by Mike Marklew
Sketch by Tim Ernst
It’s always very amusing to be told by folk living in other countries, how sorry they are for us poor gaijin in Japan who miss out on all the Christmas festivities.
Those poor people.
They’ve never enjoyed the “cross-cultural” experience of freezing evenings spent leaning on the local yakitori bar with one’s mates, breathing chicken-fat smoke and swapping tales of the year’s deeds, both good and bad, while cuddling a hot sake cup.
The bonenkai (forget the rest-of-the-year parties) here, are exactly the same as European/American office parties, with everyone being nice to the boss and the guys chasing the secretaries. No mistletoe here, but then Japanese don’t kiss — at least in public.
At my office, on the last working day of the year, the female staff turn up in kimono and in mid-afternoon we all go off to a huge booze-up.
On December evenings, the streets filled with more girls in native costume than you will see at any other time of the year, unless you are fortunate enough to live in the Ginza or Akasaka nightclub districts.
Don’t know what they do after the parties, but I believe there is a roaring trade done by “call-out” obi-tying services. (How many girls do you know who can tie their own? I don’t know any guy who can tie one—can undo ’em OK, but…
The shops in Tokyo are just as jolly as those in New York or London.
This year, because of the Emperor’s long illness, the decorations have been a bit muted, but the Japanese shopkeepers discovered a long time ago that “Jingle Bells” is the sound of winter cash registers.
Other things brightening up the offices are calendars… hundreds of them. Unknown places such as Ayer’s Rock rub shoulders with the Golden Gate Bridge or that French version of Tokyo Tower. Jostling for position are myriads of temples, flowers and beautiful birds — feathered, kimonoed, swimsuited or from Playboy. (Seen the giant one from JAL? Wow!)
Usually we work on Christmas day, but this year it’s a Sunday. The Japanese New Year observance however, is almost Scottish in ferocity.
It’s a holiday; everyone gives presents, and Japan closes down for a few days.
The start of the year is equally as merry as the end.
After the New Year break, there’s that great first day back at the office. Everyone tells everyone else what they did and, after lunch, we all go off to Mah-jongg parties or other “social” events.
The first two weeks are spent visiting other offices, drinking innumerable cups of green tea and wishing everybody success. No one works.
I don’t know how any of my friends could think I would ever want to go back to my schooldays’ winters of five daylight hours and no hot sake’ to keep out the cold.
Actually sake doesn’t keep out the cold — but then after the third or fourth pot, you just don’t care any more.
Anyway, I prefer beer. Beer is cooling in summer and the bodily protection (fat) it produces keeps me warm in winter.
To me, the best oseibo (year-end gifts) in Japan are the “beer coupons,” but a three-foot-long salmon in a cardboard box is just as good.
Then again, half a dozen jars of instant coffee or a couple of hunks of smoked ham will do wonders for my family budget.
One thing I don’t need is a boxful of bottles of that odd drink with the “uric” name or those silly little towels, which only the Japanese could consider useful in a bath.
Last year I got the strangest present. A bright Australian friend of mine sent me a packet of vegetable seeds.
I sent him a card which bore a Japanese Santa, (complete with glasses and camera,) patting a reindeer in front of a Kyoto temple.
Below the “Seasons Gleetings” I put a note.
“I live in Tokyo,” it read. “Send me some earth next year.”