Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006: A Christmas Chronology, pt. I

December 24th
I thought I was going to have a heart attack when Mr. Ogawa suddenly told me out of the blue that he wanted me to do some work for the music club on December 24th. The fact that the announcement came only a week before the fact didn't help matters. As with most people, my Christmas preparations tend to start a lot later than they should. Also, unlike the Japanese, my Christmas preparations tend to be extensive. That means I need every day of the last week leading up to the 25th, and it's all I can do to juggle my various tasks while keeping both my Christmas spirit and my wits intact. The 24th in particular is vitally important, because that's when I put it all together. Having it suddenly taken from me seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

So what did I have to do on the 24th? I had to take both a clarinet quartet and a saxophone quartet to the Ibaraki Prefectural Small Ensemble Championship, Senior High Division (rather thin and reedy fanfare). The championship venue moves around the prefecture every year, and this time it took place in the intriguing city of Yuki (結城).

I call Yuki "intriguing" for a number of reasons. Its name literally means "tied (or dressed) castle" (though the castle was trashed ages ago). Located in the breadbasket area of Western Ibaraki not far from Mt. Tsukuba, the city has virtually no topography. It is absolutely flat. It looks like an island of semi-urban development rising up from a vast sea of rice paddies. The linked Wikipedia entry says the city was founded in 1954, but the settlement of the Yuki area and its culture have a history going back at least 1400 years. It was long known as a center of textile production, particularly a unique type of hand-woven fabric called "Yuki tsumugi", a designated Japanese cultural asset. It is also known for both silk and handmade paper. To a lesser extent it is also known for leather. Therein lies the rub. Yuki's historical fame also makes it controversial.

One of Japan's best-kept and most-shameful secrets is so-called "dou-wa discrimination". Dou-wa (同和) literally means "fellow Japanese". You see, during the Edo Period (1603-1867), the famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu organized the Japanese population into a caste system with four levels: Samurai, Farmers, Craftsmen, and Merchants. In reality, however, there were two nameless underclasses. One was the hinin, or "non-people", i.e. slaves, criminals, vagabonds, and exiles. The other was the burakumin, or "hamlet people". The burakumin were people whose profession dealt with death and/or blood, i.e. executioners, undertakers, and leatherworkers. Though their work was valued, they were believed to be spiritually polluted, so they suffered brutal discrimination and were forced to live in isolated communities. Emperor Meiji ordered them reassimilated into society as part of his reforms in the late 19th century, but the old prejudices survived. In fact, they can still be found to some extent even today. Many companies and some private schools check applicants' family backgrounds and refuse to accept those with burakumin ancestry. Families with any amount of prestige quite often won't associate with them at all, and that's the problem. As I mentioned, Yuki has long included leatherwork among its local trades. It has a sizable burakumin community. If Ye Olde AcademyTM tried to send students there on an educational trip, there's a good chance some of the wealthier and prouder parents would go ballistic. Therefore, the city has always been kept strictly off limits.

So I wound up accompanying eight students there for an important music competition on December 24th. Did any of the parents complain? I don't know, and I don't care. It was just the nine of us and the driver on our chartered bus, and it was nice, relaxed ride. We got some nice views of Mt. Tsukuba (see Pandabonium's blog for a good tale about a trip up that mountain), and we talked a bit about Christmas in Japan vs. the U.S., but mainly the students just tried in vain to relax while I practiced my kanji (Chinese characters). Perhaps our most interesting sight along the way was this:

Colonel Pantless

The Japanese traditionally eat chicken on Christmas Eve, so all the KFC outlets are by-reservation-only on that day and have security officers on duty. In the picture is an officer pacing the parking lot of a KFC in the morning as he waits for the inevitable crunch. Even more interesting is the statue of Colonel Sanders. They always dress them up as Santa Claus for the Christmas season, but this one seems to have suffered a wardrobe malfunction. Was the guard feeling just a bit TOO antsy...?

There's probably not a whole lot to say about the contest itself. Frankly, we knew we were doomed from the start. Our best ensemble by far, a flute quartet, was strangely wiped out in our local competition, mainly as the result of one judge. That judge wrote only very favorable comments, but the point score he gave was insanely low. (Actually, each of the other three judges gave that same group almost twice as many points!) Moreover, also primarily as a result of that one judge's bizarre scoring, our weakest group, the clarinet quartet, came in first, and the sax quartet came in second. Only those two got sent to the prefecture championship, and they knew what they were facing. They made a valiant effort, and the sax quartet came in 16th out of 30 against brutal competition. (The clarinet quartet came in 28th.) Still, the top rankings were even more bizarre than those of our local contest had been. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place were given to one school, 4th and 5th to another, and 6th and 7th to a third. I say "given" because, though I agreed with some of those rankings, a few of them didn't make any more sense than the weird score our flute quartet got in the home competition. It looks to me like politics came into play once again (not unusual in contests like this), and those three schools were given Christmas presents.

Whatever. The ensemble competition for this year came to an end for our kids, and we arrived back at Ye Olde Academy tired but relieved. I got home at about 9:30 p.m., ate a quick dinner (what was left of the others' chicken feast), took a quick bath, and then tore into the final preparations.

And that was how I spent Christmas Eve.

December 25th
Let's all sing:

We wish you were Hari Krishnas
We wish you were Hari Krishnas
We wish you were Hari Krishnas
And Hari Vishnu, dear...

(Well...if everyone here were Hari Krishnas or Hindu things would be a lot cheaper and simpler, right? But NOOOOO.....)

Christmas morning was exactly what it was supposed to be. The kids were up at the crack of dawn, but my wife and I tortured them by sleeping in till 9:00. After that, as my Christmas CD collection went through the stereo one after the other in my traditional order (sometimes over the protests of others), we eagerly tore through our pile of presents, emptied the stockings of their contents (Yes, Santa was generous as usual...ouch...), ate a quick brunch, and then breathed a heavy sigh of relief before trying to figure out where to put everything.

Interestingly, my wife's main present to me was a bolt of pure Cashmere wool together with a gift certificate to have it tailor-made into a jacket. (Wow!) However, the certificate said it was only good till December 31. Because of that, she suggested we head out to the tailor's shop immediately. Well, "immediately" wound up meaning "after a few hours of cleaning followed by an hour nap". The tailor's shop was in the city of Funabashi, which would normally be a drive of about an hour and a half on the expressway. However, Christmas Day was not only a festive occasion, it was also Monday, and we wound up smack in the middle of rush hour traffic. It took us more than two hours just to get to Funabashi. Once we got off the expressway we proceeded at baby-crawl speed while the kids squabbled and our nerves began to fray. As the minutes ticked by, we became a bit concerned as to how late the shop was open, so my wife got on her cell phone...and was told the tailor was out for the holidays. (I guess some people do observe Christmas here...)

Amazingly, it turned out the tailor knew my wife (or at least her parents), and he said he'd come to our house to pick up the wool in person just after New Year.

That still left us in heavy traffic in downtown Funabashi, 5:00 p.m., getting dark and rainy, and nothing at all to do. I wasn't about to give up, so I immediately reset my BLUE RAV 4's navigation system for the Lalaport Shopping Mall complex, which was only a couple of kilometers away. We hadn't been there for quite a while, and we found the place both expanded (again) and full of all kinds of new shops. We had a good dinner at a restaurant/bakery there, poked around, spent lots of money, and had fun watching all those young couples traipsing around on their "Christmas date". The trip home after that was quick and easy, the kids slept all the way back, and we all went to bed happy.

And that was how I spent Christmas Day.

(To be continued....)


  • you stay busier than anyone i know, except maybe my husband. i can't get over that they sent you out on Christmas Eve.. i think i would have been more than miffed at that, but i'm glad you enjoyed the ride and it went well.

    christmas sounds fun... i love stockings and lots of gifts... altho, cleaning up isn't fun. it amazes me that shops are open on christmas, and you found yourselves in heavy traffic. do ppl not take off for christmas there? do ppl celebrate the holiday there? the wool sounds really, really nice. what a great gift. me and the hubby didn't do gifts this year - bought baby stuff instead, but we did get presents from my family, which was nice. i think i opened them all in 5 mins. flat! :)

    Merry Christmas to you and have a wonderful New Year!!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:26 AM  

  • Gosh, you never slow down. I suppose you were hoping to spend a quiet evening at home with the family? But as we all know how it usually goes with you...

    How does a bolt of wool become a jacket if it is not knitted? My brain won't get past a certain ridiculous image.

    Interesting about the caste system. My friend who is very wealthy comes from a samurai family, but I didn't know that back when we were studying and she wouldn't talk to any of the other Japanese students there - I thought it was possibly because they were older than her and also because she doesn't really talk to anyone at all - but now I see it is mostly because of her caste.

    She seems to pick one friend from each school - one from boarding school, me from Christies, and one from her current university. She pays for transport/tickets/hotel if she invites us anywhere so we pay for or split the cost of meals.

    When I met her it was after one year in the same course. I noted she hadn't formed a bond with anyone - I thought she was shy (which is also true). I decided to approach her and comment on something on a field trip, she responded and from then on I was "in". The other girls were mystified...I still am, sometimes.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 5:57 AM  

  • P.S. If you were Hindu, you might celebrate Xmas just for the fun of it, but even if not, what about all their big elaborate holidays?

    Even so, you would have to save up for your children's weddings which involve a lot of money and gifts and the celebration lasts a week; 3 days at the least. There are never less than 200 people present and some of them will be staying in your house meantime. So be glad you aren't...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 6:01 AM  

  • Happy New Year MM! I remember spending Christmas in Japan with you an K. That was fun and festive.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:38 PM  

  • Tooners
    Being busy seems to be par for the course. It's probably better that way. If I'm not busy my motivation quickly disappears.

    The caste system ended with the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, but families are often very proud of their roots. This is particularly true of samurai families. (Actually, a lot of yakuza mobsters are of samurai descent! Then again, so is my father-in-law...)

    Your friend probably just had a very sheltered childhood. I see the same sort of behavior among a lot of my students, especially the wealthier ones. They are very shy and not social. They don't trust people easily, and it's hard to get them to speak to anyone, let alone associate with them. Once they do come to trust someone, though, they quite often open way up and become very loyal.

    Hmm...that Hindu wedding sounds a lot like mine! My wedding had more than 200 guests, and we had to give gifts to all of them. The preparations took months. Many of the guests stayed one or two nights, mostly at the hotel venue, and we had to cover the cost. The wedding didn't consist of just the ceremony and multiple receptions but also included a week or two of people coming to the house to pay their respects (and us going to visit the homes of some people that didn't).

    The only thing I didn't have to deal with was the dowry thing.

    Yes, I remember your visit well. I remember my wife and I had a huge fight while you were here, mainly because the first New Year has special significance for a newlywed couple (a fact I hadn't known about at the time), and she was annoyed at your being there then. Still, we were happy you could come to visit and hope it'll happen again someday.

    I hope your own Christmas and New Year went well.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 5:49 PM  

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