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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

New Year’s in Japan is celebrated like Christmas


New Year’s Day in Japan most resembles Christmas Day in the United States in that it is a family holiday where relatives travel from near and far to celebrate the holiday together. Before New Year’s Eve, Japanese family members begin to arrive at their ancestral home to prepare for the New Year, just like American families do before Christmas.

Oshougatsu, or New Year’s, is by far the most important and most celebrated of any of Japan’s annual events. Most Japanese workers are given from Dec. 30 to Jan. 3 off from their jobs in order to be with their families during this holiday.

Before leaving work at the end of December, though, offices and schools all over Japan do a thorough and complete cleaning. This “osoji” is a deep cleaning that requires pulling out desks and bookshelves from the walls to clean every nook and cranny, throwing out unused items, and making sure all is arranged back nicely for the New Year.

Many families do a similar cleaning of homes at the end of the year to make everything fresh and clean to bring in the New Year.

One custom that I have adopted here in Japan during the New Year celebration is the tradition of “hatsu-moude” or the first shrine or temple visit of the New Year. At midnight, on New Year’s Eve, I bundle up in warm clothes and traipse out into the bitter cold to the local Shinto shrine with friends to pay my respects.

The atmosphere at the shrine is always jovial and happy; people are excitedly buying lucky arrows, talismans and amulets to ensure they have good luck and good health throughout the next year.

As the hoards of people make their way to the front of the shrine, everyone takes a turn to clap their hands and offer a coin offering to the “kami” or gods.

Not all people visit a shrine at midnight on New Year’s Eve, thank goodness, as there would be no space to move. Officially, one can visit a temple or shrine until around Jan. 7 in order to get the full effect of good fortune throughout the next year.

Many years ago, I spent the New Year’s holiday in Tokyo with a friend’s family. On New Year’s Day we took a bus, then a couple of trains, to get to the most famous of all shrines in Japan — Meiji Shrine. I have never in my life seen more people crammed into a finite space.

The momentum of the crowd carried us to the front as we feebly tried to toss our coins against the surge of people pushing by us. It was actually scary, because if anyone had fallen the person surely would have been trampled to death.

I prefer visiting the temple near my home. I nearly always run into a number of people I know — colleagues and neighbors — which allows us to exchange verbal New Year’s greetings to one another. “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu” is the common Japanese phrase used to wish someone a “Happy New Year.”

Huge bells at Buddhist temples are gonged 108 times, starting at midnight, to chase away the evils of the past year. From north to south, famous temples all over Japan are featured on public television, showing the priest of the temple solemnly ringing the bell.

Japanese children — from toddlers to university students — anxiously anticipate New Year’s Day because they are given “o-toshidama,” a small envelope with money, by adult relatives and friends. This custom is akin to American kids receiving presents on Christmas Day.

It is hard to know how much is appropriate, but I generally give 100 yen for each year of the child’s age. This is a custom I started with my nephew, giving him $1 for each year of his age on his birthday. This year he turned 8, so he was quite excited when 8 one-dollar bills tumbled out of his birthday card.

Similarly, my cost-effective system seems to work well here. Actually, 100 yen is a bit less than a dollar, but is the closest denomination to an American buck. So, taking into consideration yearly inflation, I figure this gradual yearly increase of cold, hard cash is probably about as fair as any; when the kids turn 20 years old, they can expect around $20.

Homes all around my neighborhood display “shimenawa” (a sacred rope of straw with small strips of white paper dangling down) on the front doors. This is to distinguish the home as being one that is a temporary domicile for the “toshigami” or New Year deities that visit the home during this season; it is also used to discourage any malevolent spirits from entering the home.

A typical New Year’s Day meal (osechi ryouri) is served in stackable lacquered boxes filled with a variety of Japanese delicacies. These specialty foods are highly preserved, hence prepared well in advance of the day, eliminating the need to spend endless hours in the kitchen cooking during the first few days of the New Year.

Popular and traditional foods include stewed black soybeans, salted herring roe, dried sardines cooked in soy sauce, cooked burdock marinated in vinegar, broiled fish paste, sweet omelet squares, broiled shrimp, sea bream, radish (daikon) salad, and all daintily garnished with brightly colored vegetables and fruits.

Many families purchase ready-made osechi ryouri at their local supermarket, or order the boxed meal in advance from a favorite restaurant, which cuts the preparation time down even more. These are delicately arranged in faux lacquer boxes.

This year I will bring in the New Year in typical Japanese fashion, as I am entertaining out-of-town guests for the holiday. I do, however, plan to have some traditional American New Year dishes mixed in with the traditional Japanese ones. Salted herring, broiled fish paste, and black soy beans won’t satiate this Hoosier’s love of honeyed ham, macaroni and cheese, and corned beef and cabbage.



Monday, January 02, 2006

A variety of traditional foods are arranged neatly in stackable lacquered boxes in preparation for New Year's Day in Japan. Families will eat “osechi ryouri” (New Year’s food) for several days during the New Year holiday. Submitted photo