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The following articles were originally published in The Shelbyville News in the column “Letters Home:  A Hoosier in Japan.”



Send questions and comments to me at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com.

Book Description

Letters Home

What types of holidays do Japanese people celebrate? What is the educational system like in Japan? What are Japanese festivals like? What are some of the customs and traditions of the Japanese people? Professor Todd Jay Leonard, writing from the perspective of living and working in Japan, provides in this fascinating book the answers to these and many other questions.
Letters Home: Musings of an American Expatriate Living in Japan delivers a firsthand account of daily Japanese life through the eyes and personal experiences of Professor Leonard who has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Japan and the Japanese people for nearly twenty-five years. 

This anecdotal book of essays, written in the style of personal letters, offers commentary on a wide range of topics and issues including culture, history, education, language, society, and religion of modern Japan from the point-of-view of an American expatriate who has made Japan his home. 

The author’s friendly, down-to-earth, yet authoritative, style of writing will transport you to modern Japan, where you will learn about the customs and traditions of this most fascinating country. This book can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in learning about Japan and its people.http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Musings-American-Expatriate/dp/0595283098/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299907225&sr=1-2

Japan's Bonenkai - helps to Forget - year


Every year, throughout the month of December, a very important ritual is observed all over Japan--Bonenkai--(the yearend party). Literally, the term Bonenkai・means "forget the year party," where colleagues and staff in companies, factories, schools--and just about any other group of people who are in regular contact with one another (for example, clubs, associations and the like)--meet to have a chance to forget all of the problems and worries they encountered over the past year.

These Japanese-style banquets usually start out quite formally with the guests sitting in long rows (at tables low to the floor, on cushions called zabuton) looking serious and demure, attentively listening to the party's emcee.

The formal atmosphere is quickly transformed once the official toast is made, signaling the start of the party. The guests then loosen up and begin to partake in the endless bottles of beer that are brought to the tables, along with drinking copious amounts of wine, sake and other alcoholic beverages.

Before living in Japan, I had no idea the important role alcohol plays in social gatherings here. It is certainly the social lubricant that keeps working relationships well-oiled. Most everyone drinks at least some alcohol, and many drink a lot.

The meals at these banquets often consist of a number of courses that arrive throughout the evening. Later, some type of entertainment is often offered during the meal, either by professional musicians or by some of the younger staff members who are relegated to regale everyone with a game, skit or performance. In addition, bingo and karaoke seem to be favorites at these kinds of gatherings.

The initial formality is gradually replaced with loud laughter sprinkled with lively and boisterous exchanges between workmates, impromptu singing, occasional dancing and, as the night wears on, some rather raucous (if not risque and even bawdy) behavior by some of the more inebriated participants.

These yearend parties give the normally subdued Japanese worker or "salaryman" a chance to let loose and have a rip-roaring good time. I have attended parties where the shyest and most modest of my Japanese colleagues transformed themselves into party animals that at first shocked me, and then caused me to view them with befuddled amusement.

When I first arrived in Japan, my initial observations of my Japanese colleagues were in a largely work-only environment; this all changed when I got a glimpse of their true characters during my first bonenkai party held by the Board of Education office where I worked as a junior high school teacher.

It was there that the normally humorless rank and file let down their guards, transfiguring their stoic and sober work personas into fun-loving and jovial pranksters who were extremely entertaining to be around.

My first clue that something big was about to happen, however, was the nearly giddy anticipation everyone exhibited leading up to the party day. An inordinate amount of planning and preparation had been going on for weeks. This was interesting to me, because it was all consuming and even bordered on being obsessive. These tasks fell to the youngest members of the office who were in charge of planning the big event. Our office did not merely have a "party" but we made it into a weekend event, staying overnight at a typical Japanese inn nestled in the mountains that featured a natural hot-spring bath.

On the day of the party, we left work early, taking a chartered bus to the venue. We quickly checked in (six people to a room, assigned by sex and age (the younger employees bunked together, the older ones together, with the men separated from the women) and immediately scurried off to the communal bath to relax before dinner. After bathing in scalding hot water, everyone then changed into "yukata,"a Japanese kimono-like garment supplied by the hotel, before going to the private dining room where the party was held.

Unbeknownst to me, I was part of the entertainment on this particular evening. Prior to the yearend party, there was an office pool where we had to rank the autumn sumo wrestlers according to who we thought would win. Having no idea who any of the famous or skillful wrestlers were, I randomly selected several, not knowing what I was doing.

Lo and behold, I won the office pool, making me the "yokozuna" or Grand Champion Sumo Wrestler. Part of the prize was the unique opportunity to wear an authentic sumo wrestling apron that featured elaborate hand-embroidered scenes in silk. The two runner-ups also participated in this honor.

I had no idea what I would be expected to do, but luckily I had seen a "yokozuna" ceremony on television where the wrestler, with great skill, moved his arms and legs in precise movements.

I, of course, faked it. At first, I was somewhat credible, but the fact that I was wearing an "Indiana" sweatshirt and matching Santa hat detracted from the seriousness of trying to do it convincingly well. It was all in good fun, though, and I gladly hammed it up to everyone's delight.

I always look forward to these yearly soirees, because it is an opportunity to witness a side of my colleagues that I rarely get a chance to see within the confines of our professional relationship.

Of course, no matter how crazy or boorish someone might have behaved during the bonenkai, all is usually forgiven the next day, and the subject is never broached except to say how enjoyable the entire event was.

The majority of Japanese take the position of why stir up bad feelings over something that was said or done when under the influence of alcohol when it is the day-to-day relationship that really matters? A cultural pill that is sometimes hard to swallow for someone coming in from outside the culture.



Monday, December 05, 2005

Todd J. Leonard hams it up at his first Bonenkai--a yearend party in Japan meant to help forget the year--by simulating a Sumo Grand Champion move, to the delight of his colleagues and other party guests. Submitted photo