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Feb 2005
Issue 057

Out now!

Importing Festivals

Festivals, holidays, celebrations — religious, secular or just plain silly, they help to bring people together and structure our lives. KS takes a look at some that have been adopted in Japan, some that are visiting and some that you won't see at all.


For centuries, mid February has been associated with love and fertility. In ancient Athens, the coldest part of winter was known as Gamelion and was a celebration of the marriage of Zeus and Hera. In old Rome, there was the festival of Lupercalia, an occasion for the priests of Lupercus to get thoroughly pissed and run through the streets rubbing down maidens with the bloodied skins of freshly sacrificed goats. In the Middle Ages in Western Europe, romance was codified and spelled with a capital R. Lovers ritually exchanged exquisitely crafted declarations of their affection. In modern Japan, February's all about chocolate.

In 1958 a confectionary manufacturer decided to import the name St. Valentine's as a way of shifting more of the brown stuff. The idea caught on and now sweet makers expect to get roughly half their annual revenue from this one day.

Women, especially those that work, are plagued with the obligation to fork out their hard-earned for all the blokes in their orbit and the chocolate gifts are now known as giri-choco, obligation chocolate.

The celebration, though obviously artificial, has filled a need. Some women see it as an opportunity for genuine expression. Shoko Ida, an English teacher from Amagasaki, tells me she only gives chocolate to her “dearest male friends” and her father, while Toshie Kashihara, a homemaker and student from Abeno in Osaka goes further and says Valentine's “is the day I can express my appreciation to the people whom I like with presents of chocolate”. Some women have snubbed the chocolate obligation law, and like to give their guys spiffier presents of neckties and designer hankies. Don't tell the Thought Police.
Language note: while the losers in the office get giri-choco, the real men get honmei-choco, genuine chocolate.

Well, if the idea works once, let's beat it to death … so in the sixties another maker of sweets came up with White Day, where the guys are supposed to reciprocate those February choco gifts with romantic marshmallows. The near-moribund White Day, March 14th, one month after Valentine's Day, is clearly not imported and is totally made up, but since it is tied to Valentine's, it is worth a mention here.

While White Day was invented by a maker of marshmallows, no marketer has successfully maintained possession of it. It is a marketing battleground which numerous industries have failed to seize. For a while in the nineties, the underwear business was telling us all that it was our social duty to buy knickers for all the women we knew.

One year my wife came home from work with a gift of unmentionables from a male colleague and I suffered a powerful impulse to go round and punch bounder's lights out.

Funnily enough, the underwear idea didn't really catch on, and these days white chocolate seems to be the choice of safety-conscious males.

In an ironic reflection of stereotyped gender relations, it is difficult to find a male who will confess to forking out on White Day. One of the few, Kenji Kawano, a scientific researcher with Matsushita Electric Works, will admit to giving “small presents” to his wife and any female colleagues who gave him chocolate on Valentine's Day, but is quite emphatic about underpants: no way. Undergarments are “something embarra-ssing”, and Kenji affirms the general preference for white chocolate.

Diversity central

Valentine's, White Day and Christmas are the creations of commercial interests but a large number of people are showing an interest in the customs of other religions. Japan's faiths are traditionally non-exclusive, which has encouraged a somewhat mix-and-match approach — witness the number of new age religions and cults. This pluralism also permits a high degree of tolerance.

For example, KS has so far counted 34 mosques nationwide and there are temples for Hindus and Jains, gurdwara for Sikhs, and synagogues for Jews — not to mention the churches.
Imam Mohsen Bayoumi of Kobe Muslim Mosque tells us that “Japanese people, Muslims and non Muslims visit the mosque. For Japanese Muslims, they visit the Mosque for worshipping and learning about Islam; this is their place of worship. Japan-ese Muslims are involved in ceremonies as members of the Muslim community. Some Japanese non Muslims come to see only how to celebrate such events.”

One of the most important festivals of the Jain community is Paryusan, and it can be observed at the Jain derasar (temple) in Kitano, Kobe, built in 1984. Paryusan is a eight-day-long fasting festival of purification — both physical and spiritual. Only water is permitted and then only before sunset.

“Since Jainism is been introduced in some of the Japanese universities, now we have more than 150 Japanese who have adopted Jainism who often visit us not only for this festival, but also for the daily or weekly prayers” says Deepak Jhaveri, Committee member. As this festival is becoming better known, it might become popular amongst the Japanese community who appreciate the benefits of fasting.

Foreign residents' clubs and consulates also offer cultural events and a number of Japanese are getting involved or just going along for a look.

Diwali, for example, is India's largest festival, and falls sometime in October or November. This five-day festival has caught on in many neighboring Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand — can Japan be the next destination? Locally, the festival has been celebrated at India Club Kobe since 1902.

Bhaven Jhaveri, committee member of India Club told KS that “not only the Diwali but also the Holi (celebrated in March) are getting popular, specially in last half a decade amongst the Japanese individuals who are interested in Indian culture. Often the Indian classical dances and skits (in Hindi) are performed by Japanese performers on the stage as part of the celebration”.

At other venues such as certain Indian restaurants, RSS club in Kobe, the Indian Consulate General in Hommachi also arrange functions and performances to celebrate the same festivals, which attract many Japanese who have more interest in India than just the curry!

“I wait for Diwali day to wear my beautiful sari”, says Akimo Nibuhara, student.

“The best part of the Diwali is the delicious Indian sweets, which I don't miss the chance to buy from Tiwari's place in Kitano" says Ken Sakamoto, an assistant film-maker.

Holidays that haven't caught on in Japan

You can't sell self-denial or asceticism. Is hat why Lent, like Ramadan, hasn't caught on? In pragmatic Japan and outside a Zen monastery, giving up fun would be seen as quaint and futile.
When: This year, Lent begins on February 9 and ends on March 26.

Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling Festival in the UK sets an international benchmark in silliness. Every year adults race 7lbs (3.5kgs) of mature Double Gloucester cheese from the summit to the foot of precipitous Cooper's Hill in Brockworth. This is
no sport for soft cheese: at speeds approaching freefall, injuries are common. Too cheesy for Japan?
When: Every June.

La tomatina
Valencia in Spain has the largest tomato war in the world, with 125,000 kilos of the fruit splatted in just two hours of frenzied flinging. Why hasn't this caught on in Japan? Not enough tomatoes? Perhaps if we used leftover giri-choco …
When: Every August.

Bull Racing — La Pamplona, Spain
Why does Spain have all the coolest festiva-ls? Properly known
as Sanfermines, this festival goes a whole week. The opportunity to get mown down by a charging bull is but one of the attractions in this festival that celebrates pretty well everything in the universe.
When: Early July.

San Fernando, the Phillipines, every year a lucky individual is nailed to a cross in a reenactment of the Crucifixion. Thousands of onlookers flagellate themselves.
When: Every Good Friday.

Human sacrifice
The Aztecs were very keen on this. Once, as many as 20,000 people were slaughtered to consecrate an important new temple. Usually, the victim had his or her heart cut out with an obsidian knife, but, depending which god the priests were placating, they might be shot full of arrows or thrown into a furnace. Apparently, the animating energy of the universe was to be found in abundance in the human heart and without the regular release of this energy, space and time would grind to a halt.
When: Whenever you have a universe to animate or an angry god to placate.

Text: Chris Page • Photos: KS


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A user's guide: Upcoming holidays and celebrations

A mix of secular and religious: not a definitive list, but a quick guide to some events in February and March.

Chinese New Year • February 9-11
A great piece of theatre and joie de vivre, that attracts onlookers in droves. You can catch some of the action in Kobe's Motomachi.
Al-Hijra, Islamic New Year • February 10
Marking the start of 1426 in the Islamic calendar and commemorating Muhammed's move from Mecca to Medina to set up the first Islamic state. It is a low-key day of reflection without special rituals.

Parinirvana • February 15
A Buddhist celebration of nothing. Or, rather, of the nothingness that is perfect detachment otherwise known as Nirvana; also a celebration of Buddha passing into Nirvana. In other words a memorial of the day of Buddha's death.
You can celebrate by meditating or by getting together with friends to eat and exchange presents.

Ashura • February 19
This is a very solemn day in the Islamic calendar
and a day of fasting. Ashura commemorates the day Noah left the Ark, and the day Moses was rescued from the Egyptians by Allah. For many Muslims the day also remembers the martydom of Husein, a grandson of the Prophet. A day
of mourning rituals and re-enactments of the martyrdom.

St. David's Day • March 1
The national day of Wales. Real men wear leeks in their button holes; leek dishes are served. The government in England continues to interfere in Welsh national affairs by trying to get Welsh people to wear a daffodil instead of the nationalist vegetable.

St. Patrick's Day • March 17
This is the day when lots of people who aren't actually Irish get bladdered on green beer. The Irish, apparently, stay home and fall asleep in front of the TV.

Maha Shiva Ratri • March 9
For the Hindus, this is Shiva's own day — and night. The devout will stay up all night in a place of worship and will not eat until daybreak, when they consume the ritual food offerings. The Shiva linga, a symbol of Lord Shiva will be washed in milk, honey and water and anointed with sandalwood paste.

Holi • March 25
This is a Hindu festival that celebrates Krishna, but is far from solemn. Holi is one of the most colourful and exuberant holy days in the world. All social and caste distinctions are forgotten as people throw coloured paint and powder at each other and get into some serious noshing.

Purim • March 25
Purim remembers the saving of the Jewish people by Esther from Haman and is possibly the noisiest and most lively of Jewish festivals. People, some in costume, gather in Synagogues to hear the story of Esther, and boo, hiss, stamp their feet, beat cymbals or blow noisemakers at each mention of Haman's name. The day sees also beauty festivals, plays and parodies.

Easter • March 27
With Palm Sunday on March 20, and Good Friday on the 27. Christianity's most important festival to the devout, but chocolate and coloured eggs to many people.

Vaisakhi • April 14
This a Sikh celebra-tion of the new year, and of the Khalsa, the Sikh fraternity. There are processi-ons, singing and the reciting of scriptures.