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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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