by Alma R. H. Reyes
Four months have passed since the phenomenal earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan, and for those who live in that region, it seems that the horror is never over. Aftershocks continue to threaten their lives, as well as for us who live hundreds of kilometers away. In Tokyo, we can’t even seem to pass a day without an aftershock, whether in bed, still asleep at 4:00 in the morning, or again, in bed, asleep at midnight. Personally, the shakes come like a teaser now, and I no longer react with fright or panic. Getting used to them is certainly, not a good habit, but is there any other way to live?
Ahh…atsui! Atsui! Now that the summer heat is on, people have been talking about brownouts that would soon be spreading all over the Kanto region. Time for romantic candlelight! Soon, batteries will again, disappear from the shelves—flashlights, candles, matches. Without the air-conditioner functioning in the middle of 30°C heat, are we in for a broiling season? I am sure that, just as it was during the first weeks of the earthquake, TEPCO again will be releasing brownout schedules per ward. People again will be pestering TEPCO regarding the length of the brownouts, the frequency, and until when they should last. Back home, brownouts come like thieves in the night. When the lights are out, the lights are out. We never have brownout schedules. When the lights are out, people do the natural thing and take out their candles, matches and flashlights. No TV, no computer network—if the brownouts come at night, people wait for the lights to turn on again, or just go to sleep. But, in Japan, it seems like people prefer to panic, and question the authorities when the electricity will be restored. Back home, we just wait. Manufacturers have to come up with battery-operated coolers, ice-packed pads, or other non-electric cooling device to keep our sanity during the humidity! Don’t be surprised if swimming pools will be more jam-packed this year!
I Give You, You Give Me
Then, there’s the summer o-chugen gift-giving custom. Housewives love this because it gives them an excuse to shop, with reason. As we all know, gift giving is an addicting custom among Japanese. Aside from the summer o-chugen, there is also the end-of-the-year o-seibo; then, chocolate-giving in Valentine’s, gift giving in White Day, the almost obligatory o-miyage when you have traveled from somewhere, and finally, the o-kaeshi, which is the reciprocal gesture of returning the favor for the o-miyage, and most monetary “gifts” given during weddings, funerals, graduations, birth of a new baby, moving to a new home, and more. There is also the senbetsu, which is a money gift given to someone who is traveling on a long trip, like moving out of the country for work, etc.
That is why Japanese are champions when it comes to gift packaging. No matter what city in Japan you travel to, you will never miss a store that displays piles and piles of o-miyage boxes wrapped in beautiful packaging design. And, true enough, these stores are always filled with travelers buying at least more than one o-miyage. The most common o-miyage are the meibutsu, which are the food specialties of that region.
The only awkward situation about giving o-miyage is that, the person who receives your gift is often obliged to return the favor with another gift, then, it becomes like an endless chain routine. I often give o-miyage to my neighbors when I return to Tokyo from somewhere, then in a week’s time, I end up receiving an o-kaeshi for the o-miyage that I had given. Kakahiya naman, ano. So, many Japanese actually measure their gifts by monetary value, so that the lesser value the gift has, the receiver can complement it with a more-or-less same amount of value, without going over. Personally, I am not comfortable with this kind of calculating gesture, but I have learned that most Japanese think this way with regards to the gifts they give.
This is why in Japanese weddings, when guests customarily give money gifts to the couple, ranging from Yen 10,000 to Yen 50,000, perhaps, depending on their closeness and relation to the couple, the guests will receive a huge paper bag of assorted gifts valuing about the same amount of the money gift they gave. I give you, you give me?
By the way, bringing something to someone’s home, whether it be a gift, or some food item, is also a standard custom in Japan, to refrain from the impolite tebura (literally, empty hands), when you come without nothing. The item is normally kept in a bag, not just held by hand (yes, you see those Westerners who carry a bottle of wine in their hand and offer it to the party host—that is not done in Japan, unless you wrap the bottle in a bag), and the bag is offered to the host, usually after everyone has taken their seated positions around the table. In a typical Japanese setting, the host and guest are both seated in seiza (formal Japanese sitting position of squatting with legs tucked under the buttocks) position. The guest bows forward with the fingers flat on the floor as he greets the host, then takes the gift bag and offers it with BOTH hands to the host, saying something standard like “O-tsumaranai mono desu ga…” meaning, “This is something little.” The host bows likewise, and receives the gift also with BOTH hands.
Nowadays, and if you and your guest are “young,” your guest just goes to your kitchen directly and hands you his gift. The degree of formality and informality are waivered depending on the relation between the host and the guest.
So, it’s time for you to run to the stores and order your o-chugen! But, please, no more of that cooking oil and detergent….:))