Celebrations are an important part of every society, and today we’re going to look at two different kinds of celebrations in Japan – one will likely seem very familiar, while the other may surprise you.
Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to attend both a massive festival at my university campus, and also a small family birthday party for my host mother. We’ll start with the familiar, and talk a bit about my first experience at a Japanese birthday party.
I arrived home tired after a day of classes and errands on Saturday, and was surprised to find my host family preparing to leave the house. It was my host mother’s birthday, but nobody had told me! I had to drop everything and rush off with them to the home of their daughter, Kaori, who was hosting the birthday party.
My host mother was turning 72, and her husband is 74 – the daughter who hosted the party, Kaori, is in her 40’s and she and her husband have two daughters. It was my first time meeting all of them, and it was very interesting to get to spend an evening talking and celebrating with three generations of the Kato family.
Overall, this birthday party was not that different from many that I’ve attended in America. There was lots of food (Japanese food and also pizza), birthday cake, and they even sang the “happy birthday” song in English. However, one thing that I did notice is that this birthday party was more about the family than it was about one person. Often, birthday parties are about celebrating one person, making their day special, and showering them with gifts. This, however, was just a really nice family gathering, with everyone talking, watching baseball (it’s the playoff season for Japanese baseball as well), and playing games with the kids. The only time the birthday girl was singled out was when we proposed a toast, the standard “omedetou gozaimasu” – which means “congratulations.”
Because it was my first time meeting Kaori’s family, everyone had a lot of questions for me – and some pretty funny comments as well. The youngest has a small dog, whose name is “choco” but whom she likes to call “buta-chan” – “chan” is similar to “san,” but is usually used for either young girls or pets. It just has a cute kind of ring to it, I guess. The funny part is “buta,” however – “buta” means “pig.”
“Buta mitai yo!” she giggled – “He looks like a pig!.”
And while she thinks Choco the dog looks like a pig, she (and the rest of the family) kept telling me that I look like Tom Cruise. I have to say, it’s the first I’ve heard of it!
I asked Kaori’s husband a little bit about Japanese birthday parties, and what they mean to the family.
“For children, it’s very important to celebrate their youth and to spoil them a little bit,” he said. “But for adults, it’s very important for us to celebrate our elders and show them how much they mean to us.”
(This is a rough translation of what he said in Japanese, which doesn’t translate exactly).
I was really touched to be invited into this family, whom I’ve only known for 5 weeks, and to have them share with me such an important moment in their lives. Plus, the birthday cake was delicious.
The very next day, I was off to a “matsuri” (Festival) at my university, Waseda. Festivals are very, very important in Japan and it’s rare that I’ll go more than a few days without seeing a small parade of people drumming and celebrating, or holding festivities at a shrine. Japan is a largely Shinto country, and this religion recognizes many, many gods and deities, all of whom are worshipped at various shrines throughout the country. There are shrines for famous mountains and streams, one’s dedicated to the god of thunder, and to literally hundreds of other deities, most of them associated with nature.
Some festivals celebrate deceased loved ones, others a special time of year or a special place. This festival was dedicated to past Waseda graduates, but even though it basically amounted to a party for a bunch of old people, it was done in the traditional style of Japanese festivals – food, drink, games, and all kinds of fun stuff to buy.
Japanese festivals are very family oriented, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see many people enjoying games with their young children. There was, however, one bit of entertainment that I did not expect to see. An earthquake simulator.
I remember once, when I was in elementary school, being instructed on what to do in case of an earthquake – but NEVER anything as cool as this. Then again, earthquakes are a constant part of life in Tokyo. In fact, it’s impossible for an American to imagine just how used to earthquakes people in Tokyo are, because no place in America has as many of them as they have here.
What do you guys think of this approach to earthquake safety? Do you think that this kind of safety education is more likely to stick with these young kids?
Earthquakes were not all there was for the kids to experience at this festival. Clubs and social groups are an important part of life in Japan, especially at the university level. In fact, many students at Waseda take their “circle” (club) more seriously than their classes, which may not be a bad idea because the people in these clubs will help them move into careers after they graduate. Also, Japanese high school is very difficult, so university is a time for them to relax. There are all kinds of clubs – sports, literature, comic book fans, martial arts – Waseda has thousands of clubs. Many of the alumni seemed to have certain clubs already in mind for their little ones.
At every turn there were vendors selling delicious food, kids playing, and parents enjoying a chat with one another, or buying the various crafts – it’s kind of like a cross between a farmer’s market and a county fair.
Can any of you think of ways that the county fair or farmer’s market seem different from what I’ve described? Do any of you have ideas about why these festivals happen so often, and are so important in Japan? Post your ideas, and I’ll give you some answers next week.
Just don’t count on seeing “Hannah-chan” at the county fair or the farmer’s market.