Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nishigaoka Christmas Party

The Christmas party I participated in yesterday at the Nishigaoka Community Center was fun, and somewhat surreal. Surreal enough that I thought my non-Japanese readers might enjoy a description of the event, which I shall attempt to give you now.

First of all, some background. Christmas is celebrated in Japan. This takes many forms. Jesus has nothing to do with it. Japanese people love to give each other gifts, which is a fairly constant phenomenon here. (There is also a strong element of obligation involved with that, and a complex system of how valuable the gifts should be, depending on the occasion.)

“The illumination” is also part of the seasonal celebration, with beautiful blue lights adorning many trees, such as the sakura trees, whose spring blossoming is also a big deal in Japan. (That's when it becomes the norm to trespass on anyone's land who has a sakura tree, set up a picnic, and get drunk.) Santa is a phenomenon in Japan, too, and he is from Finland. I haven't been able to uncover the origins of the Finnish Santa in Japan, but as a history buff I find it curious, since Finland was, I believe, the only Arctic nation that was on Japan's side of WWII.

In smaller cities, such as Ube, in Yamaguchi prefecture, far from the bustling, youthful, fashion-obsessed metropolis of Tokyo, many people are actively involved with their communities. Ube is a city of 170,000 people, and there are well over 100 public community centers – physical buildings used by the local community for various functions throughout the year -- like the one down the street from my wife's family's house, in the neighborhood known as Nishigaoka.

Each community has what is known as a community leader, who is paid a small salary for coordinating lots of different activities and events. In Nishigaoka, his name is Shintani-san. In most communities, a community leader stays in that role for two years, but here in Nishigaoka, Shintani has been community leader for a long time. It's hard to imagine Nishigaoka without Shintani in that role. He's an affable, chronically upbeat man in his late sixties.

Usually, at Nishigaoka's annual Christmas party, Shintani dresses up as Santa. This year, I was asked to play that role, presumably since I look more Finnish than Shintani does, and I have a bigger belly.

My family and I arrived at the community center ten minutes later than most people there. There were around twenty children and thirty adults of all ages. The children were sitting on cushions on the wooden floor around two long, low tables, and the adults were sitting in folding chairs around rectangular folding tables, behind the kids. Directly in front of the kids was a microphone on a mike stand, connected to a sound system designed for karaoke, playing recorded music, and talking through the mike. (A “DJ” type system.)

I am exotic in Ube not only because I'm one of only two white men in the city at any given time (the other being an English teacher from Canada named Steve), but because, certainly by Japanese standards, I'm fat. Shintani, at age 67, was the only other person in the room with anything approaching a belly. Yesterday was only one of many times I was asked by a well-meaning Japanese person if I am pregnant, or training to be a sumo wrestler.

This, despite the fact that a lot of sugar is consumed in this country, and the Christmas party was no exception. Earlier in the day, Shintani was driving around the community in a car with a bullhorn attached to it, announcing the impending Christmas party. This is a common phenomenon in Japan (especially during election season). While he was doing that, volunteers were busily making Christmas cake at the community center.

Japanese people are generally surprised to learn that in the US, to my knowledge at least, there is no such thing as Christmas cake. There is the tradition of people making and giving each other fruitcake, which generally turns hard and gets thrown out, since many people make it but few people actually like it. But Japanese Christmas cake, while it is adorned with a strawberry on each slice, is not fruit cake. It's sponge cake with light, buttery frosting, and it is consumed every year for the annual Christmas party, which begins at Nishigaoka on the Sunday before Christmas at 10 am.

At 10 am, Christmas cake and weak, American-style drip coffee (think Dunkin' Donuts, not Starbucks) is served to all the adults first. The children were each given a roll of toilet paper inside a clear plastic bag, tied with a ribbon, gift-style. A half hour later, the children were also served Christmas cake.

In the meantime, Shintani gathered up all the kids in front of the microphone, facing everybody else, to sing their school song. Each school has a school song, which all the children know. All of the kids but one got in front of the mike to sing, standing together in a group, with the oldest, tallest kids in the back and the youngest in front. All the adults in the room also knew the song, and quietly sang along with the kids.

I pointed out to Reiko that the canned Japanese Christmas music was still playing through the sound system when the kids started singing. Upon being alerted of this, Shintani tried to turn it off, at first unsuccessfully. As the kids started singing, he turned it up by accident, before eventually managing to turn it off. A keyboard was set up beside the kids, and an older girl played a piano part along with the singers, and played very well. The kids all sang well, too.

The one little boy who refused to join the group, and instead got under one of the tables, was quietly castigated by Shintani and by the kid's mother, but he wouldn't budge, and was eventually allowed to be antisocial.

When we arrived at the community center, a collection of beautiful young Japanese mothers were writing something on a big whiteboard. (The concept of a woman gaining weight after having a baby is almost completely unheard of here. All mothers in this community look just like they did before having a baby, within a month or so of giving birth.) What they were writing on the board, it turned out, were the Japanese lyrics to “Jingle Bells.”

After singing their school song, the kids were shown the lyrics to “Jingle Bells.” I don't think they knew in advance that they were going to sing the song for everybody, but it didn't seem to phase them. What did phase them was what happened next, which was Shintani playing a recorded version of “Jingle Bells” on the sound system – but not the karaoke version, and not the version the kids were supposed to be singing, either.

They looked befuddled and a bit desperate, until Reiko figured out what was going wrong, and had Shintani shut it off. She suggested I go get my guitar, which I had brought with me, as I had been instructed to do, having learned one Christmas song for the occasion, which happened to be “Jingle Bells,” luckily. I found a good key for it that would suit the kids' voices, and it all worked fine at that point.

The adults clapped along with the song, demonstrating that Japanese people as a rule have a rhythmic sense that is just as bad as your average white American. (It seems to me that the further you get from Africa, the worse people's rhythmic sense gets, aside from trained musicians or dancers.)

At 11 am, as planned, I went into another room and changed into the Santa suit that had been recently purchased for the occasion. It was a suit that seemed to be the same one we saw advertised in the local paper for about $10. Not a terribly convincing one, but good enough, except that the drawstring for the trousers broke when I tried to put it on. I improvised with my own belt so they'd stay up.

Reiko's mother had stayed up til 1 am or so the previous night with a sewing machine, making a beautiful cloth bag that I could use to give out presents for the kids. I didn't even know what was in the bag actually, but I knew I was to give out one present to each of the kids. When I went out into the main room, following a musical (instrumental Christmas song played through the sound system) cue, I opened the bag, and saw that what was inside were identical little clear plastic bags with several pieces of candy in each one, each one tied with a little ribbon, just like the rolls of toilet paper.

I handed the candy out and did my best Santa imitation, which seemed to work out OK. I then got my guitar in the other room, came back out and sang the English version of “Jingle Bells” which I had just learned, the lyrics taped to the side of my guitar. Everyone clapped along randomly, though midway through the song they started clapping more or less at the same time.

Shintani then interviewed me into the mike, with Reiko translating, asking me where I was born, where I lived now, and telling the audience that I'm a professional musician and that I perform all over the world. (Which most of them already knew, since most of them attended the last concert I gave at the community center in August of last year.)

A humble, elegant woman in her thirties who plays at the community center every month was also there for the Christmas party, and she set up her keyboard and played a lovely, varied set of music that included a traditional Japanese song and other more contemporary songs. She had brought a big, handwritten lyric sheet for each song, which Shintani and an assistant put up on the whiteboard with magnets, one at a time, so everybody (aside from those of us who can't read Japanese) could sing along. She also brought little bells with her which she had laid out in a certain order on a black tablecloth, and with the bells she did a heartwarming instrumental rendition of “Silent Night.”

Next, Shintani played a version of Rock, Paper, Scissors with the entire crowd for a full 10 minutes or so, eliminating people along the way until there was a winner, and each winner received a gift. After that, gifts were drawn from a bag and awarded to people in attendance, each of whom had a little number on a piece of paper, like a little lottery. The gifts were all appropriately wrapped for the occasion, and included things like sets of plastic coat hangers, folding storage boxes, and other inexpensive, useful household items.

By then it was around noon, and the party was over. Kids and adults alike all started folding chairs and tables and putting them away, sweeping and vacuuming the floor, and washing dishes in the kitchen. In the yard in front of the community center, kids played on the play structures, as kids do around the world, and most others walked back to their homes.


The kids, though even younger than Leila, required no supervision, nor did they need anyone to take them home. Some of them live close to a kilometer away from the community center, but they were fully capable of seeing themselves back home, which would be unheard of in most American cities these days. Though in past decades it would have been just as normal as it still is here in this small city of rolling hills, meandering streams, sprouting gardens, ancient shrines, old traditional houses, new apartment blocks, shopping malls, cell phone towers, and community centers.

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