Sports Day was freezing!!! Not literally but snow did fall on the alps (nooooooo!!!!) We turned up at 8:00 for an 8:40 start and there were three rows of tarps all the way round the ground. All the way round the ground except for one little patch in row 2 at the far end. Hmmm? Seriously there was a row three and then the seat people in row 4 but no row two for a little tarp space. Fully expecting to be told it was saved/ sacred/ radioactive etc I gingerly placed my tarp and waited. Row three started up 'good morning!, bit cold, isn't it?' (Just once I'd love to answer 'Cold? you're kidding right? I'm just wearing this thermofleece snowsuit for fashion- I'm boiling!!' but I didn't.) Then she went on about how big Amy's gotten and how she used to be in my tummy and now look at her etc etc. I was getting the horrible sneaking suspicion I should know this obaachan but also the certainty that I hadn't the foggiest who she was. DH came back from carparking duty and I was hoping she wouldn't know him and would introduce herself but no- 'oh Fukase-san! Thanks for that thing you did that time' DH deadpanned her with a 'oh no no anytime' and we sank back to watch the sports none the wiser.
My friend Sachiko is living in Detroit for a couple of years. She writes a blog and it's really interesting to see her impressions of American life. (If you're on mixi she's さっちゃん）She went apple picking with her family last week and wrote about her experience. One of the things she said really stuck with me. She said (my lousy translation) 'In America even the apple trees are really free to do whatever they want. But it's difficult to find perfection.' Got me thinking deeply about whether real perfection must be manmade or does it occur naturally? Then I started thinking about the effort that goes into creating the perfect apple. The perfectly round, evenly red, uniform size and weight, guaranteed degree of sweetness apple that we barely acknowledge as we peel, cut, salt (why???), spear with a toothpick and eat.
I had my bath before dinner today.
Living The Local Culture- The Importance Of The Chonaikai
It is August the 7th. My daughters and I are hanging the origami representations of Orihime and Hikoboshi on the bamboo branch outside our front door. Our neighbor from two doors up calls out ‘ima daijou?’ and opens our gate. She has brought celebratory sekihan rice made with sweet amanatto beans as her daughter just had a baby. She reminds me that the meeting to make paper flowers for the floats in the upcoming festival is this Saturday….
Most visitors to Japan have at least a cursory knowledge of Japanese culture before they arrive. For many it is part of their motivation to visit. Be it the romantic image of a young maiko tottering through Gion, the fighting spirit of the samurai warrior, the mystique of Zen Buddhism, or more recently the doe-eyed girls and troubled boys of anime, they come with expectations of what they will encounter. Through western interpretations of Japanese culture such as Memoirs of a Geisha, The Last Samurai and The Karate Kid movies these impressions of an exotic fantasy culture are perpetuated even as they cease to have relevance to most Japanese people’s lives. I’m sure I’m not the only naïve tourist disappointed to arrive at Narita and not see kimono clad women gliding gracefully through the arrival lounge.
It is no longer even necessary to visit Japan at all in order to experience the culture. Many aspects of Japanese culture have been exported and enjoy popularity on the global stage. The martial arts, ikebana, and taiko drumming are all practiced throughout the world by people who in many cases have never set foot in Japan. It is not just these traditional arts that are proliferating outside of Japan either. Japanese pop culture is tremendously successful throughout Asia and, albeit to a lesser extent, in other countries too. With the ease of information exchange facilitated by the internet, intricate origami instructions, compilations of multilingual Zen Buddhist koan, and images of the Nebuta Matsuri are only a click of a mouse away. Bootleg copies of Tokyo Love Story can be bought in Melbourne’s Chinatown, and the number of anime clubs at Universities worldwide rivals even Tezuka Osamu’s prolific output. More than ever before a plethora of cultural practices are readily available to interested parties irrespective of their physical location.
However, this is true of only some aspects of Japanese culture. Just as important in defining what makes Japan unique, just as worthy of the label 'culture' as the examples listed above, are those observances, celebrations and practices partaken by people in their homes and in their communities during the course of their daily lives. Varying from locale to locale and often organized not for tourists or an outside audience, but for the very people they are organized by, these aspects of culture are such an integral part of an individual’s identity as to be the very fabric that makes someone who they are. Elements of life such as regional dialects, local lullabies and variations on children’s songs, a certain way of decorating the home for tanabata, New Year or obon, and local specialty foods. Can you imagine Aomori without Aomori-ben ? Okinawa without sanshin music?
Much as the host of regional bon dance variations appear homogenous at first glance, these aspects of culture are not immediately apparent to the tourist overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Tokyo or Osaka. It is only by becoming part of the community that you can understand its distinctness. The fastest way to become part of a community is through involvement with the chonaikai.
Roughly translating as neighborhood association, at the local level the chonaikai is the facilitator of many of the cultural events that define a region. My chonaikai is instrumental in the planning, orchestrating and supporting of the majority of annual observances for the fifteen households that make up our group. Each season has its events and outings. The year starts with the New Year’s Day sake party for the head of each household (at 10am!!) and distribution of sweets to the children. Sankuro, the burning of last year’s daruma, New Year decorations and calligraphy on a pyre, signals the end of the New Year holiday period. Spring has the bus trip to pick sansai and soak in an onsen together, summer, the early morning baseball matches, and autumn the highlight of the year- the inter-chonaikai sports day. The chonaikai plays a part in the personal milestones of its members too. Monetary gifts are collected and presented to newborn babies, children entering school, people building new houses, turning 20, getting married, undertaking extended stays in hospital and finally the family of a departed member. In fact, when it comes to funerals most of the organization is undertaken by the chonaikai. From the door knock to inform everyone of the passing, the meeting to plan the ceremony, the nighttime vigil, the procession to see off the dead body in the morning, the funeral itself, and finally the meal for the visitors after the funeral. With a minimum of fuss and great value placed on continuing tradition, the members of our fifteen households are rallied in various combinations for a plethora of reasons. Our interactions are not restricted to the celebratory and support spheres either. We gather for far more menial tasks on what I found at first to be a frighteningly frequent basis. Collecting Red Cross donations, manning the rubbish station, cleaning and weeding around the dosojin, delivering the municipal newsletter and participating in road safety campaigns are just a few of the tasks that have come our way.
Having moved to the country from the city for the express purpose of spending more time together as a family, I was resentful of what I perceived as an intrusion into my personal time and space. As an Australian I considered friendly relations with my neighbors desirable, but placed far higher priority on spending both quality and quantity of time as a family. It was therefore with little grace and a heavy sense of obligation that I attended my first few chonaikai gatherings. Now, three years later, I appreciate the extent an active chonaikai enriches the lives of its members. This has been a slow process- more of a gradual understanding than a blinding flash of realization. Burning New Years decorations, doing rajio taiso during summer vacation, and barbecuing yakisoba are all things we could do as a family. But would we? So much easier to toss the decorations in the garbage, to sleep past 6:30 am when the calisthenics are broadcast and to cook indoors on the stove. The chonaikai serves as a great catalyst. Traditions and annual observances we would let slide due to lack of time or motivation are there for the partaking.
But the value of the chonaikai is more than just the events it holds. It’s the enabling of interaction that is the core of its importance. For interaction facilitates learning in the most ancient form- passed down from generation to generation. While we are able to learn about many things from books and the internet it is not the same as experiencing them. It is the difference between shiru, to know, and wakaru to understand. I can tell you that daijou is the local dialect for daijoubu. That in this area we make sekihan with sweet amanatto beans. Or that we celebrate tanabata according to the old calendar and therefore a month later than the usual July 7th. But I can’t share the feeling of community when thirteen people turn up on your doorstep to pay their respects to the new baby, and express their delight that it’s a girl- they’ve had problems finding the required numbers of elementary school age girls to fill the festival float in recent years. That is something you have to experience to really understand. To wakaru.
Living in an older neighborhood of farming families these traditions are followed to a greater extent than they presently are elsewhere. Many of my neighbors have more than one house on their land. Hiojiichan and Hiobaachan in the old house, ojiichan and obaachan in the main house with the ‘wakafufu’, or increasingly, the wakafufu in a new house with the grandchildren. Apple, grape and tomato farmers, they have a strong physical attachment to the area. They live, work and play in the same neighborhood. With farms passing from father to son and going back generations, their ties to the area are as deeply rooted as the gnarled apple trees they tend. Intermarriage means most of my neighbors are also related in some way. The fourteen other households in our chonaikai share a total of only four surnames. In such a close knit community it is not difficult to see why people are willing to invest time and effort in continuing the tradition of the chonaikai. This is not true of all communities. Even within the area that, pre-amalgamation, was my village, in many places the burden of time and money that is necessary to ensure the smooth running of a chonaikai is not considered worth the effort by the residents. An aging population, greater proportion of nuclear families, more transient lifestyles, and greater ease of mobility all contribute to a gradual minimizing of the role of the chonaikai. Rather than fight to preserve this tradition, increasingly people are choosing to opt out of it. A Japanese friend moved into a new housing development where the seven households agreed to a chonaikai in name only. They pay no monthly dues and have no neighborhood events. The formation of the chonaikai was simply a formality to appeasecity hall. All seven households are nuclear families with young children. The housing development was built on reclaimed farmland and none of the families are originally from the town they now live in. Similar housing developments are springing up all over rural and semi-urban Japan as a generation of wakafufu decide against taking on the farm and sell up to the insatiable big housing companies. I feel sorry for the people in these developments with no organized interaction with each other- sorry for what they’re missing out on, and sorry that they don’t appreciate that they are missing out. It’s definitely a matter of perception though, the friend I mentioned earlier loves to be regaled with tales of my chonaikai’s latest activities. She shudders and blanches the whole way through my enthusiastic recounts and, I’m sure, goes home reassured she made the right choice in escaping all that.
It’s easy to dismiss any regret at the decline of community involvement as nostalgia for a past viewed through rose colored glasses. When we can log onto the internet and find communities of people with the same interests and motivations as ourselves, separated by distance and yet merely the click of a mouse away, is it really necessary to sacrifice precious leisure time to observe a traditional celebration we don’t fully understand with people whom we have nothing but proximity in common with? It would seem that the answer for many people is no.
Increasingly education, employment opportunities and marriage all serve to uproot people from their hometowns and distribute them across the country, across the globe. Thus uprooted they lose contact with their heritage, with the local culture that made them part of where they are from. While some of this migration is city people looking for a simpler, quieter life in the country- the so called I-turners, it can’t compete with the exodus of (particularly young) people from regional areas to the city. Cities serve as great melting pots- high-rise towers full of families from the length and breadth of Japan living cheek by jowl with streamlined and pared down neighborhood relations. I lived a year in a large apartment complex in Saitama. My husband is from Fukushima. My neighbors were from Niigata and Kyushu. There was no kairanban, no neighborhood celebrations, and our interaction with each other was completely optional and therefore, in many cases, nonexistent. Long work hours and long commutes- often for both partners, served as a physical limitation on neighborhood involvement. The proximity and abundance of family leisure attractions meant you could find all the entertainment you could wish for without any more effort than handing over some yen. Living elevated from the ground as we were in our complex, we were literally and figuratively out of touch with the local community.
Thus removed from both our hometowns and the local community, my friends and I, by virtue of being the wives of sarariman, shared a common culture. Saying goodbye to our husbands by 6:00am and virtually single parenting our children while our partners arrived home after midnight, we lived a life of time sales, park outings, play circles and lunch dates. Ninety percent of the time we were interchangeable with each other. But, underneath the patina of bed town housewife lay strong ties to our different heritages. A request for information on how to make the traditional New Year soup ozoni turned into an extended discussion as the merits of soy sauce and chicken Tohoku style were pitted against miso and satoimo Kansai style. Similar discussions ensued concerning the words to folk songs and the particulars of the traditional celebration of a child’s first birthday. It was occurrences such as these that provoked my interest in the role of local culture in the forming of identity. Watching for these subtle cultural influences, I began to see them in many of the people around me. Removed from their environment the importance of these aspects of every day life previously taken for granted had become apparent. The pride and longing with which they talked of their 'furusato'. How quickly they reverted back to the dialect of their hometowns when speaking to a fellow local no matter how long since they’d left. The cravings for a particular dish, cooked in a particular way, which symbolizes home.
Australia has a white settled history of just over 200 years. While commentators like to debate the differences between Melbournians and Sydneysiders, and the extreme differences in geography do play a part in shaping the inhabitants of each state, there hasn’t been enough time for emotional and physical attachments between people and their locale to form in the same way as Japan. It was therefore difficult for me to understand the passion with which my host family in Fukushima’s Aizu-Wakamatsu city regaled the region’s pride in being the last people to fall to the Emperor in the Boshin Civil War. They spoke of the injustices and hardships of 150 years ago as though they happened yesterday. While I don’t think anyone who is not from the Aizu region can ever fully understand those feelings, I find myself identifying with my region (in my case the pre-amalgamation village) rather than my new city in the same way so many from the Aizu region introduce themselves as such rather than as being from Fukushima.
I am not alone in this reluctance to embrace post-amalgamation reality, and sadly distinct local cultures are not just at risk from the changing lives of the local people but from the changing political map as well. There have been three major amalgamation movements since the Meiji period, each working to erase hamlet size villages from the map and rewrite it as a more financially viable and easily governable one. The village my family lives in disappeared in the last of these, the Great Heisei Amalgamation that ended in 2006. Once an apple and tomato growing village at the foot of the Southern Alps we are now part of a sprawling megacity- an amorphous conglomeration of distinct communities yet to gel as one. For, while it only takes a day for your address to change and you to geographically become part of a city, it takes a lot longer for your identity to change, if ever. As if sensing the emotional needs of its new citizens, the city has been gentle and gradual in effecting change- but it is inevitably seeping in. Funding for chonaikai has been cut and the four annual sports meets have been trimmed to one. Of course, there is new to replace the old- we were invited to enter a local team in the city’s annual bon parade. Volunteers even came out to the community centre to teach us the particulars of the city’s version of the traditional bon dance. As with all change, there were those who eagerly embraced the opportunity and those who preferred to bemoan the intrusion of alien culture and the loss of the old ways.
I, too, fear that the local traditions and celebrations, the local culture that is so much of why I love my adopted furusato, will face extinction or relegation to the city museum as it is swallowed up by the city or dies from the roots up as community involvement decreases. But it is futile to pine for the way things were. It is up to us, as individuals, as families, as members of our chonaikai- and by extension as citizens of our villages, towns and cities, to seek out the local culture, to ask about it, understand it, participate in and support it, and then to impart it to our children and the children in our neighborhoods.
And that’s why, come next August you’ll find me out on the front step with my daughters again. Stringing up the tanabata dolls. I hope my neighbor will bring her granddaughter over to toddle on the lawn with my children while she explains the schedule of festival preparations. Then again, maybe our roles will be reversed as next year it’s my family’s turn to head the chonaikai. A native of Fukushima and his Australian wife overseeing the continuation of grassroots culture in a handkerchief sized piece of central Nagano. Wish us luck!
Edited to add gratuitous mountain shot. :)