Saturday, December 2, 2006

Christmas Party... Japanese Style!

Last night was my school's Christmas party. 20 of us attended, all the staff, a group of our students and some of my boss' friends, the owner/operators of a small izakaya not far from my apartment.

Japanese Christmas? What's it like? Well, it's a lot like American Christmas, minus the religious overtones that are the actual reason for all the hoopla. Or are supposed to be, although both we and Charlie Brown understand it doesn't always work out that way.

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Japanese Christmas cake. Mmm...

New Year's is closer to the traditional family celebration Christmas is supposed to be. Families get together, eat special dishes for good fortune and good health in the coming year, go to temples or shrines. Praying in the Western sense isn't exactly done. Someone at a temple might join his or her hands together, but more than likely it's a wish for luck.

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Holiday decorations in Tokyo.

So Christmas itself is celebrated for the pure Americanized joy of it. Families don't exchange gifts, but they do eat Christmas cakes. MiniStop has Santa decorations, tv commercials feature lots of ringing bells and snowy scenes and gorgeous J-pop idols singing, "Sooo Merrry Christmasss... something something in Japanese..."

And now downtown Hamamatsu is decorated up enough to put almost any American municipality to shame. Blinking white lights running along the sidewalk overhangs, blue lights strung in the trees, a massive skeletal Christmas tree down at the station... a few years ago, the tree lighting ceremony featured a gospel choir with a friend of mine, all singing a mix of carols and Christmas pop.

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Do your holiday shopping at Zaza
City this year. Guess what?

There's no "cultural war" on Christmas
Billy O'Reilly. If you say "Merry
someone will say it back.
Too bad you're still getting coal.

Speaking of holiday music, the loudspeakers down the sidewalk across from Zaza are blaring a pleasant seasonal mix of older and newer traditionals. On the other hand, the city buses play "O Tannenbaum" year-round...

Christmas in Japan also supposedly involves Kentucky Fried Chicken, or in nihongo, just "Kentucky." You actually have to reserve your chicken ahead of time. That's right- fried chicken is such a Japanese Christmas tradition that if you don't want to spend the entire day waiting in line, there's a reservation system.

You can pre-order the usual, the fried stuff. Or... a whole roasted bird. So you only spend half a day in line.

Now THAT is Christmas, baby.

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Pizza comes each time this year...

Which brings us back to our party, which featured three huge buckets of the Colonel's greasy special recipe poultry. Torture victims if you're Mike Farrell and PETA, but delicious if you're a guy thousands of miles from his battered family during the holidays.

We also had California wine, Japanese beer, lemonade, celery slices and pizza with sliced tomatoes on it and corn hidden under the cheese.

We sat in one of the classrooms, my boss' banquet spread out before us. I was a few minutes late, and when I arrived people were already digging into the food with gusto. Reckless abandon. Rapacious enjoyment.

Because it was a Saturday night and not normal operating hours, the only English anyone was required to do was during a short introductory game my boss organized: stand up, introduce yourself, say something interesting, then choose the next victim.

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Christmas in Shibuya...

The funny thing is, as much as people love learning English here, actually using it is only slightly more desirable than ending up in Abu-Ghraib taking holiday snaps with Lynndie England and Charles Graner.

Last week a student told me a hilarious story where at one point, he briefly thought he'd "escaped" from having to use English at an international academic conference, much to his relief... only to have an American sit next to him on the bus back to the airport.

I suppose it's Japanese modesty and reticence, but you'll often see in these situations someone stand up and giggle nervously, their body temperature rising, before they spout out something they're trying to keep as perfect as possible and as short as well.

The other students enjoy it too, but they know that sooner or later, the finger will point at them and they'll be the one on the rack. Most of the funnest games involve psychological damage of some sort. Or in the case of Twister, physical.

Our high school genius girls led off. Smooth. They'd have excellent careers as game show hosts, if they wanted. Then the shaky middle ground of the less-skilled but no less determined students... an earthquake of false starts and hands waved embarrassedly in front of faces... a strange Japanese gesture that looks like you're waving off a fart but really are trying to sweep away something stupid you said that might be hanging in the air like smoke or chalk dust.

And plenty of people who can speak wonderfully descriptive if not grammatically perfect English but lack confidence in themselves. You're so damned proud of them when they emphatically nod their heads to signal the speech's end and everyone applauds.

Lots of eating. My boss really loosens up when he's had a few. He naturally has a sense of humor but it really comes out when he's a glass or two in. Or in this case, plastic cups. His face lights up and he becomes a real schmoozer, the consummate host.

I met a woman who's into watercolors... living in Saitama north of Tokyo, she often sketched sleeping commuters then painted them in color. She was also a classmate of animation genius Miyazaki Hayao's son during her college days. She told me he was an excellent artist in his own right, definitely his father's son.

When the son had an opportunity to direct a feature length animated film, his father was actually against it because he felt the junior Miyazaki was too inexperienced. She and I laughed about that, because in America, a director dad would be pulling strings in order to get his son a shot no matter how much he sucks.

"You owe me, Harvey! How big did my last film open for you... and it had legs!" he'd be snarling into one of those old style rotary-dial phones by the pool, with some underaged would-be starlet in a white one piece and oversized sunglasses climbing onto his lap, while his wife is off at some "resort" drying out before her liver fails.

Not in Japan. Do things right. Do them in their proper time. Or don't do them at all.

Actually, that last one is not an option.

I also used my own childish Japanese, which was fun. The cultural difference is, I don't mind speaking Japanese, even though I know my skills are poor. I have a random vocabulary that consists mainly of food-related terms and strange pop culture things like "manzai" and "akiba-kei," plus useless historical phrases like, "Sonno joi!"

Which means "Respect the Emperor, expel the barbarians," a popular slogan at the end of the Edo Period as Japan opened up to the West.

After about three hours lack of sleep from the night before and the two beers I drank were catching up to me, so I had to head out. Unfortunately, I once again forgot to take into account the weekend bus schedule.

This meant 30 minutes of alternating standing around freezing with ducking into combini (convenience stores) and down the steps of the underpass, where a row of homeless people lie sleeping against the wall while smartly dressed couples and happily drunk party groups clicketyclacked by them on the tiles.

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