TRAFFIC! by Alma R. H. Reyes
Ritualizing the Rituals
Oh yes, here we are again, down the lane, to another close of another year. Wasn’t it just sometime ago that Ondoy swept the entire country by shock? Why doesn’t it feel like everybody has recovered from it? We go through rituals of prayers, only to encounter a new set of challenges…like, having a new president, a new prime minister!
In Japan, nobody recovers from rituals either. Hay, dami! This is really one country that has a ceremony for everything—in the way they hold a cup of tea, the way they hold their bags in the train, and even in the way they say “sorry” when they don’t really mean it. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.
Here are just some of those common Japanese rituals we encounter from autumn to winter, and let’s see if you can keep up with them!
Come around November 15, we’ll see those cute, little boys and girls dressed up in elegant kimonos and hakamas, flocking shrines with their equally all dressed up parents. This festival marks the auspicious ages of 7 (shichi), 5 (go), and 3 (san) to celebrate boys and girls reaching periods of maturity. Traditionally, boys aged 3, who used to shave their heads, could start to grow their hair. At age 5, they can start to wear the traditional hakama. Then, a girl who turns 7 years old can replace the cord around her kimono with a ladylike obi.
Are you a shacho-san (company president)? Or, married to a Japanese and had a “nakodo” (go-between) for your wedding? Equivalent to the o-chugen gifts in summer, the o-seibo gifts at the end of the year are given to people you feel you owe your entire life to (exaggeratedly). Check out supermarkets and you will see gift packages of cooking oil, ham, beer, jelly desserts, o-senbe, even detergents. So many things in Japanese culture are “giri” (obligation), and o-seibo is certainly one of them.
Oo-la-la. Eto na ang mga amoy. Smell the liquor inside trains? See the red-faced salary men? Noticed your husband not coming home any longer? (Ha!) Bonenkai is the season for getting merry and getting drunk (admit it) towards the end of the year to, as they say, to forget all your troubles of the past year, and celebrate new beginnings for the next. I say, it’s the season to drink, period.
Shimenawa, Kagami-mochi ritual
“Real” Christmas is not generally celebrated authentically in Japan, so I will skip that and move to New Year. The Japanese o-shogatsu swarms with a heap of rituals. But, unlike Christmas that starts early—diba sa atin Christmas music is already playing by October—Japanese New Year rituals are timed just before December 30th or so. The shimenawa and kadomatsu, green pines and bamboo, are displayed outside front doors of homes to symbolize good luck and agelessness. Kagami-mochi is the mochi layered on top of each other with a small mikan orange at the very top. It usually sits on a table or shoe cabinet in the genkan of your home. It marks the going and coming of years, and continuation of family generations.
I don’t know about you, but I hardly get Christmas cards by post now since most people are greeting by e-mail or by e-cards. Surprisingly, Japanese still maintain their diligence in sending nengajo New Year postcards, and do spend a lot of money for making them, too. However, a part of it is also again, “giri”—if you get a card, you send a card.
Someone asked me why Japanese only clean their homes thoroughly by the end of the year when they should do it everyday, every week, every month! Well, it’s just a ritual! Keeping your home spic-and-span by December 31 means you have wiped off all the dirt of the year behind you, and ready to open your sparkling home to more dirt…oops, sorry, I mean, more hope and a cleansed spirit for the coming year – la-di-da….
O-toshi dama ritual
Boy, this must be the worst “giri” custom in Japan! And, children’s most loved, ano pa. It’s a custom in New Year to hand “small” money to children, especially among your family and relatives. The small money envelopes come in pretty designs, and you can see children feeling the thickness of the envelope to guess if they got only one paper bill or more…ha! (no joke)
Everything O-shogatsu ritual
When December 31 falls, everything from morning to midnight and after is one whole ritual parade. First, the family becomes so occupied preparing the o-sechi New Year food. Okusans rush to supermarkets to buy sushi, sashimi, and all kinds of condiments. Children are being asked to clean their rooms. Husbands are being asked to clean the yard, scrub the walls, gas range exhaust, clean the air conditioner... you know, the stuff that wives don’t like to do. When the husbands are done, they will be asked by their okusan to go buy lots of beer and saké for the big dinner. Don’t forget o-soba, because after midnight, you have to slurp soba or udon to feel (or pretend) your life will be longer. Oh, and also the mikan oranges—because, no kotatsu (heated low table) or dinner table looks “proper” without a bowl of mikan oranges. Before dinner, everybody is asked to take a “ritual” o-furo bath (eventually called hatsuburo or first bath), because it is believed that your body needs to be clean to welcome the new auspicious year. (Of course, nobody believes that….) By 7:00 p.m., everybody is gathered around the television because the Kohaku all night TV program is about to begin. All of Japan’s celebrated singers put up a show every New Year, dividing themselves into red and white teams, and family members get to vote, too, if red or white team wins. They judge this while peeling off the mikans. (Do you understand now why the mikan is important?) There is so much noise and celebration in the Kohaku program. But, by 12 midnight, it’s like a funeral just took place, and all the noise and laughter disappear. The program switches to a big bell in the shrine that is being struck for the midnight countdown. People are already lining up in the shrines for the hatsumode (first visit to the shrine). The young folks are getting drunk in the izakaya (night bars and restaurants), the children are dreaming of their o-toshidama, the wife is thinking how she will be able to clean up all the dishes, and the husband is already snoring…after a long, tiring day of being asked to do this and do that.
Oh yes, just another year, just like the rest….
Maligayang Pasko at Mapayapang Bagong Taon!