradise, that death is a parenthesis rather than a period, and that we need only think about these things at funerals.
The axis of the Christian calendar is community. The Anno Domini system naturally connects everyone born after Christ as one group. The clock was invented so monks could meet at set times each day to pray. Every Sunday, people met together at church. Ancient village festivals, celebrating the gods of particular towns, were converted into saints’ days, which themselves celebrate a specific group of people. Pentecost, the biggest holiday on the calendar that doesn’t derive from Christ, celebrates the founding of the Church through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter: the Church, like Japan, has seasons, but they lead us not to the passing of time but rather to Christ and a sense of eternity. Lent is 40 days, the number of infinity.
As for the American calendar, it’s a grab bag, with many good ideas but no overall theme. Also, America has a very strong culture of looking forward to the future – the new Halo game, the new President (our election took two years!), the next sports season – which often discourages enjoyment of the present.
It’s been easy for me to accustom myself to the Japanese perspective of time. In fact, I think I feel it more intensely than anyone else. To begin with, I just graduated from college, so I’m off the safe track and have to make my own way: every day must be used well, since there’s only a limited amount of time until I’m 30 and settled down somewhere. Also, I came to Japan with a one-year mindset, so time is more fleeting for me than it is for anyone else here. One cycle of the earth around the sun, I thought, and I’m off to the next place. Each festival and school event and holiday was only happening once. Eventually I re-contracted, but even two years is a short time best approached with a sense of urgency.
Every Japanese speech and letter ends with an official conclusion of some kind – “and that’s all,” “I’m finished,” or something like that. In America we end with “Thank you,” and I think that’s more appropriate and easily adaptable to this theme. Thank you for bestowing your time on this piece when there are so many other things for you to do in this country. I hope that what I wrote can give you wisdom, and may God bless you over the coming year.