Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, January 31, 2011

What Does Achievement Really Achieve?

Yale law professor Amy Chua made huge waves recently with an article published in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". The gist of the article is exactly what the oh-so-blunt title says; Amy goes on to assert that Chinese children will always outperform and out-achieve Western children for one simple reason: their mothers are better parents. She then goes on to explain using herself and her own mother as the main examples.

In a nutshell, the parenting philosophy of the Chinese "tiger mother" extolled in the article consists of these basic rules:
  1. Children owe their lives to their parents. Therefore, mother is God.
  2. Mother knows best; therefore, mother decides everything.
  3. Children don't know what's good for them; therefore, mother intervenes in everything.
  4. There are only two possible results to everything: perfection or failure.
  5. A child's success is its mother's success; A child's lack of success is its mother's failure.
  6. Success only comes as the result of hard work.
  7. All of a child's spare time must be spent studying or practicing a skill chosen by mother.
  8. Study means rote memorization and drilling, and practice means repetitive exercises; thinking and feeling are irrelevant, and creativity is counter-productive.
  9. Things are only really enjoyable if you're good at them.
  10. Fun is something you have once you've become a successful adult.
Amy, who was brought up strictly according to these principles, goes on to describe the struggles she faced being a Chinese "tiger mother" to her own children. Some of her methods would (and do) widen the eyes of many if not most conservative American mothers; liberal soccer moms would (and do) go into a frothy fury. She tells of dealing out screaming abuse if one of her kids got anything less than an A in any of the academic subjects. (Even an A minus was unacceptable.) She describes eyebrow-raising punishments threatened if not actually meted out if her kids showed any reluctance to keep up their repetitive drilling and practicing for hours. She boasts about how her kids were barred from going to play with their friends or participating in any extracurricular activities (or indeed engaging in ANY kind of social activity outside of school). She also talks about all the pressure to lighten up she kept getting from the people around her, including her kids' teachers as well as her own (Jewish) husband. She finally felt forced to back off a bit, but goes on to offer her kids' accomplishments as proof of the correctness of her ways.

Interestingly, when shown Amy's article, the overwhelming majority of mothers in the People's Republic of China said they were shocked at her adherence to such "ancient" ways. Clearly, the people of the Chinese Motherland have become more like the Westerners Amy portrays as weak, lazy, and indulgent.

And then there's Japan. The "tiger mother" style of parenting used to be the norm here, too (as I've come to see all too clearly in my own family here). However, things started to loosen up in the wake of the bubble economy expansion in the 1980s. The sudden prevalence of wealth led many adults who had grown up poor after the war to indulge their children. Later, when those children came to be parents themselves, their parenting style was influenced strongly by their spoiled upbringing, creating the "monster parent" phenomenon of today. (Be careful not to confuse the terminology here: Whereas a "tiger mother" demands perfection from her children, a "monster parent" demands special treatment for her children from others.) Now it's more or less the norm for children to be raised in a permissive manner. Nevertheless, there are still children brought up in the traditional "tiger mother" fashion, and they are the ones that tend to be regarded as the elite.

Ye Olde Academy, where I've been teaching for the past fifteen years, is a semi-prestigious, private institution with a college-aimed curriculum. It goes without saying that we get our share of kids raised in the traditional manner. They're naturally the ones that tend to get the best test scores, so they're the ones crowed over by both our school and society at large. Frankly speaking, they tend to be the most annoying and frustrating students I have to deal with. I say this because:
  1. They're very good at tests, especially the ones based on rote learning, but put them in a situation where they actually have to think or make decisions, and they're totally lost.
  2. They tend to have a very smug and egotistical view of themselves and their abilities, but since they're only really good at tests, they consider everything else (i.e. life) beneath them. Unfortunately, their parents encourage such an attitude.
  3. They see their parent-driven home study, quite often supplemented with expensive tutors and/or cram school, as the sole reason for their "success", so they dismiss their classes at school as irrelevant. That's why they tend to do very well on standardized achievement tests but start to get increasingly mediocre grades in high school. That's also why they tend to have a contemptuous if not uncooperative attitude toward their teachers.
  4. Saddest of all, most if not all of them get into prestigious colleges after graduating. That makes them the principal measure of our success as a school in the eyes of the public. However, what the published statistics DON'T say is that a very large percentage of them wind up dropping out within two years simply because they can't handle life without mother making all their decisions for them. In other words, it all ends up being for naught. Despite all the hype and self-righteousness, despite all the pomp and posturing, in the end the arrogant test machine quite often winds up being an embarrassment to himself and to us. I'd call it poetic justice if I weren't compelled to share the collective blame. There's also the percentage that make it through: They're the ones most likely to wind up having to make decisions that affect the entire country...even though they weren't brought up to have the ability to make decisions!
I can't deny the merits of the "tiger mother"...which is partly why I put up with the degree of it occurring in my own household right now. However, Professor Chua should be careful not to belittle the Western style of parenting too much. My own experience has shown me that test scores aren't everything. Emphasizing achievement over everything else quite often winds up achieving nothing. And besides...if you're going to compare China and the US in such an egotistically judgmental way, I'd have to counter by asking which of those two countries is famous for its innovation, and which is notorious for its habit of copying what the other one creates!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hikari Wars

"Hello! This is [...] of NTT proxy [...] Communications!"

That was enough right there. For at least the past year I'd been getting such calls on a regular basis from some telecommunications company claiming to be a "proxy" for NTT (the phone company). They were pushing fiber optic cable phone/internet service. At first I said I was interested, and they'd ask for my zip code before informing me that fiber optic service wouldn't be available in my area for at least the foreseeable future. They'd hang up, and that would be that until the next call came a few weeks later. Finally, I just got in the habit of saying:

"Sorry, but there's no fiber optic service in my neighborhood. Goodbye!"

"But it will be available in your area from next February!" retorted the cheerful, female caller very quickly.

Wait. That was a new development. "Next February?"

"That's right! Construction is due to take place in your area over the next month, and full service will be available from February! You're currently using Yahoo Broad Band, correct? Are you aware that, with fiber optic service, not only will your internet speed be faster, but both phone and internet service will be cheaper?"

I had been aware of that. I'd been eyeballing Yahoo's own promotion campaign for its fiber optic service for months and wondering how and if I could ever switch over to it.

"I'm not going to make any decisions on this today," I said resolutely, "but I'm interested in learning more about this. Please tell me more."

The woman on the phone did. In a casual, friendly, and charming manner unusual for phone salespeople, she asked me some basic questions about my household internet use. I gave guarded answers, and she proceeded to give me the rundown. It did sound very nice, and I had been very much interested in fiber optic service. However, I again made it very clear that I had no intention of making an on-the-spot decision, especially over the phone.

Finally, she said, "If you're interested in learning more, I'll put you in touch with a local service representative."

I figured why not, and the local service representative called me about ten minutes later. He asked me some more detailed questions about what sort of phone and internet service I'd be looking for, and then he started the L O N G S P I E L . He just kept yammering on and on and on while I kept glancing at the clock and hoping for a chance to get a thought in edgewise. Meanwhile, my mind was starting to spin.

Suddenly, he said, "By the way, your internet provider will change to 'iNächste' (name changed to avoid possible legal complications)."

"Huh?" By now my mind was mush. "i - WHAT??!?"

"iNächste. You'll have to cancel your Yahoo account. This is the phone number you'll need to do it..."

"What?" I said, as I dutifully wrote the number down. "Um, I..."

"Just dial the number, then press '6' when prompted, and when the clerk comes on, say, 'Cancel'."


"Your installation will take place on February 15th. The reservation is logged. I'll call again tomorrow to get the information I need for final confirmation. Thank you very much! Goodbye!"

I don't know how long I stood there before I was able to reassemble my wits enough to figure out what had just happened. Had they gone ahead and signed me up? And who or what was "iNächste", anyway? I immediately got on the internet and did some searching. It turned out that the NTT proxy that had called me was from a phone sales outfit based in Chiba Prefecture. As for "iNächste" (again, not the actual name, figure it out), it was an internet provider that seemed legitimate enough. It had branches all over Japan and was billed as one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country. However...when I did a more general search and started looking at blogs and chat forums, my blood began to turn cold.

Basically, "iNächste" popped out of nowhere about a year or two ago and started raking in customers, mostly through aggressive and somewhat underhanded phone campaigns like the one that had just nailed me. The main target was people who simply didn't know better, but they also used the "drone on 'em till they drowse and then sign 'em quick" technique as their standard MO, and it was apparently working very well (as I'd just found out). People who used their service said there weren't any problems, but quite often reality didn't match the promise. For one thing, "iNächste's" main selling point was that it was supposedly a lot cheaper than the mainstream broadband and fiber optic providers. However, they had a habit of quietly tacking on all these extra little charges here and there so that the actual cost ended up being about the same if not more. Also, once you started using their service, it could be very hard to cancel; much if not most of the time the service number given to do so would ring and ring with no answer. And unlike every other provider, once you got past the grace period, terminating their service would incur a hefty cancellation fee.

Fortunately, I had a handy excuse. I found out later that evening that my father-in-law had already talked to an NTT service rep about getting a fiber optic connection for both our houses, so I immediately called the "iNächste" guy back and told him his services weren't needed. I hoped that would be the end of it.

Fast forward two weeks.

"Hello! This is [...] of NTT East. A reservation has apparently been made for [my FIL's phone number], but not for yours. Would you be interested in adding yours, too."

This time it wasn't a cute-sounding woman, but rather a burly-sounding guy with the manner of a blue-collar worker. And no "proxy", but someone calling direct from NTT. Oh, good, I thought. "Yes, I would. I'm hoping to switch to Yahoo Hikari (fiber optic) from Yahoo Broad Band."

"Yes, of course! You know that fiber optic service is cheaper than ADSL like you've been using! Anyway, I need to ask a few questions about what kind of service you want..."

And so it went. I was asked pretty much the same things I'd been asked before, but at least this time I was talking to an actual NTT East person, not some proxy or agent, right? Anyway, the guy on the phone assured me that I could continue using my Yahoo account and e-mail addresses without any trouble. Then he finished by saying a follow-up call would be coming later that evening. Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later I got another call from someone saying they were from NTT East.

I could swear that the guy's voice and manner sounded identical to the "iNächste" guy I'd talked to before, so I was on my guard. He asked me the same questions as before, but I cut him off when he tried to start the L O N G S P I E L , saying I had to leave. Sure enough, he told me that my internet provider would be changing to "iNächste".

"iNächste?!?" I railed. "That's not what the guy who talked to me first said! He said I could stick with Yahoo!"

"There must have been a misunderstanding," replied iNächste Man politely, though I could detect a bit of edge in his voice. "Perhaps the NTT person you talked to didn't explain it well. They meant that you could continue using your Yahoo e-mail address, not the internet service. Of course, using your Yahoo e-mail address will incur an additional charge...especially if there is a large volume of mail at that address..."

"No, wait!" I snapped. "That is NOT what I was told."

"If you use NTT fiber optic service," iNächste Man went on, "your provider will change to iNächste."

"No," I said. "No, this isn't right! I'm not making a decision on this! Not now! Not like this! I want to look into a few things before I do anything else!"

iNächste Man suggested calling me back later that night. I said four days. He suggested calling the next day. I said four days. We finally settled on three. I figured that was enough.

The next day, after consulting the resident computer expert at Ye Olde Academy for advice (He'd never even heard of "iNächste" and advised me to stay away), I looked at NTT East's website, and there was no mention of "iNächste" whatsoever in their fiber optic service promotion. I then called the main office of NTT East directly. It turned out that they had indeed been promoting fiber optic service via proxy telecommunications outfits (i.e. contracted phone salesmen); however, the way I was being railroaded into using "iNächste" was NOT sanctioned by NTT. I therefore went ahead and made my installation reservation with them directly...and was asked all of the same questions yet again. This time I made it clear from the start that I wanted to choose my own provider, and my request was honored. Next, I got on the phone with Yahoo. After being made to wait for almost half an hour, I finally got someone who could sign me up for Yahoo Hikari. The policies seemed rather more anal than those of "iNächste", but at least I knew who and what I was dealing with and exactly how much I would be paying (and my FIL gets certain perks since he owns stock in Yahoo Japan's parent firm).

After that, I called the service number given to me by the "NTT East" guy who had called me before so I could tell him to go shove it. Interestingly, the person who answered the phone said, not "NTT East", but the name of a phone sales outfit. Even more tellingly, he sounded just like iNächste Man. He sounded a bit tongue-tied when I asked for the "NTT East" guy by name, but he put the guy on...and he sounded kind of flustered, too. Anyway, I told them very politely to go bite themselves. Hopefully that will be the end of least till I get my fiber optic hookup in late February. Then I'll have, or at least I hope I'll have, much better internet and phone service.

Hopefully that won't mean dealing with even more phone salesmen...

P.S.: More BS. My FIL never did make a reservation for a fiber optic connection. He was called by an "NTT East" person, but he told them he didn't understand what it was all about and suggested they talk to me about it. It was probably the "NTT East" phony who called me the second time. Whatever. We'll figure this one out ourselves...or with someone we know.

Update P.P.S. (January 15th): My new fiber optic cable phone/internet modem arrived in the mail from Yahoo today. The problem is that I won't get my cable connection for one more month. Yes, I told them that when I made my reservation. Are they going to charge me a month's rental for a modem I can't use yet? The Hikari Wars continue...

Update P.P.P.S. (January 17th): I guess Yahoo!BB's customer service is better than I thought. After navigating the maze that is their e-mail customer inquiry form, I got a prompt reply assuring me that no rental will be charged on the new modem until I start using it and, until then, my current ADSL account will continue as always. problems for now, at least, and kudos to the quick-responding service rep.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Image Matters

Just how much power is there in a physical image?

The Second Commandment that God gave to Moses reads:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
(Exodus 20:4-6)

There has been a lot of controversy over the ages as to what this really means. It's generally accepted that it's a ban on idol worship, whether to an animal or human representation of a pagan deity or the Judeo/Christo/Islamic God himself. Historically, some more fundamentalist branches of Islam, Judaism, or even Christianity have taken it to be a blanket ban on making a physical image of ANY living thing for ANY reason. (Indeed, having a doll in your possession could get you hanged in 17th century New England.)

But what about in other cultures, such as here in Japan?

For more than 1500 years, the two principal religions of Japan have been Shinto and Buddhism, which are totally unrelated and yet strangely compatible. The two faiths coexist even though they couldn't be more different, and one of the more obvious distinctions is in how they use images.

Buddhism came about as an offshoot of the Hindu religion and thus is built on the same foundations. It shares the Hindu principle that the cosmos is filled with all kinds of deities, saints, helper spirits, divine messengers, etc., none of which is the supreme power, and all of which are really just lesser manifestations of the supreme power (referred to as "The Godhead" or even simply "God" in Hindu, but generally not referred to at all in Buddhism.)(Oh, and Buddhists do NOT believe that Buddha is God). The belief is that these many deities exist as a result of our own thoughts and perceptions. In other words, the Hindu/Buddhist deities are simply images we can comprehend formed from something beyond our comprehension. That means they have no identity save that which human beings give them...or, more accurately, that to which we confine them (just as the identity of one's own soul is defined by the physical body which confines it). That is why images are so important in Hindu and Buddhism; they allow worshipers to interact with a power that is otherwise far beyond the human scope. Therefore, when people pray to a Buddhist deity, saint, helper spirit, or Buddha, they direct their attention to an image which provides the means of direct interaction. The prayer ritual is simple and direct.

Shinto takes an entirely different approach. It resembles Native American shamanism in that it believes everything has a spirit. That includes not only living creatures but also inanimate objects, actions, words, and even thoughts. Shinto believes that everything began with a single God creating the universe in a big bang. (I kid you not!) Anything coming into existence in the wake of that Creation, i.e. anything identified as a thing, is the birth of a corresponding spirit. (Hmm...sounds kind of like quantum physics!) It is also believed that spirits exist on several levels ranging from the tiniest particles to actual deities. However, though Shinto deities are given names, their identity is not confined to any kind of physical manifestation. Therefore, in Shinto, prayer is ALMOST NEVER directed at any kind of image. That's also why Shinto prayer rituals are more elaborate; since there is no image to establish the spirit's identity and focus its presence, one has to get its attention by ringing a bell and/or clapping the hands and bowing a set number of times.

The importance of images in Japanese culture doesn't end with religious observance; it also manifests itself in everyday life. Of particular interest is the way the Japanese treat dolls. Dolls are as much a staple of childhood life here as they are in any other country if not more. Even teenagers and young adults, particularly women, tend to be fond of collecting "cute" molded or stuffed figures and can often be seen with such items attached to their purses or piled in the backs of their cars. However, though Japan has long been a trendy, consumerist culture obsessed with throwing away the "old" and buying the new, dolls tend to be given special treatment. You have to understand that this is a country where it's considered normal to replace one's car and/or computer every few years, to sell if not throw away CDs after listening to them for only a month or two, to find illegal garbage dumps filled with like-new appliances and furniture, and so on. But dolls are generally not something one just throws away.

Whether it's the Buddhist belief that an image is a portal for spirits, the Shinto belief that an image with identity has a spirit with identity, or a combination thereof, there is a reluctance among Japanese to abandon dolls the same way they abandon thousand-dollar stereo components. One example was when we were cleaning up at Ye Olde Academy in preparation for entrance examinations this week. I found a little, stuffed Care Bear that someone had apparently dropped and forgotten long before. Not sure what to do with it, I gave it to one of the chief teachers, who tried to find someone to take it. No one did. The chief teacher then fed the bear to the bin, but not before saying a quick Buddhist sutra first. Yes, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the fact that the bear was given even a mildly sarcastic prayer for its afterlife showed a level of respect not usually shown to anything bought. Another example was my wife's decision finally to dispose of my daughter's Ricca-chan (the Japanese Barbie) collection. My protests that some of the dolls were now collector's items fell largely on deaf ears. Still, the dolls were not simply tossed in the trash. My wife put the whole collection in a box and took it with us to Kashima Shrine when we went there for hatsumode (see previous post). Apparently it's considered proper to burn a doll at a shrine so as to release its spirit safely. Unfortunately, at Kashima Shrine there was a big sign saying that the big bonfire was restricted to holy items only, and dolls were prohibited. There were also guards posted to enforce the ban. Grumbling, my wife nevertheless brought the box of dolls back home and put it back on its shelf. The potential wrath of doll spirits tends to be taken very seriously here.

On the other hand, as with just about everything else here, the respect for dolls in Japan sometimes leads to some very weird things. There are actually Shinto shrines in certain, isolated locations that are notorious for people leaving or hanging dolls; considering the remoteness (and just plain spookiness) of these shrines and the manner in which dolls are piled or hung around them (some of them apparently with the intent of cursing someone), one can only assume that people have traveled long distances to put them there...which leaves one to wonder why. There are also shrines created specifically in honor of dolls. It also happens that people sometimes bring dolls they believe to be cursed to Buddhist temples, which then store them in rooms designated for the purpose. Some such dolls have weird properties, such as moving around apparently of their own accord or having hair that seems to grow. (Some such dolls have been the subject of televised investigations, and some of them have stumped scientists.) Perhaps most disturbing is a reported trend among girls in which they mark their loss of childhood innocence (i.e. becoming a bratty teen) by beheading or otherwise mutilating their Barbie or Ricca-chan. Thankfully, my own daughter never did that...

Speaking of dolls, when I got married, both my mother and my sister got dressed up in Japanese kimonos. As they walked around in the hotel where the reception was held, my sister in particular got mobbed by men from another event wanting to take her picture. They kept saying, "Ningyou mitai! Ningyou mitai!" ("You look like a doll! You look like a doll!") My sister didn't complain, and why should she? After all, it's all about image!

Monday, January 03, 2011

New Year in Japan, 2011

I have posted about New Year celebrations in Japan before, but since I've made so many new friends - and reconnected with so many old ones - on Facebook recently, I figured it would be a good idea to talk about it again.

As in most Buddhist countries, in Japan the New Year is the biggest and most important celebration of the year. In many ways, it is actually like Christmas in the West in tone and scope. (On the other hand, Christmas in Japan is more or less just a date or party, like the New Year is in Christian countries.) The Japanese New Year celebrations also differ from those of mainland Asian countries such as China in that they are more somber and sentimental in tone, again like Christmas in the West. (Chinese New Year celebrations, in contrast, are filled with flashes and bangs...quite literally!) The festivities take place over a span of several days.

Pt. I In the Home
Just as there are traditional decorations for Christmas, there are some for the Japanese New Year, as well. The most basic is the kadomatsu, a standing ornament usually consisting of three bamboo posts cut into a wedge and hung with flowers and one or more pine (matsu) branches. It stands for purity and longevity, symbolized by the evergreen.

This is a typical example of a kadomatsu, taken from the E-Ibaraki Report English website. They come in all sizes, from small, table-top varieties to meter-high ones stood outside of homes or businesses. You can either buy them or make them yourself. My father-in-law, being the chronic cheapskate industrious soul that he is, always makes most of the family New Year decorations himself.

Japanese New Year 2011d
His homemade kadomatsu, as you can see, tend to be rather rough and simple. You can also see in the above pic that there is an ornament hung over his front door.

Japanese New Year 2011c
Here's our own front door, with one ornament that we received and another that we bought ourselves.

Japanese New Year 2011b
Here's another one inside our house, suspended from the hook that held our Christmas wreath just before. There is also a small talisman, crafted of twine, pine branches, and paper, hung on every single water faucet in both houses and out in the yard. (If I understood the explanation correctly, their function is to keep the water spiritually pure. Otherwise there is apparently a danger of being possessed if you drink or use it.)

Japanese New Year 2011f
This particular one is attached to the hand-washing basin on top of our toilet. The zig-zag paper strips, which have become a bit discolored, are a Shinto tradition and signify the presence of a kami (usually translated as "god", though I prefer to say "spirit" since Shinto is a lot like Native American shamanism).

Another important symbol of the New Year is mochi, or pounded rice cake. It is used both as a food item and as a sacred decoration. Rounded patties of mochi are often arranged in a stack atop a piece of paper and placed as an offering in a tokonoma (decorative alcove) or on a family altar.

Japanese New Year 2011a
We don't really have a family altar in our house, but mochi offerings were put in our upstairs tokonoma and in front of the little memorial for my mother-in-law. Again, my father-in-law prepared these himself. (Store-bought ones are usually bigger, more regular in shape, and prettier. Unfortunately, they are also increasingly being made of plastic.)

Mochi is not only a decoration, but also an important New Year food item. It is traditionally made by putting specially-prepared rice in a wooden pestle and beating it with a large mallet. There are more convenient, modern methods, but we never have to make our own. We always get more of it from relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors than we know what to do with...

mochi 2011
This is just some of the mochi we got this year. Most of it comes pre-cut into little blocks like the ones in the Ziploc bag at upper left. Store-bought types tend to come in sheets such as the ones in the package with a red rabbit (since 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit). The rest come in great, big blocks or logs like the one wrapped in newspaper at lower right. There are many ways of cooking mochi, whether boiled as zoni (dumplings in soup), baked, or steamed. The latter forms are usually topped with various things such as soy sauce, cheese, natto (fermented soybeans), or the kinako (soybean flour) and azuki (sweet bean jam) pictured here. It's a good thing there are so many different ways of preparing mochi, because, as with Christmas turkey, we wind up eating it for every meal over several days. Fortunately, it isn't the only thing we eat.

There is also "o-seichi" food, or celebratory New Year fare. There are usually a lot of different dishes, many of which would qualify as fish bait in the US, but they are both delicious and very colorful. Again, we eat it over the course of several days...which seems fitting considering how much time and trouble it takes to make it! (More and more people, especially younger families, have started buying pre-made o-seichi or doing without it altogether, which is a shame. The making of it has been an important tradition bringing family members together since antiquity.)

One other important New Year tradition is the nengajo, or New Year card.

Nengajo 2011
Here are some (of the very few) that I got this year. They are similar in principle to the American Christmas card, but they are always printed on a special, pre-paid postcard that includes a lottery number for a cash prize drawing. People either buy them or make them at home. There are some excellent and easy-to-use software applications for making them, like the one we use at home. That is a very good thing, because people often send hundreds of them in a single season. (My father-in-law always sends at least several hundred, which is why I bought him a copy of perhaps the easiest-to-use software for making them. Naturally, he won't even try to use it himself.) Unfortunately, sending nengajo has become more inconvenient in recent times because of the increasingly draconian privacy laws. For example, Ye Olde Academy used to give every member of the faculty a staff directory, which made it easy to send everyone a card. They stopped doing so in 2001 out of "privacy concerns". Hence, I'm now only able to send cards to a few select individuals. It makes things easier for me, but it has also weakened the workplace bond.

Pt. II In Popular Culture
As with Christmas in the US, New Year in Japan is heralded by a barrage of TV specials. Many if not most of these are celebrity competitions. There are also programs that go over the highlights of the previous year. There are virtually no traditional New Year songs (which some might consider a very good thing), but there are New Year singing contests.

Another important custom in popular culture is shopping. One reason is that most businesses offer special New Year sales. Most also sell traditional gift grab bags. The prices can vary widely depending on the business in question and the type of merchandise. Usually the contents of the bags are secret, making it a gamble to get one, but they are unquestionably a bargain. For example, this year my wife got talked into buying a grab bag at a DAKS of London store. It cost 50,000 yen (about $600 at the current exchange rate). When she brought it home and opened it, she found a suit with a skirt, a blouse, a sweater, and a muffler whose total price added up to more than 200,000 yen (about $2400), or four times what she paid!

Pt. III Observances
Most Japanese say that they have no religion. However, on the designated calendar dates, the overwhelming majority will visit a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, perform the appropriate rituals, and buy the appropriate items. New Year is important in both Shinto and Buddhism (which are compatible and have co-existed for around 1600 years), but Shinto seems to be given the most attention. When the hour of midnight arrives on New Year's Eve, the Buddhist temples start ringing their bells. Meanwhile, the more devout individuals go to visit their neighborhood shrine and leave offerings. It is considered significant to see the first sunrise of the New Year, especially from a holy place. However, even if one doesn't do either of these things, it is considered a must to observe hatsumode, the first visit to a shrine or temple to pray for the New Year.

Although some go to Buddhist temples for hatsumode, the overwhelming majority go to Shinto shrines, particularly the bigger and more important ones. Famous shrines such as Meiji Jingu in Tokyo are invariably packed to overflowing during the first three days of the New Year. As for my family, we are lucky(?) in that we have a significant and historically famous shrine in our area, Kashima Jingu. This year we took a chance and paid our visit on New Year's Day.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011a
Here's a view looking toward Kashima Shrine's red mon, or Chinese gate, one of its trademark features. It's unusual for a Shinto shrine to have such a gate, which is the only remaining structure from the era when Kashima Shrine served a dual role as a Buddhist/Zen monastery. It's also unusual to see bare gravel on a day like today. Behind me was a solid mass of people.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011b
This is the view while standing in line in front of the reiden, or worship hall, of the outer shrine. It's hard to see in this pic, but the building is quite colorful. The honden, or main hall, which is only entered by the high priest and the spirits, is even more vividly painted, but I couldn't get around to photograph it. The bright colors identify it as a shrine structure dedicated by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 17th century, though they say the shrine itself has been in use for almost 3000 years. Shinto shrines are supposed to be torn down and rebuilt every twenty years, but since this one is a national treasure, only its thatched roof is replaced. Incidentally, the pic also shows a torii gate, a traditional entrance to a Shinto shrine.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011d
Here's a closer view. You can see the giant offering box. Each person tossed a coin into the box and prayed. There was a group doing a special worship service inside the hall, but I hear those cost a lot of money.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011e
Here's a quick, from-the-hip shot while walking down the avenue from the outer shrine to the inner one. Even a lot of Japanese don't really understand that the shrine is not really the buildings so much as the forest around them. It really is quite a forest, too...and right in the middle of a city! Incidentally, on the right side of the pic you can see people tying their omikuji fortunes for the year to strings set up for that purpose (so they don't tie them to the rapidly-filling trees). If you draw a bad fortune, you're supposed to tie it somewhere in a shrine so the shrine's power can help protect you and then try again to see if it helps. (As for me, I drew "kyou" which is second worst. My wife tied it to a tree, and I tried again...drawing "han kichi" - literally "half fortunate". That means that the year will probably start out bad but get better.)

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011g
A quick shot of the wife and spawn next to one of the hinoki (Japanese cypress) in the shrine.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011h
And a quick swap...

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011i
This is the enclosure where Kashima Shrine's famous deer are kept. The name "Kashima" means "deer island", and the deer are considered sacred. They ran around free until the early 1970's, when the area's sudden industrial growth brought increased traffic. People were able to buy food for them at a nearby stand and feed them through the gap in the chain-link fence until just a month ago, when the wooden fence in the foreground was put in.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011j
The sign at left explains why feeding...or even approaching...the deer is no longer permitted. Last summer some dumbass or dumbasses apparently fed the deer bits of torn-up plastic shopping bag, and seven of them died. Leave it to a few idiots to wreck a centuries-old tradition.

Kashima Shrine New Year 2011m
And yet another line...this time to pray at the inner shrine. The building is smaller and simpler than the outer shrine, being constructed of plain, unpainted wood. It is also both older and more sacred. It, too, is a national treasure and thus only has its roof replaced at intervals rather than being totally rebuilt. The line was long but not as wide as the one at the outer shrine, and it went very quickly.

I didn't take any pictures to show it, but another main point of hatsumode is to buy charms and talismans for the new year. These range from tiny, colorful, cloth ones for success in study or work or safety while driving to big, fancy, expensive ones for safety in the home or company. Usually there is only one, main stand for selling such items, but during the New Year season they set up a few more, and all of them have long lines. Also, people bring the charms and talismans they bought the year before to "return their spirits", i.e. burn them, in a large fire built for the occasion in a special place safely apart from the other shrine buildings. Every year it's burn & buy, burn & buy, burn & buy. I'm sure the cycle is very good for the shrine's coffers.

We were in a bit of a hurry this year, since we had other things to do, so we didn't buy roast dango (rice dumplings) like we usually do. However, we did get to enjoy a performance by a guy playing an ocarina over in the gazebo in the shrine's lower garden as we came in. Another New Year, another visit to Kashima Shrine, and so the cycle continues.

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Happy New Year, everybody!