Friday, January 4, 2013

Anatomy of a Japanese New Year

We're not rocking out that's for sure.

Instead, our New Year was one of, excepting exceptionally bratty children and up-chuck, one of peace.

As if the wont of Beloved's family, we spent New Year's Eve eating the usual food, soba (buckwheat noodles). According to Japanese tradition, one must eat soba or udon, a thick white noodle, on New Year's Eve, the idea being you eat long foods to live longer. Funnily enough, Beloved's mother hated soba... until her daughter moved to Nagano (One of Nagano's specialties is soba) and now she's a fan. we also watched the yearly battle on NHK between the red and white teams.

This takes a bit of explanation, NHK, the main government sponsored broadcaster, does a yearly song battle between a woman's team (Red) and a men's team (White). White usually wins. Pretty much if you're ANYONE in Japan, you want to be on this show. The highest earners, the most popular talents, appear. It's as much of a tradition as Dick Clark's broadcast is in the US. It runs from 7:30 till 11:45.

The boys of course weren't allowed to stay up that late of course, but they did manage to stay up late enough to enjoy the all Disney review (Tokyo Disneyland's 40th is next year), which of course made them uber-happy children. The rest of the songs, meh. Well, except for AKB48. And Fashion Monster. But that was about it for the kids. They were in bed and hopefully dreaming of hawks, eggplants, and Mt. Fuji (All very good omens to dream of on New Year's Eve) by 9.

At 11:45 came the final countdown to the New Year, except that it wasn't one at all. Instead NHK did its usual broadcasts from temples around Japan slowly ringing in the New Year by ringing their bells 108 times (It's a Buddhist belief that there are 108 devils that attack humanity and that by ringing the bell 108 times, those devils are driven away) until 12 am when the broadcasters very seriously wished us a Happy New Year.

That's New Year's Eve in Japan, very calm and serious. Sure, there are those who were having some fun going to shrines at midnight for the first visit of the year, but Japan is not party central.

New Year's Day again is very serious. We woke early to see the first sun rise on 2013 and then had breakfast.

Breakfast it should be explained it a rather elaborate affair.

See, according to tradition, for at least New Year's Day, no work should be done so before New Year's Day, Beloved, her mother, and sisters spent the day in the kitchen making enough food to last us for the next few days. The breakfasts were then placed in very beautiful wooden boxes and set out to wait for us in the morning. Come that morning we had a plethora of various foods to eat, tea made from cherry blossoms, and sake. Pretty much all day long we snacked off of these foods (I don't actually remember lunch, we just more or less ate snacks, oranges, apples, chocolates, etc) and then sat down to dinner of, well, breakfast.

Just to have Makoto throw up.

It turned out however that this was more someone ate too many oranges and rough housed a bit too much with his uncles before dinner than being sick (Which is a blessing, last year we managed to have both boys get stomach flu, which meant Beloved spent New Year's Eve at a hospital).

But that is pretty much how our New Year's panned out. We have spent the last few days staying at home, hibernating under the kotatsu, eating snacks and good food (To the tune of me gaining 3 kg) and enjoying the company as they say.

This is a Japanese New Year. It's not filled with parties and the like, though there's shopping and races. There's shrine visits and food, but mostly it's the nation taking a breath, a breather before starting the year. Given that everyone in Japan heads back to their homes for this, we have returned to the beginning before staring again.

So let's start.

As they say in Japan, 明けましておめでとう

Monday, December 31, 2012

Mochi, Mochi, Mochi

While Christmas is an attempt by the American in me to inflict my culture on my sons, New Year's, Oshougatsu in Japanese, is just pure, unadulterated, Japanese.

Not, let me state, that I particularly have a problem with this given my New Year 'traditions' mainly involved eating smokes oysters on Ritz Crackers with cheese-in-a-can while sipping sparkling apple cider. Party central I so was not.

Japan however, as stated, New Year's is the major holiday in Japan. If Christmas is for partying over here, New Year's is what Christmas is in America, a time for family and traditions and boy does Beloved's family go for it all. Thus while the warm glow of Christmas is still touching and the Christmas cookies are still piled high, I load the family up for the 12-14 hour drive down to my in-laws' house in Yamaguchi Prefecture at 1 am on the 27th.

While at Beloved's parents house, the rest of her family, her two sisters, their husbands, and various cousins, aunts, uncles, and whatnot come in for a visit as well (Though the last few years have seen a sudden growth as Beloved's cousin now has four kids, we have two, and one of her sisters one). The main reason being... mochi.

Mochi, for those of you who don't know, are pounded rice cakes. They were made in the day for a way to keep rice over the New Year's holiday (Traditionally, no work should be done over New Year's, a prohibition that more or less stops at the kitchen door). Traditionally, mochi rice is steamed over a boiler that rests over an open fire in wood boxes. The steamed rice is then taken to a stone or wood mortar and beaten the hell out of with a large, heavy wooden mallet. Once pounded into submission, it's taken to a table, and rolled off into balls (If you're in my wife's family's area. Some areas roll the mochi out into a sheet and cut it into squares). These are served on or around New Year's in a variety of dishes, soups, grilled, with anko bean paste inside, etc.

Now, that's how it's traditionally done. Most Japanese, like many Americans regarding churning butter or making ice cream by hand, may have seen it done a few times, they may have even participated in it once or twice in a kind of-this-is-how-it-used-to-be-and-boy-ain't-we-happy-that-we-don't-do-it-anymore kind of way, but, again like how most Americans get their butter or ice cream from the store, so do most Japanese. If you're feeling fancy, you can order mochi from a shop. Those who really want to go all out will steam their rice in a rice cooker and then use their bread makers to beat the mochi. Almost no one goes to the trouble of doing the whole steam it over an open fire and then wield the hammer to make it for their own mochi and not in any large number.

Except my wife's family.

The first time I came to Japan was to spend New Year's with my (then) girlfriend's family and I was introduced to mochi making (Up till that time I thought mochi was for ice cream). That's when I found out that Beloved's family, especially her aunt, are some what of a traditionalist. Her aunt, by the way, was ecstatic. Pounding that mochi takes a lot of energy, the hammer is heavy and Beloved's family makes a ton of mochi. Usually the job of pounding that mochi is a guy's job. This is our manly feat of strength for the end of the year. Sadly, Beloved's family was lacking in the XY person bit. Those that were there were getting a bit long in the tooth so Beloved's aunt was forced to deal with, what she mockingly called, women's mochi (i.e. the pounding was done by women and thus without the force or power a man can bring). So it's easy to see why she was so happy when her niece brought home a guy, a rather large American guy, and one who didn't have family in Japan that he would be called away to or knew that mochi is now usually bought at the store.

I believe you can see where this is going. I have now hammered out the mochi for 7 years (We missed two due to Makoto and Hikaru's births). And, even better, Beloved's sisters also managed to get married, so now there's at least two or three men not only getting into pounding mochi, but speed pounding!

And it gets better, then Beloved had two sons, both of whom have a large, strong American for a father, and who will be trained in the ways of mochi making. Pretty much Beloved's aunt has declared that she can now die happy, resting in the idea that her family's legacy of mochi making on New Year's is secure and will continue long after she is gone. And she's right. This year saw Makoto enthusiastically joining in, wielding a child's hammer. The other kids, Hikaru included, did it once and then decided that there were far more interesting things to do, Makoto kept coming back to join in bringing the malleters to three, Daddy leading with the largest, smashing down his full weight with a loud "HA!" (A summer of ax use did wonders for easing things out), then my brother-in-law who followed with his medium hammer shouting "Sore!" (so-ray), and finally Makoto with his kids hammer thumping down and screaming "GoBusters!"

Beloved's aunt beamed.

Later, standing around the table rolling the mochi into balls (Something that a summer at a pizza parlor helped out with) she was just thrilled at the quality of the mochi produced this year. Makoto of course had to mention that he had mochi making at his school, but he didn't need to listen to the teachers because he already knew all about mochi making.

He better, he has a lifetime ahead of him in terms of beating the crap out of mochi every New Year's with a large heavy hammer!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas: The Aftermath

Forgive the silence, like just about everyone else, the last few days were a hectic mess of getting things done for Christmas. What you may ask? The usual, wrapping presents, taking the boys out to look at Christmas lights in order to give Beloved some wrapping time of her own, and of course baking.

Yup, baking.

It's become a tradition for me to spend a good two or three days in the kitchen baking and cooking for Christmas various treats and dishes (Thankfully for my sanity, the Emperor of Japan himself helps in this. December 23rd is the emperor's birthday and thus a holiday that is usually perfectly placed in order to let me get the bulk of the baking done). The usual range is eggnog (made from eggs, no mix here), gingerbread men, sugar cookie cutouts, snowball cookies, and cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning with a New York style cheesecake for our Christmas cake on Christmas eve. This year I added fudge and clam chowder to the mix as well, though I got to move the cheesecake till after Christmas.

Now, oddly enough, excepting the cinnamon rolls and clam chowder, none of the above figures in how I would celebrate Christmas back home in the States. I would bring home Cinabons for Christmas morning though and in my family, Mom's clam chowder in a sourdough breadbowl is the dinner for Christmas Eve, but in terms of cookie production, it just never happened. Let me hasten to state this isn't due to my mother being a bad cook (And no, I am not just stating that because she reads this blog some times), but more of a problem of single mother and way too much to do around Christmas to spend the day making cookies. That said, I had a number of relatives and friends who do/did the whole Christmas treat overload every Christmas and had no qualms about sharing. We didn't bake them, but we sure did eat them.

Which is more or less why I now spend a two days producing massive amounts of cookies. I simply missed the tastes of home during Christmastime and wanted to replicate them as much as possible. Once Beloved tasted the buggers, she got hooked. Since she likes to share, we now have a horde of family/friends/co-workers (I take a plate into my school) who also have started to look forward to Christmas baking.

But it has become more than being a bit homesick for the holidays, it's become making Christmas traditions for Makoto and Hikaru. As I previously mentioned, Christmas in Japan is not Christmas in the US. I'm sure many parents feel the tug every year of wanting to re-create their childhood Christmases for their own children, to re-capture the magic, to make memories, to... have that family Christmas. I am no different in this, but I am faced with a problem of being in Japan. My family is half way around the globe, the culture is very different, we lack any number of things that I took for granted back at home, but I still want to make Christmas happen for the boys in at least a semi-American sense.

Don't let squirrels happen to YOUR Christmas!
The semi bit is important I think. It would be impossible to recreate Christmas in America over here in Japan and to try... Well, I have no wish to host a real life version of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (The best warning there ever was about going overboard on getting the 'perfect' Christmas). As with many things, I've had to pick and choose want I want to pass on to my sons for them to remember. Baking works, it really does. Christmas was never a massive affair at my house growing up. That is to say, while we enjoyed it and celebrated it, it didn't usually involve massed relatives or going overboard on decorations, etc.

The only relative who was usually involved was my grandmother on my mother's side who lived 45 minutes away, meaning my sister and I would have to wait until she woke up and came to our house before opening presents, a horrible torture for children and one that felt like it lasted somewhere between a lifetime and a day or eternity.

But we did have our traditions from stocking raids to the above mentioned Cinabons and thus why I bake so much. After just 5 Christmases, Makoto has taken it as Gospel that this is how things happen. We have fun baking together, cutting out cookies, and he has fun with the smells of Christmas (Hikaru it should be noted isn't all that interested in baking, he's got the eating thing down though). We have other traditions from, again, looking at Christmas lights in a nearby park (This year, thankfully, there was a lack of Christmas lights shaped to look like bugs) to watching certain Christmas films from the US (A Charlie Brown Christmas for example), to the all important reading of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" before bed on Christmas Eve before setting out the eggnog and cookies for Santa.

According to Beloved's friends, this looks like a storybook
It's not my family's Christmas in the United States, it's nothing like the Christmas I grew up with, but it has become Christmas in Japan and so far it seems to be working in terms of making memories. Makoto and Hikaru both were thrilled with their gifts and the food (Oh boy was Hikaru thrilled with the food, he has been non-stop demanding cookies for days), and Beloved has been enjoying herself by taunting her friends on Facebook where she posts pictures of what looks like a storybook Christmas to her Japanese friends and casually mentioning that she has to do none of it, all the heavy lifting is provided by her husband. It is Christmas in Japan, but not a Japanese Christmas. It isn't an American Christmas either, but it is our Christmas and worth all the extra hassle.

But as for now, the gifts have been unwrapped, our tree is now dark, and Christmas goes back to sleep till next year. After this small taste of America, we're getting ready for an extra-large helping of Japanese, because New Year's is upon us and if I was busy as all heck for Christmas, Beloved has her turn at bat as we head towards Oshogatsu.

Merry Christmas!
This is how you know Christmas was well spent, two happy kids and a BIG mess

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The War On Christmas

Yes, there is one.

Oh, I don't mean the silliness the Bill O'Reilly goes off on every year (To be honest, given the mangling that I hear in Japan of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" I don't care which one I hear just as long as it's actually pronounced right. If I did, I'd probably grab that person and kiss them full on the lips regardless of age, sex, or status. We're talking tongue may be employed here), no I mean a war on, or about, Christmas. For me it's a two front war.

The first front is familiar to anyone with young children, the annual battle in the toy store. As previously mentioned, Christmas in Japan is more for those with young children and young couples. This means that, for the most part, you don't have the insanity that is normal in malls across America during the Christmas shopping season as most people in Japan are not really going bananas buying gifts.

Except parents of course. Japanese children have picked up on this whole Santa thing and by God they expect him in. Those who have out-grown Santa aren't about to take any excuses for lack of presents either. This leads to the familiar battle in the toy store to get THE gift that has been demanded by your beloved children. And yes, it is a war.

You can tell the veterans, the fathers (It's always the fathers. Mothers are usually busy tending to the kids and making dinner so when I do my Christmas shopping for the boys, Toys R Us is filled with a crowd of guys, all of us sharing three things: 1. From our dress we obviously just got off of work. 2. We've been prodded by our beloved partners to go get that whatever instead of heading home to relax. 3. We want to get our present and get out of there as quickly as possible) who have been through this before. We are battle scarred, in our eyes you can see the hard stare of a campaigner who will let nothing and nobody stand between him and the toy that will make his child(ren)s life complete this Christmas. There's an economy of movement, the hard earned knowledge of knowing where this toy is located in Toys R Us, how to get it and get out with the minimum fuss and God help the fool who gets in their way.

You can also tell the new parents, the ones whom this will be their first battle of the toys, they are the ones who have a worried expression on their faces, the ones who waffle in front of the display, hesitating on which toy is the best one for their child. They read all the labels, agonizing over their choices. They also usually have track-marks down their back from where they were run over by a veteran.

This year was no exception, for me. I knew what I wanted, having the foresight to get Makoto to 'draft' his letter to Santa, which I then stole (I mean the draft, Makoto's actual letter got mailed off) which meant I had a pretty nice list to go off of in terms of toys that they wanted and the ones that they actually asked Santa for (So Santa can come through). I knew where those toys where, how to get to them, and was in and out in less than 30 minutes with a shopping cart full of gifts and stocking stuffers.

The only thing that threw me was Beloved's request at the last minute that I get a pair of boots for Hikaru since I had to find the right size and style.

The second front on the War on Christmas is the yearly battle to get my wife to tell me what she wants for Christmas.

And yes, this IS a battle. Every. Single. Year. Every year I ask to get some ideas and every year it's "I don't know, give me more time." and thus I wait and watch as the calendar advances. I beg, I plead, I threaten to unleash her sons with 2,000 yen (About $20) in a store and let them buy her gift (Hope she likes GoBusters!), I threaten to go to Don Quixote (A Japanese version of Spencer's Gifts) and get her a "Happy Evening" gift pack (I'm sure you can fill in just what might be in that yourself). I withhold Christmas cookies and still I get nothing.

Or coffee. Every year, driven to distraction, she finally announces she just wants coffee beans.

Now the problem with this is that a. Coffee is hardly a present, it's something you get at the grocery store. Also, since she has a mother and sister-in-law who also are demanding gift ideas for her, I tell them coffee. We don't need 10 pounds of it, we don't drink THAT much coffee! So around and around  we go with me demanding and Beloved stating coffee till finally she'll come up with something.

These somethings are almost always expensive. This year it was a blu-ray recorder, not a bad idea, except that we need one that is region free for DVDs. They are around $500. No, not in the budget. So how about an electric sweeper? At $300? No. Besides, I'd rather save the money and get a Roomba. So how about a wall heater?

A wall heater you say, as I did?

Yes, she wants a wall heater. Why? To make sure that the laundry room doesn't freeze. Of course, we already have one and it's not for her, it's for the house. so, no.

Finally, three days before Christmas, she finally comes up with an idea. I need to take her to the shoe store to get some half boots. Ah, thinks I, not too bad... Until she zeros in on a pair that, yes are beautiful, yes, look good on her, yes, are what she wants, but are also a bit pricey.

But this is what she wants, this or coffee.

I might have won the battle of the toy store but  think I lost the war.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

'Zat you, Santa Claus?

Poor Makoto has Santa confusion.

It's my fault.

Yes, that IS me, your Author
You see... I am Santa Claus.

I don't mean in the father who buys the gifts and does the stocking stuffing kind of way, I mean in the I have the suit and wear it each year kind of way. I wrote something on it last year that I'll re-post here as to the how and why:
One of the 'perks' of being a Western foreign man in Japan is around Christmas someone will ask you to play Santa Claus. While there are Japanese Santa-san, a lot of Japanese children, and adults, tend to believe that the authentic Santas are White and speak English.

Usually, it's a few hours in a suit of dubious quality that will earn you a couple thousand, maybe even 10,000 or so, yen. Pocket money for whatever your pleasure is for the Christmas season. About 5 years ago, in what was probably a comment on my expanding waistline, my wife bought and sent me a beautiful deluxe Santa suit from the US. She had been joking about getting me involved in this whole deal and used my retort that there wasn't a suit that was nice enough, or big enough, in Japan for me as an excuse to actually buy one.

I've spent every Christmas season since then in that suit, adding things like a wig and beard set, proper boots, and a new belt every so often. It's not comfortable work. The suit is hot, very hot. With fake fur, not felt, the only time I am not hot is standing outside in a blizzard. The wig and cap is even worse and the beard, oh Lord. It's hot, it's heavy, dragging my chin down till my teeth ache with dryness and the effort to keep my mouth closed, and while wearing it I cannot eat nor drink anything that doesn't have a straw. Given that the events I am called for can last hours, once in my getup, I cannot remove it until the end of the program.

And while wearing the suit, it can be hard to deal with the children and other people. Once you're in, you have to stay in character, voice, posture, everything. If you break it, and a child sees you, well... Who wants to be the one who confirm to a child that Santa is just some gaijin in a fake beard? Other children of course view Santa as something terrifying and scream, or think that Santa is a jungle-gym and clime up on to you, sometimes trying to get into the suit itself! Of course being Japan, appearing in public with the suit causes adults, especially women, to stream in from kilometers to snap pictures on their cells phones. As someone who is somewhat camera shy, I'm not exactly thrilled with the fact that hundreds of strangers have my photo, dressed as Santa stored somewhere.

So, yes, it is very hot uncomfortable work that usually sees me thrilled to be able to tear the beard from my face, scrub off the spirit gum, wash the whitener from my eye brows, and not have to speak in that deep of a voice. I'm thrilled to get out of the suit at the end of the day and back into street clothes.

And all of that for a bit of spending money... and a bit of Christmas magic.

One of the last events on the Santa calendar is Christmas Caroling in Okaya. The Okaya CIR has this event that he does where he invites the foreign population to come sing Christmas carols at two retirement/nursing homes and an orphanage. Last year and this year I've been asked to be Santa. The job is rather easy, I mainly just stand there, looking the part, give out a few Ho-ho-ho's, and hand out cards or gifts. I don't really even have to sing (Which, of course is a GOOD thing considering how bad I am). But it's that last stop, the orphanage, that makes it all worth it.

If you don't know, Japan's family laws are rather archaic. They were written in the Meiji Era, late 1800's, and reflect a time when blood and family bonds were extremely important. Children were the property of their families and the state had almost no right or say in how the family was to treat their children. The laws have not changed all that much, and given the social conditions, adoption or even foster care is almost unheard of, if it was even allowed by the family. So children in Japan's orphanages might be there until finally discharged as adults, never really having a home, just the center.

Of course, there's another, darker side to the story as well. Some of the children there are not the victims of unfortunate accidents and have lost their parents, nor were they given up shortly after birth and have no idea who their birth parents might be, they know all too well because they have families.

There's a growing problem in Japan of partial abandonment, where parents decide that they simply cannot deal with their child and drop them off at these child facilities and walk away. Sometimes they come back and take their child home, just to drop them back off after a few weeks. Sometimes these parents treat the care facilities as a kind of boarding house, a place to drop off their children for a few weeks while they go off and get a break from being parents, knowing that the state will feed and clothe their child. Then they come back and pick them up.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Some of these children have to endure watching their parents walk away multiple times, and then living with that stigma because in Japan, everyone will know where you live and that you aren't like the other children. Being different can be a rather bad thing here sometimes. And the state can do nothing due to antiquated laws that state a parent's rights are absolute and only in the most dire of circumstances can a child be taken into protective custody and only with parental or family permission can a child be fostered or adopted.

Of course, I don't actually KNOW the stories behind the children I saw last Saturday. Some of them may have lost their parents, some may have been given up shortly after birth, and some may have simply been dropped off. I didn't ask, because that's not what Santa does.

What Santa does, what I do, is give them, if just for a few hours, a bit of a bright spot. For the younger children, Santa came. He was there. They saw him, they touched his suit, tugged on his beard, heard his booming voice as he laughed at their antics, he gave them presents, handshakes, high-fives, and hugs. Santa is real, and he actually came to see them.

What a gift!

It doesn't make up for everything else, it doesn't provide them with a home or a family who cares and will always be around, but just for that moment, that few hours, that thing which gets derided and mocked, wished for and sighed over, that Christmas magic happened for those children and they could enjoy it.

Last year when I visited in the suit for the first time there was a little girl who was rather shy, she didn't want to get near me. She grabbed the gift I gave her and ran behind her caretaker, peering around the caretaker's leg at me with a frown.

This year, she greeted me with a huge smile and a hug and went back with us almost to the bus until her caretaker finally called her back.

So, for that day, for those times, I am Santa Claus. I look forward to being Santa for many, many more years. In the end, that suit isn't that uncomfortable after all.
So you see, being Santa isn't all that bad... except when it comes to my own children. The problem with being Santa is that, well, right now in my laundry room, Santa's suit is hanging up. His boots are being aired out. To prevent Santa from smelling like a storage room (Where the suit hangs out the rest of the year), I have to air it out. When Makoto was small, just a few months old, he of course had no idea who or what Santa was, so my hanging out the suit and changing wasn't a problem. Age one, no worries. Age 2, he started to get the idea of Santa, though he was not too sure just what was happening. Daddy and Santa were never seen in the same place of course, and he never caught me getting ready, but he was very excited when Santa came to a luncheon put on by the International Club and picked him up!

Is that Santa, or Daddy?
But when Makoto was three... I could tell, he was starting to put two and two together. Pictures from that year's luncheon showed a very perplexed Makoto who knew that suit, he had seen it hanging up in the house, and Daddy wasn't anywhere close by. Something wasn't right here, was Daddy, in fact, Santa Claus?

What to do? I decided the best way to explain it to Makoto at age 4 was to note that, yes, Daddy, does have a Santa costume because he is one of Santa's helpers. When Santa is busy, like he is at the end of the year, he asks Daddy to go off and pretend to be Santa for a bit to help him out. Makoto bought that. It makes sense, right?

This year, at age 5, however, he definitely knew. At the luncheon, he went around telling the other kids how Santa was his Daddy and offered to take them into the dressing room to show them the suit. He was quite annoyed when a quick thinking Daddy locked the door and didn't respond to any knocks or calls and then snuck out the other door.

The problem we now face is a culture clash, because if Daddy isn't Santa Claus, but dresses up as Santa, what about Santa who comes to his school?

Yes friends, the other day a Japanese 'Santa' came to Makoto's school to hand out presents (Tops that the kids will be playing with) and caused a bit of a problem, because Makoto's teachers told the kids that Santa lives in Finland whereas Daddy had told Makoto that he lives at the North Pole, and in fact that was where Makoto's letter to Santa went. Even worse, this Santa didn't speak English. This Santa was actually confused when Makoto spoke to him in English, which as we all know is the mark of an impostor as Santa has to speak English, right?

The final straw in my son's assessment of this Santa was the black mark of him not knowing how to say ho-ho-ho. That disqualified him immediately as Santa should ho-ho-ho. The poor teachers at Makoto's school had one hell of a time of keeping Makoto from telling all of his classmates that this was not Santa.

Thankfully, for peace of mind, Makoto's logic swung into play, if Daddy isn't Santa, and this guy isn't Santa, that must mean that the real Santa was just busy at the North Pole making toys. Thus will Santa keep visiting our house for a few more years, though I have a feeling Makoto is going to be an early learner of the secret due to a father who is Santa and two different cultural approaches to him.

As for Hikaru... at age two, his big thing is that Santa showed up and shook his hand! Something he has repeated non-stop for days now.

Ah, the magic of Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Happiness is a Warm Gun?

I woke up this morning to the news about Connecticut.

My God, 20 children. 20 children, some of them around Makoto's age. 20. Children. And 6 adults who, as teachers, would be colleagues of mine. When is enough, enough?

Already spinning around the Internet is the usual "It wasn't the guns! Guns don't kill people, people kill people! If only everyone had a gun, this wouldn't have happened (Ignoring that there's a gun for just about every man, woman, and child in the US not to mention guns at school is a terrifying idea from a teacher's standpoint)!"

I don't think it was the guns, it's the culture. There are societies that are armed and do not have this problem. We are an armed society, but no, we are not particularly polite (Something that was brought home to me when I went back home). Societies with strict gun control also don't have this problem. The US however...

We have a culture that loves the gun. It's a nation that has somehow gotten to the point where we can not longer do without, we bind ourselves to it, to having them, judge our worth, build our heroes, and elect our leaders based on their views of firearms. It's... the wild west taken to extreme. We have become addicted to the gun, and like all addicts, we cannot and will not admit that we have a problem, instead we lash out at any attempt to remove that to which we are addicted. We're the drunk who after beating his wife cries that it wasn't the booze's fault, that he'll change, just don't take it away from him!

We're the one who swears that we are fully in control and who gets belligerent when any attempt to limit is spoken of.

And more children die. When will it be enough? When will we say that this isn't working, that more guns won't be the answer, that taking them away wouldn't stop it either? We need to change ourselves.

I know on my blog I rag a bit on Japan, I love it here, but from a humor standpoint, it's something to hold up, see what's odd? What's different?

In Japan, it is almost impossible to own a gun. Japan as a nation has less gun deaths a year than my hometown. There are those who would claim that it was the lack of mental health care that brought today's tragedy  but Japan is far worse than the US when it comes to mental health, and yet there are no school shootings. There are those who would state that a nation where you don't have the right to bear arms is close to tyranny, what is to protect you from the government after all? Perhaps. I don't have the right to own a gun over here, but then again I don't worry when I leave for the day that my sons might be shot. At the end of the day, I might not be able to march on Tokyo with a gun in my hand to force the government to back down, but I can hug my sons close to me tonight, something that 20 families in Connecticut will not be able to do again.

There's that pithy quote from Franklin about security and liberty, which might also be true, but I think we as a nation need to decide just what kind of price we're willing to pay, and pay, and pay for our 'liberty'.

I don't know the answers, except that the first thing to say is enough, this must change!

One of the hardest things I have done as a father was to have to explain to Makoto, who was watching the news tonight that a bad man went into a school and killed 20 children like him and 6 teachers. It was hard to look him in the eyes and tell him that Daddy just doesn't know why it happened, but that people are sad because it has happened. Makoto started to cry because of the kids and the teachers who were killed, and because he was scared.

At least then I had an answer for him, that Mommy and Daddy wouldn't let this happen to him, we have chosen to stay in Japan.

When is enough, enough? How many more times must we see this? How many more times will I have to comfort my sons and assure them that they won't be shot? We need help, not more guns.

Happiness is holding your family tight, not a warm gun.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Very Japanese Christmas

'Tis the season... And to understand just what all the following posts talking about my trials and the cross that I bear come every December here in Japan, you gotta understand Japanese Christmas.

To start with, one has to understand that Japan is in now way shape or form a Christian nation. If anything, it's a very secular nation with most of the population reporting that they have no religious faith. That said, the Japanese are rather... well... As I previously noted, the joke is that if you asked the Japanese about religion, 78% would be Buddhist, 78% would be Shintoist, and 78% would claim no religion at all. Even the Japanese joke that they are Shinto for birth, Christian for marriage, and Buddhist at death, denoting the popular practices of going to a Shinto shrine with a new baby, having a 'romantic' Christian style wedding, and asking that a Buddhist temple attend the passing of a loved one.

And no, the Japanese see nothing wrong with this, you do what works around here.

So with that in mind, it makes sense why a non-Christian nation would somehow adopt Christmas. The problem is that, well, if there has ever been any Western custom that has been adopted by the Japanese and implanted with a Japanese heart, it's Christmas. The problem is that for an American who did grow up with Christmas, the result of this implant is a creature with a bad personality overlay. The feeling that, something is just not right. That the heart, the soul, is missing from this time of year and has been replaced with... Something. Something odd.

It's not Japan's fault of course. They already have a winter holiday that ends in exchanges of gifts and family gatherings. New Year's, or Oshougatsu in Japanese, is THE major holiday for the year. People return to their families. The year's beginning is marked as a solemn occasion instead of with parties. Or as I like to put it, things are flipped in Japan in terms of Christmas and New Year's. So when you take out the family, and you take out the gifts (kinda), and the religion, what are you left with?

Japanese Santa
Well, if you're a child, you're left with Santa. The big man is well loved in Japan, if there's an undercurrent about if Santa should be Japanese or not.

Makoto, used to his father playing Santa and seeing American Christmas movies was a bit confused when Santa visited his school and didn't talk to him in English. He was also very put out that he didn't know how to Ho ho ho properly.

But Japanese children are taught that Santa will come at night on Christmas Eve and leave a present by their futon or maybe in their sock (No stocking over here). Santa doesn't come down a chimney here of course, someone has to let him in. But he does come and it's a poor child who doesn't expect some kind of visit by Santa.

MERRY Christmas!
If you're a young adult, Christmas is... well... *ahem* Sex. Kinda. Well. not kinda. Before New Year's, many Japanese engage in what is known as 'Forget the Year' parties. So the end of the year is a party time, especially if you're old enough to drink. Adding to this is an imported idea that Christmas Eve dates are romantic (Damn Western media) and thus for young couples, Christmas is the time where they can get together, and I mean together. Christmas Eve is apparently the most popular date for a young Japanese woman to loose her virginity.

The general idea is that the guy will take his lady love out to a very expensive hotel to enjoy a 'traditional' Christmas dinner of roast chicken (It should be noted that foreigner, missing turkey, would be noted eating chicken as a substitute. In the 1970's, KFC took note and managed to convince the whole nation that fried or roast chicken is exactly what people around the world eat for Christmas and thus does the Colonel, dressed as Santa in front of every store, sells out of chicken buckets come Christmas Eve with lines reaching around the block) where he will present her with a suitably nice present. After Christmas cake (Someone apparently told Japan that Christmas is Jesus's birthday, thus it must be celebrated with something akin to a birthday cake, complete with candles) and French wine, the couple retires to a love hotel he he gets to unwrap her.

For just about everyone else, unless you're a parent and thus dealing with children, Christmas passes by almost without notice.


Bears are Christmasy, right?
There are Christmas carols, many translated into Japanese. And Christmas lights, the Japanese who have a long standing tradition of seeing lights at night (During the fall and spring, trees are illuminated for people's enjoyment), have gone gaga over Christmas lights. It's easy to find parks with massive Christmas illuminations set up, though there's, again, the feeling that something isn't right. Encountering hearts as if for Valentine's Day, or bugs for example.

Yes, bugs. The park that I take the boys has Christmas lights set up to look like such Christmas subjects as dragonflies or beetles.

If you want to fully imagine what a Japanese Christmas feels like, just toss a Santa hat on something, anything, and that's it. From 2 foot tall trees to Doraemon nativity scenes, it just feels wrong. Fake. Transplanted.


And I mean this, for many Japanese it's fun. For my sons, they like it. They may get more by way of me, but this will be the Christmas that they remember and that's not a bad thing. I plan to go more into tradition mixing, but I will note that while we do not have roast chicken, we do have Christmas cake, or rather I do bake a cake, if not a simple sponge one. We do listen to Christmas carols in Japanese. And we do go enjoy the Christmas lights shaped like bugs at the park. I'm not complaining about how Japanese celebrates Christmas or even that it does, but it does bring up a problem with the culture clash that comes when I try to bring in a deeper meaning to this holiday in the face of Santa, KFC, and bug lights.

But more on that a bit later.