Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, July 07, 2006

What Country Is This, Anyway?

Every year around Halloween you can see images of ghosts, witches, vampires, and sometimes even a real, honest-to-goodness Jack o' Lantern here at ye olde academy. By the time Christmas rolls around there is usually more than one Christmas tree to be found as well plenty of Santas, Christmas candy, and talk of Christmas presents and Christmas romance. In February it's guaranteed hearts will be all over the place as we get closer to the 14th, and when the actual day arrives the girls will be busily giving chocolate to boys/men they appreciate. (And then, one month later on March 14th, the boys that actually bother to remember reciprocate. I always do!) Heck, I can sometimes even find a picture of a turkey somewhere around Thanksgiving, a bunny or egg near Easter, or even a U.S. flag on the 4th of July if I'm in the right place.

Yes, the Japanese are very good at remembering and acknowledging the American festivals.

Well, today is July 7th, which is one of the more colorful Japanese festivals, Tanabata (七夕), also known as the Star Festival. Apparently originating in China, this festival celebrates the one night during the year when two celestial lovers forced to remain apart (the stars Altair and Vega, separated by the Milky Way) are allowed to be together. Naturally, it is a festival with a strong romantic theme, but that isn't all. Apparently the celestial lovers are so overjoyed at their yearly union that they're willing to grant boons to us mere mortals. Therefore, the tradition is to write down a wish on a piece of colored paper and hang it on a sort of tree made of a bamboo branch. In some locations lavish, nighttime parades are held in all kinds of colorful, light-studded splendor. For most people, however, the Tanabata tree with wish cards hung on its branches provides a quiet but warmly sentimental celebration.

Last year the Garfield Senior High School Orchestra from Seattle came to visit our school on Tanabata so we decorated the lobby with a couple of large Tanabata trees, and the 11th grade girls did a festival dance under them:

This year? I went all over the school with my digicamera, and the only evidence of Tanabata I could find was this one, forlorn-looking, little Tanabata tree set up in the hallway of the 7th grade floor:

I'm happy that one 7th grade class saw fit to acknowledge one of the few remaining native festivals. Otherwise Tanabata might have been missed altogether. Amazing that Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's Day are never forgotten.

I can't help thinking about our neighborhood Bon Odori (dance celebration for the Obon Festival). Almost every year my family members dress up in traditional Japanese yukata to attend this traditional Japanese festival. When we do, everyone always says, "Oh, you're all dressed up nice," but they are all in jeans and T-shirts! Western-style dress for an ancient Japanese festival! Frankly, American though I am, it's disappointing the way the colorful and unique culture of the Land of the Rising Sun seems to be getting pushed to the side in favor of Americanization...or at least a really bizarre Japanese reinvention of Americana.

And to think I didn't even hang up my flag on the 4th...

Update: Actually, I found out after I first started writing this that a number of classes all over the school put up Tanabata trees inside their own, individual classrooms. Apparently they were all very small and put up at the last minute, so I never had a chance to notice them. Okay, so Tanabata wasn't completely forgotten after all...but it still received only a fraction of the attention that Christmas or Valentine's Day always get.


  • Oh Tanabata, Oh Tanabata, how lovely are your branches...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:32 AM  

  • pa've - cute!

    i've seen these trees in pictures or on television, but never knew what it meant.

    i'm really sad to hear that the Japanese don't celebrate their heritage as much as they once did. i always thought they were rich in that area. i'm really also somewhat surprised that they're going towards Americanizing so much of what they do... and how they have things out for Halloween and such. it's nice because it prob feels like home, but also sad somewhat, i think.

    i love the pic of the girls dancing beneath the trees.

    why do you think they're going so much towards the American culture?

    By Blogger tooners, at 6:41 PM  

  • Pa've,
    uh huh huh huh huh...

    (Well, I'm glad someone is singing about it...)


    Even though young people seem actually to be getting more nationalistic, there seems to be a general feeling that the native traditions are outdated relics that need to be discarded in favor of more modern "international" customs. Since the U.S. has the biggest foothold here both economically and culturally (ever since WWII), it's probably inevitable that "international" tends to wind up meaning "American".

    I was surprised and delighted when the 11th grade girls dressed up in their yukata last year and not only performed several dances but took the kids from Seattle on a tour of nearby Kashima Shrine still in traditional dress. The visitors loved it, and the girls looked pretty proud.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 7:37 PM  

  • I'm really sorta surprised that they'd be so much in favor of doing the American thing especially after what we did to them... you know?! It may sound naive of me and prob is, but there was so much destruction and pain from it all... I would think that the last thing they'd want is to be reminded of us all the time.

    But, I guess I could also say that it goes to show that they are above us in that they are able to forgive and move on or at least the younger generation is able to do this.

    By Blogger tooners, at 2:50 PM  

  • This is so interesting.

    In China and other part of the Chinese speaking communities, the same festival is on the lunar calendar of 7th of the seventh month too , which is 31 july 2006.

    The same story, the same tale and the same reasons..

    are u sure they didn't get the dates right???


    By Blogger Robin, at 6:24 PM  

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