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Wish I Were Here: New Year’s in Japan and America

Another New Year in New York: Millions amassed last night in Times Square, the crystal ball slid down its pole — and an estimated 3.5 million tons of confetti and other bits of trash are being swept from slick streets as I write. Slick because it is raining, gray, and an unseasonably (unreasonably?) humid 55-degree New York New Year's Day.

The window next to me is wide open. Upper West Siders are slouching about in jeans and windbreakers.

Had they not hanged a dictator in the waning hours of 2006, we might have paid greater heed to the Ayles ice shelf, a 41-square mile chunk of the Canadian arctic that just melted from its moorings and cracked apart into the ocean. Except it didn't "just" melt; the melting and cracking happened 16 months ago. But no one was there to notice it.

With all of our media outlets, Internet chatter and global positioning satellites, a tree still falls in the forest, and 11,000 football fields' worth of ice slips into the sea.

It remains impossible to be in more than one place at a time, of course, which is one of the frustrations that led me to write Japanamerica. The book is as much an exploration of a life lived in or between two or more worlds as it is a treatise on the proliferation of Japan's cultural totems in the US — anime, manga and supermarket sushi; Harajuku Girls and Haruki Murakami.

While working on it in Tokyo, I kept a sign above my desk — "Your reader is American" — so I wouldn't lose myself in the more arcane aspects of Japanophilia. Writing in New York and other parts of the US, I was constantly on the phone or writing emails to Tokyo, trying to keep my finger on a pulse beating 7,000 miles away.

So today is ganjitsu (New Year's Day) in Japan, and while last night's roast lamb and champagne toast among friends in Brooklyn were lovely, I find myself missing the rituals of shogatsu (New Year's holidays) across the Pacific.

Here we have a midnight blowout and daylong recovery amid football games, then we bow our heads and get back to work. In Japan, the holidays last an entire week, incorporating ritual cleansings (of sins and one's abode); traditional foods (osechi — prepared in advance and lasting several days so all in the household can rest — soba noodles, mochi rice cakes, and others); visits to shrines to pray for the coming year (and sip sweet hot sake); celebrations of the year's firsts (sunrise and dreams, in particular); legions of gifts and cards (nengajo), and lots of rest.

Shogatsu is very much a familial holiday, and because my mother and half of my extended family are Japanese, I have been fortunate enough to experience it as such. (Christmas Eve in Japan, by contrast, is more like our New Year's Eve: a romantic night out for lovers. But that's for another blog.)

Still, there are plenty of Japanamerican pop happenings to satiate. These past two weeks, two titles whose makers I interview extensively in Japanamerica are debuting: Tekkon Kinkreet, the first major Japanese animation directed by an American, opened in Japan this Christmas; Afro Samurai, the first big money effort at marrying Japanese animators with US talent (Samuel L. Jackson, the RZA, Ron Perlman) premieres on Spike TV this Thursday night.

And even as I write, New Year's Day is already finished in Japan. It's just that this time, I couldn't be there to notice it.

* * *

Roland Kelts is a Lecturer at the University of Tokyo and a co-editor of the New York-based literary journal, A Public Space. His articles, essays, and stories have been published in Zoetrope, Playboy, Doubletake, Salon, the Village Voice, Newsday, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and the Japan Times, among others. He currently splits his time between New York and Tokyo. Visit the Japanamerica web site to learn more.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop... Used Hardcover $11.95
  2. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop... Used Hardcover $11.95


Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.

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