Monday, January 01, 2007

Japanese New Year

The Japanese New Year is strongly touched with a sense of renewal. The idea is that everything is renewed and acquire a new face, refreshed on the surface as well as from within.

As one grows up in a culture, many things are taken for granted. Respected cultural anthropologist and historian Kyoji Watanabe once mentioned to me that the essence of a particular society becomes clear only when seen from the eye of an outsider. Watanabe is the author of "Impressions of a foregone world" (Yukishi Yo no Omokage), which relied on the diaries of foreigners who visited Japan at the end of the Edo era to depict the essence of Japanese society at that time. It is a beautiful book, and testifies the truth of Watanabe's thesis, the discovery and confirmation of a society's essence through an outsider's eye.

That reminds me of one incident. When I was fifteen, I home stayed in Vancouver. Verna was the host mother. Ever since then, we have been exchanging letters, e-mails later.

One year, Verna sent me a Christmas card. It so happened the envelope arrived at the beginning of December. I wrote back to Verna, joking, "what on earth made you send the Christmas card so early?" Verna answered back, and I could sense that she was slightly offended. "I don't know. Maybe some whimsical spirit has taken possession of me", she wrote.

Although I was not aware at that time, I was without knowing being influenced by the way season's greetings are taken and handled in this country. In Japan, new year's greetings (Nengajo) is delivered by the postman on the New Year's day. There can be no delivery of these specially designed postcards earlier than that. For a Japanese, new year's greetings should be delivered after the new year has actually come, and not before that. There is something almost sacred in the delivery timing.
Mind you the post office takes a great pain to realize this "strictly on time" service. They employ a lot of student part time workers every year to deliver literally hundreds of post cards to each home on the New Year's day. These postcards are given special treatment, and not a single card is delivered before the New Year's day, although many of the cards are posted well before the New Year's eve.

So Verna was annoyed as a result of a typical cultural misunderstanding. In the western society, as I later learned, it is customary to receive Christmas Cards well before Christmas. I actually visited Verna in Vancouver once in the middle of December. The cards had already arrived, and Verna was displaying these cards on top of the fireplace. That was a beautiful sight in itself. It is only that in Japan, the new year's greetings are not displayed before the time.

Misunderstanding has led to a better appreciation of the unique value of each culture. The spirit of refreshment and renewal that comes with the Japanese New Year's greetings, and the hope and expectancy conjured up at the sight of Christmas cards in western society. It is a pity though I have not told Verna why and how the misunderstanding occurred so long time ago.

Maybe I should clarify in my next e-mail.

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