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“I’m gonna do so badly on this” — Student Folk Belief

My informant is a Vietnamese student currently attending high school in Irvine, California in a predominantly Asian-American neighborhood. She was born in Irvine and has lived there all her life, and the high school she attends now, ranked in the top ten public high schools in America, is notorious for its rigor, and its extremely studious students. When I asked her whether she knew superstitions pertaining to her school, she jumped up with this one almost immediately:

I know it’s probably not just my school, and there are probably people that do this in schools everywhere, but I think it’s especially bad here because everyone does it and everyone really believes in it too. Like, before a test, you’re never supposed to say out aloud that you think you’re ready. Ever, like, it’s taboo or something. You’re always supposed to say, “Oh my God, I’m so screwed,” or like, “I’m gonna do so badly on this,” because otherwise, there’s this stupid superstition that you’re gonna fail. [Laughing] And it’s really annoying when the super-smart kids do it too, and you know they’ve studied for like the past week straight, and they’re saying things like, “Oh, I just started studying yesterday,” and I’m like, “No you didn’t!” Like, if you say you think you’re ready and you think you might do well, people kind of look at you like you’re being cocky or arrogant or something. And then people say all the time how once, they thought they were ready for a test and said so, and they ended up failing. And then the next time they like, lowered their expectations or whatever, and said they were gonna fail, and they end up getting an A-plus. Everyone does it. [Smiling] I mean, it’s stupid, but I do it too. What’s better than like, not having any expectations at all, you know?

In a school culture dominated by grades and academics, this superstition, which is, as she said, probably present in any high school, is intensified and ritualized. Saying, “I’m gonna do so badly on this” is a student trying to lower their expectations in case the test is more difficult than they had thought, and at the same time trying to disarm, in a way, “the competition,” as my informant put it. “People at my school are super-competitive.” She said. “It’s funny, like, there’d be people that would even argue about which one was more not ready, so that if they did get a bad grade it’d be justified or something.”  The lower the expectations, the less the disappointment would probably be–which is why it is such a good defense mechanism.

That these students even need a superstition like this seems testament to the immense amounts of pressure placed on them as high school students expected to advance to prestigious universities. By telling themselves and others that they aren’t ready for an exam, they push the blame for a bad grade on not being ready, instead of, perhaps, the scarier alternative, which is not being smart enough. A minor superstition, but its proliferation at her high school probably expresses a certain terror for not being capable enough–we can always try harder, but if we try really hard and we still can’t get a good grade, then where do we go? Are we just not smart enough? And that question is what these students seem the most afraid of.

 

Customs
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Holidays

Pepero Day — Korean Singles Awareness Day

Pepero (빼빼로) is a cookie stick, dipped in chocolates syrup, manufactured by the Lotte company in South Korea:

Pepero (빼빼로)

Pepero Day is an observance in South Korea similar to Valentine’s Day. It is named after Pepero and held on November 11th, because the date “11/11″ resembles four sticks of Pepero.

My informant spent her childhood in Korea and moved to Irvine, California upon her entrance into high school. Irvine as a city has a significant Korean population–as such, Korean and other Asian-American students at her high school celebrated Pepero Day every year. However, though it is unclear whether this is a regional or a Korean-American variation, Pepero Day at her high school focused more on people who were single than couples, because they saw the Pepero sticks as symbolizing people standing upright, on their own, without need for another person. This could be because of the nature of her high school, which, while ranked in the top ten of the best high schools in America, with its ultra-high SAT scores and proliferation of AP classes, was apparently sadly lacking (according to her) in the area of romance and relationships. “People were always too busy to date,” She said. “They were married to their grades, basically, and any other kind of relationship was a sort of cheating because it might bring their grades down.”

This was, obviously, not the case for the entire school, and she may have been exaggerating; however, it is clear that her Korean and other Asian-American friends had somehow shifted this day to reflect their own plight, making it a joke about their studiousness by labeling it a kind of “Singles Awareness Day.” Traditionally, my informant said, in Korea, the holiday is observed by young people and couples, who exchange Pepero sticks and other romantic gifts. At her school, people walked around with boxes of Pepero, handing them out to their friends and saying things like, “Better luck next year!” or “Happy Singles Day!” Oftentimes, people who were in relationships were denied Pepero sticks, and jokingly told, “You’re in a couple, you don’t need a Pepero for companionship!”

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
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Protection
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Toy Story Pencil — Japanese Entrance Exam Folklore

In Japan, unlike America, college admission is determined by one’s passing or failing of one entrance exam on one specific day. There are no chance for re-takes, and there is no alternate test. The rules are strict; if you happen to be sick on that one day, if you get into a car crash on the way there, you could either take the exam while sick or injured, or wait and study for another whole year to take the exam the year after. Furthermore, the rules dictate that you may only take one entrance exam per day. If two prospective schools are having their entrance exams on the same day, you are required to choose the one you prefer more. Students in Japan begin to study for their college entrance exams usually as early as their last year of middle school, studying for a total of four or more years (at school, at home, and in cram schools whose classes often go well past midnight) in preparation for one exam on one day. The rules are strict, admission to the four or five most prestigious programs that everyone tests for is notoriously difficult, and all the hard work may come down to being sick on the one day that determines the course of your life. The system, in a word, is merciless.

My informant lives in Nagoya, Japan, and had up until a month ago, been snared in this system. Having completed her college entrance exam and confirmed her entrance to Sophia University, she looked back on the past few years of her life and told me that it must have been the most stressful time of her life, but that she had her “Toy Story pencil” to help her out. Laughing, half-joking, she said that it actually must have been the pencil that had allowed her to pass the exam.

The “Toy Story pencil” had risen out of a legend circulated at her high school. A few years back, a male student from their high school had passed the entrance exam to Tokyo University, arguably the most prestigious school in Japan. This by itself would not have been legend-worthy, except that nobody had expected very much of him; he had begun to study for the entrance exam his final year of high school when everybody else had already been studying for years, and was ranked a little bit below average in his class. People knew of him, however, because of his obsession with Disney and especially with Toy Story. He watched all the movies, went full-out Woody on Halloween, had a Toy Story pencil case, and was apparently very skilled at drawing pictures of all the characters.

When word got around that he had been accepted to Tokyo University, the rumors and the legends began. He apparently had a pen that he had been using for years, a Toy Story pen that he had bought at some local stationery store. It was well known amongst his immediate classmates that he took pride in the fact that he had not lost that pen for his entire final year of high school, the year that he had finally begun to study for the exam. “He took that pencil everywhere,” My informant said. “I mean, it’s really hard not to lose pencils. I must go through at least like, ten or so a year. So it was pretty impressive, actually.” Thus, the younger students at the high school immediately latched onto the pen as a source of good luck magic in exam-taking, making it a sort of folk object–if you could use that pencil and only that pencil for your final year of high school, and you didn’t lose it and it didn’t break, you would be able to pass any entrance exam you took. My informant and her friends, who had not known the Toy Story boy but had long heard of the legend, had dutifully bought their one and only Toy Story pencil at the beginning of their final year. My informant used the Toy Story pen every day, careful not to break it, keeping track of it all times, and eventually passed the exam to her dream school, Sophia University. There were others though, of course, that used the pencil and failed their exams, but then again, said my informant, the pencil was more of a motivational tool than anything else–just having it made one feel more in control. Over her spring break when she visited me, she gave me a Toy Story pencil and told me that if I took care of it, I would probably see good results for the rest of the semester, and I am still using it now.

This intense fixation on an object for good luck, I believe, arises naturally from Japan’s merciless education system. In this system, the students themselves have little to no control. There is one exam per year; there is a pass or fail. “There are,” said my informant, “so many things that could go wrong. I could’ve gotten sick, and they would’ve just said, too bad, come back next year. I tried so hard for the week before the exam not to go out of the house and to eat healthy and sleep a lot, but still. Everyone gets so paranoid before the exams, and there’ve been stories of people sabotaging each other. There’s so much anxiety.” Anxiety, I thought, was the key word. The Toy Story pencil was a small but effective way to soothe anxiety that could give way to more anxiety. It gave people confidence, which perhaps made them study harder.

The Toy Story pencil reflects the intense collective fear and anxiety in the minds of Japanese students concerning the entrance exam procedure. Grabbing at straws, the students at my informant’s high school had clung to this legend, this folk object, to give themselves some semblance of control–and perhaps, strangely enough, it works.

 

 

 

Customs
Digital
Folk speech
general
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Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

“The Lyre” — Marching Band Gossip Publication

My informant lives in Irvine, California, where she participates in the marching band at her high school. The marching band is very closely-knit, made of about a hundred and twenty people, where, she said, “everyone knows everyone and anything that happens is general knowledge in like, two seconds.” Calling themselves bandos, they form somewhat of a sub-culture in their high school, always hanging around the music building and forming their friendships and relationships oftentimes solely within the confines of the marching band.

In this closely-knit community, they have an unofficial gossip publication called “The Lyre,” which is passed out to the members on the bus on their way to performances at football games and competitions. The secret of the writers of “The Lyre” is very heavily guarded, although most people know that they consist of a group of seniors hand-picked by the seniors from the previous year. “The Lyre” is written secretly, printed secretly, and circulated amongst the band at least once every other week, containing generally about fifty pieces of gossip about goings-on within the band, whether made-up or real. The title of “The Lyre,” in fact, is a pun on the word “liar,” and so about half of the gossip is usually fake, made with the intention of being humorous. The other half though, of course, is real, and though monitored by the band director to make sure that nothing potentially offensive makes it through, it caused, my informant says, some pretty awkward situations:

“I think I’ve been in it like ten times, which is an okay number, and none of them have been too bad, except for this one time when they uh, paired me up as a joke with this junior guy who I actually really liked, and I think the guy knew I liked him too. I was a freshman and he was a junior so obviously, you know, it was pretty hopeless and sad. Anyway, everyone always pokes fun at the people who are on The Lyre so they teased us about it for the rest of the football game, like making us stand next to each other in the performance arc and stuff, and since Winter Formal was coming up, they kept teasing me to ask him to formal, which I actually really wanted to do, but then now that they’d said it I didn’t want to do it anymore obviously, because they’d think it was a joke or something. And the writers of the Lyre would feel so freakin’ important. So yeah. They had a whole shitload of control.

A piece of gossip would be presented with the initials of those involved (which were usually very easily recognizable, especially if you were the only one in the band with those initials), like this:

KL and DJ have been seen spotted frolicking off-campus for lunch. Sure didn’t look like they were “just friends” when they were sharing ice cream in the Crossroads the other day.

The fake ones were generally very obviously fake:

SM has had flowers growing on her head for the past week! Who planted it, and who’s watering it? It continues to be a mystery.

Nobody took “The Lyre” very seriously, however, and it was always somewhat of a joke, something light and funny to read on the long bus rides to football games and competitions. “It probably came from how close we all were,” She said. “I think if any other club or group did this, it probably would never have worked out. People would’ve gotten offended or something, and there would’ve been drama. But we all knew each other so well, and so these little things never mattered to us, it was all just funny. And it was also a way to get closer too, through like, shared pain and embarrassment, or something. It’s like, a place to cultivate our inside jokes and isolate ourselves even more from the rest of school. [Laughing] It’s such a cultish thing to do, but it was so fun.”

 

 

 

Adulthood
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general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

豊年祭り (Hōnen Matsuri) — Japanese Penis Festival

豊年祭り in Japanese literally translates to “harvest festival,” though it is more commonly and colloquially known as the “penis festival.” It is a fertility festival celebrated on March 15th in Japan, celebrating the blessings of a bountiful harvest and all manners of prosperity and fertility.

My informant is a student in Nagoya, Japan, and attended the festival this year with her friends. The celebration started in the morning, when Shinto priests playing musical instruments paraded down the streets amongst booths selling phallus-shaped food items and souvenirs.

“There were penis-shaped lollipops, corn dogs, chocolate-covered bananas, ice cream, rice cakes, head coverings, and this rubber penis thing that you could attach to your nose, and this hopping penis figurine thing, and other things I can’t remember, but it was ridiculous. Everyone’s so casual about this too, just like little kids licking penis lollipops like it’s no big deal. It’s funny, because usually Japanese people are so polite and proper and stuff, and then they go out and have something like this, you know? [Laughing] But it’s nice to focus on something that’s so taboo normally, like hey, even if we try to ignore it, it still exists, you know. Penises exist! Sex exists!”

Everywhere, there are huge plaster and plastic statues of penises–tourists and other observers can often be seen climbing on top of them and taking pictures of themselves. The highlight of the festival is a massive wooden phallus carried from a shrine called Kumano-sha Shrine to another shrine called Tagata Jinja. On the way there, passerby are encouraged to touch the phallus for good luck, while Shinto priests trailing behind the phallus impart blessings and prayers. At Tagata Jinja, the phallus is spun furiously, and then set down again for more prayers. After that is the mochi-nage, whereupon observers are showered with small white rice cakes, an act evocative of ejaculation.

This festival obviously originates from an earlier era when bountiful harvests were vital to the survival of a Japanese community. It has since become more about personal fertility, what with Japan’s slowly decreasing fertility rate, with people going to the festival oftentimes for good luck, perhaps with the hope that Japan’s population will begin to pick up again. Nowadays it is also somewhat of a tourist attraction, with curious foreigners and people like my friend, who want to see a show of something so taboo, a strange phenomenon in Japanese society, which is generally so restrictive.

Adulthood
Folk Beliefs
general
Old age
Protection
Signs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

親父ギャグ — Purposely Lame Japanese Jokes

親父 (oyaji) in Japanese is a somewhat derogatory word for middle-aged men (for instance, my informant said that the word 親父 reminds her of a half-drunken forty-ish man sprawled on the couch in a sweaty wife-beater, watching a baseball game). ギャグ (gagu) is derived from the English word gag, and literally just means joke. Translated literally then, 「親父ギャグ」 is “middle-aged man jokes,” which is not far from its contextualized definition.

親父ギャグ aren’t just meant for middle-aged men, however. In short, an 親父ギャグ is simply any extremely lame joke, usually some form of pun or wordplay. There is a stereotype (or a blaison populaire of sorts) in Japan that dictates that middle-aged men are the ones that most often tell these jokes, because they do not care whether other people find it funny, as long as they themselves think that the joke is funny. Indeed, my informant’s father is an 親父ギャグ man, and when he tells one of these jokes, he finds his joke funny, but also finds it funny that none of his audience thought it was funny– in fact, he almost takes pleasure in their raised eyebrows and the shaking of their heads as they say, tiredly but affectionately, “Oh, there he goes again.”

My informant grew up in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, and had 親父ギャグ engrained in her life from a young age by her own father. 親父ギャグ are most times made purposely lame–it seems as if it is a way, almost, of lowering oneself on purpose, so that other people are encouraged to be more themselves as well, a sort of ice-breaker. Look, the performance of it says, there’s no judgment here! Oftentimes 親父ギャグ can liven up a gathering or conversation in that way; it is extremely difficult not to smile or laugh at someone who is laughing hysterically at their own lame joke. When telling an 親父ギャグ, the subliminal aim is not to make everyone laugh at the joke–the point is to have everyone laugh at you laughing at your own joke, making yourself seem more accessible to everyone around you. In that sense, it is often a great act of bravery to tell an 親父ギャグ (unless, of course, you think it’s actually funny, and are embarrassed when nobody laughs at the joke itself). Both parties need to accept that the joke is lame, and laugh about it.

Some examples of 親父ギャグ from my informant’s father, which may or may not retain their humor through the translation (not that there was much humor in them to begin with):

A: “How do you say sidewalk in Japanese?”
B: 歩道? (pronounced hodou, sidewalk, in Japanese.)
C: なるほどう! (pronounced naruhodou, means I SEE! in Japanese)

Get it? Or this:

こんにゃく、今夜食う
konnyaku, konnyakuu
I’ll eat konnyaku tonight.
(This is funny, or supposed to be funny, because the food is konnyaku, and “I’m gonna eat tonight” casually is “konya (tonight) kuu (eat)” so they sound almost exactly the same.)

These are the kind of jokes that would get glazed-over expressions, silence, and low “ohhhhhhh my goodness…….” kinds of reactions if told in America. The difference is, that these jokes’ significance rest in their very lameness.

In Japan, a society governed by relatively strict social hierarchies and characterized by an almost extreme amount of politeness, these lame jokes are a way to let off some steam, and temporarily cast off any forms of judgment. 親父ギャグ are relaxing, in a way, because they do not require much effort from either party–the performer is not really trying to be funny, and all the audience needs to do is roll their eyes a bit, and smile.

ANNOTATION: In Japan, there is a popular children’s book series called 「かいけつゾロリ」(Kaiketsu Zorori), published by Poplar Publishing. The original books were also made into a feature-length film, a comic, and an anime. In this series, the fox protagonist of the story (and a wanted criminal) keeps traveling around the world with the goal of becoming the “King of Pranks.” This fox protagonist, Zorori, is the owner of the ぶっくらこいた (Bukkura Koita), a book that tells 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu) so bad that they physically freeze all those who hear it. In the series, he often uses this books to freeze or confuse his pursuers and opponents in order to make a quick get-away. That 親父ギャグ are used in a children’s series to add humor, then, illustrates the way 親父ギャグ are often viewed in Japanese society–something to make fun of, a distraction of sorts, but something people enjoy and find humorous all the same.

<Hara, Yutaka. Kaiketsu Zorori No Doragon Taiji. Kaiketsu Zorori. Tokyo: Poplar Publishing, 1995.>

<原, ゆたか. かいけつゾロリのドラゴンたいじ. かいけつゾロリ. Tokyo: Poplar Publising, 1995.>

 

 

 

 

 

 

Customs
general
Initiations
Life cycle
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

「蛍の光」– Japanese Oicotype of “Auld Lang Syne”

「蛍の光」

Above is a recording of the song「蛍の光」(hotaru no hikari) taken at the Shuri High School graduation ceremony in Naha-shi, Okinawa, Japan.

「蛍の光」(light of the firefly) is a Japanese folk song sung to the music of the Scottish “Auld Lang Syne.” However, the lyrics of 「蛍の光」are vastly different from “Auld Lang Syne,” and unlike the latter, which is often sung on New Year’s Eve, the Japanese oicotype is almost always used to conclude graduation ceremonies. It has become so integral to Japanese society and culture, in fact, that most Japanese people do not realize that it originated outside of the country, and those who hear it overseas mistakenly think they are hearing a Japanese song. My informant said she has even heard instrumental versions of 「蛍の光」broadcast at restaurants and supermarkets to indicate that it is almost closing time–a practice so engrained in their society that everyone automatically knows, when the music comes on, that it is time to leave.

My informant, whose best friend had been present at the Shuri High School graduation ceremony, said that she would never have thought of the melody as being derived from a Scottish folk song. She had heard and sung it at every single graduation from elementary school on, as had her parents, and her parents before that. Simply hearing this song, she said, was enough to bring back all the nostalgia of graduation, and her mother had said that, even a few months after my informant’s graduation, listening to the song brought tears to her eyes.

Technically speaking, though they learn that the song has four verses, the last two are almost never sung, if only because the latter half contains decidedly nationalistic characteristics–and nationalism has been discouraged in Japan since the American occupation after World War II.

The lyrics of the first two verses, then, are as follows:

蛍の光 窓の雪
書読む月日 重ねつつ
いつしか年も すぎの戸を
開けてぞ今朝は 別れゆく

とまるも行くも 限りとて
互みに思う 千万の
心のはしを ひとことに
幸くとばかり 歌うなり

And translated, they go something like this:

Light of fireflies, and snow by the window
Many suns and moons spent reading
Years have gone by without notice
Day has dawned; and in this morning, we part.

Stay or leave, it doesn’t matter
Hold my memories, in so many
corners of my heart; in one breath,
while we are happy, sing.

Very different from “Auld Lang Syne,” the lyrics are definitely geared towards the ceremonial rites of graduation, and initiation into a new kind of life. No one truly knows the composer of this song, though it is often said, according to my informant, that it had risen out of some college professor’s attempt to set Japanese words to the Scottish tune, and had spread from college graduations all the way down to elementary school moving-up ceremonies.

Strangely enough, however, this is apparently not the only variation or oicotype of “Auld Lang Syne” that exists across the world. When speaking to a Korean friend and mentioning this folklore find, he told me that Korean students sing a Korean oicotype of “Auld Lang Syne” at their graduation ceremonies–singing it for me a little bit so I could hear that the melody was exactly the same though the lyrics, of course, were different. My Taiwanese friend, furthermore, chimed in with, “us too!” and told us that they did the same at their graduation, singing another version of Auld Lang Syne, this time in Taiwanese. Upon doing some research, I found that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of variations of this song all across the world, used as national anthems, farewell songs (Peru), funeral songs (China), and so on. A common thread that seems to tie most of these together, it seems, is the theme of ending something–ending a relationship, a life, or a part of life.

ANNOTATION: There is a song in Japan by a popular pop band called いきものがかり (Ikimonogakari) titled 「ホタルノヒカリ」(which reads and sounds exactly the same as 蛍の光, though it has been changed into another form of the Japanese alphabet, called katakana). Though the lyrics and the melody are completely different, the meaning inherent in the song is very much that of the original 蛍の光–it alludes to graduating, to leaving behind friends to venture into the summer and into the path towards your dreams. “Like the light of the firefly,” The lead singer sings, “the memories will forever glow in my heart, even if the fire of experience eventually fades away.” Japanese pop singers like to churn out these sorts of graduation songs, probably because they have such a wide and receptive audience. 蛍の光, which was birthed out of a Scottish folk song, has become an oft-used symbol in the Japanese pop music world to represent a nostalgia-tinged departure.

<いきものがかり. ”ホタルノヒカリ.” ホタルノヒカリ. ERJ, 2009. MP3.>
<Ikimonogakari. “Hotaru no Hikari” Hotaru no Hikari. ERJ, 2009. MP3.>


Earth cycle
general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

청개구리 (The Green Frog) — Korean Folk Tale

My informant told me about a story he had heard in Korea, told to him by a teacher when he was in elementary school:

“Once, there was a frog. A green frog, I guess, or–never mind, it doesn’t really matter. Just a frog. Uh, this frog was really disobedient and never listened to his mom. So if she told him to go one path, he’d go on the other one, and if she told him to shower he wouldn’t, and stuff like that. He just, like, does the opposite of whatever she says. A really mean frog kid. Anyway, so the mom is on her deathbed or something, and she thinks like, because he’s always done the opposite of whatever she says, she tells him to bury her in the ground so that he’ll take the opposite and bury her in the ocean, you know? She actually really wants to be thrown in the ocean, but she tells him the opposite. And so she dies, but uh, the frog kid feels guilty for all the crap’s he done in the past and chooses that moment of her death to decide to do exactly as she says. Which uh, sucks, obviously. So he buries her in the ground thinking he’s finally done the right thing when he’s making this huge mistake that’ll make her spirit or soul or whatever suffer forever. [Silence] And that’s supposed to be why when it rains, the frogs cry. Like, the rain reminds them of the ocean which reminds them of the mother that never got buried where she wanted to be. And they get sad, and they cry.”

My informant said that it was most likely a story disseminated to Korean children in order to instill obedience, to parents and elders at a young age. The tying of the story to the frogs’ crying is mainly a way to connect it to reality and make it seem more believable. That the wayward actions of one frog had caused such collective sadness in the entire frog community also seems to imply that a child’s disobedience to his or her parents is a massive enough act of disrespect that it can tear a hole in the fabric of society. Korean children, my informant said, are thus educated from a young age to respect not just their parents, but all of their elders, through this and other stories.

I found it interesting that this particular story, the one that this informant remembered, was one that had used sentiment and empathy to convey its message to its audience. My informant said that he had heard many stories too, of children being kidnapped by monsters in the night if they disobeyed their parents, but that “The Green Frog” was always the one that stuck with him. Instead of using intimidation and fright tactics, this folk tale trusts in a children’s love for their parents, and evokes its moral only indirectly, implying, you wouldn’t want to make your parents sad, would you? This was probably the reason why, my informant said, that this folk tale has always been one of the ones he has remembered over the years.

Customs
general
Initiations
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

第二ボタン — The Second Button

第二ボタン (daini botann) refers to the second button from the top on a shirt or a jacket. In Japan, a graduating boy gives this second button on their school uniform to a girl he likes. This usually occurs at or immediately after a high school graduation ceremony, when the boy threads the button out of his shirt and gives it to a (usually younger) girl, for whom the gift of this button is considered a tremendous honor.

My informant spent most of her youth in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, and went to a traditional Japanese high school in the seventies. In Japan there are three years of middle school, and three years of high school. She received a 第二ボタン from a boy two years her senior when she was a first-year in high school, which apparently circulated all kinds of rumors at her high school–a first-year receiving a 第二ボタン from a graduating boy was rare and an even greater honor. They knew each other through a club, but she was interested in another boy. Girls were expected to receive the 第二ボタン even if they weren’t interested in the boy, however, and so she accepted it, but nothing actually came of the button-giving.

The depth of this custom depends on the feelings of the performers. On one hand, it can be almost strictly ritualistic. A boy gives his 第二ボタン because he is expected to do so, to a girl he perhaps likes a little bit more than others, or a girl he considers a good friend. Oftentimes, when the boy does not have any particular preferences, girls who are interested in the boy press forward to ask him for the button. On the other hand, however, it can be an extremely romantic gesture. If the boy gives the 第二ボタン to a girl whom he regards with serious interest and the girl responds favorably, it often results in the forming of a relationship. It is all in the way that the performers use the custom. My informant received her second 第二ボタン from her current husband, whom she was already dating when they both graduated.

But most importantly, why the second button? Why not the first, or the third? When I asked my informant this, she said simply, 「一番心臓に近いから」which translates to, “because it’s the closest to the heart.” There are other reasons but this was the one, she said, that everyone seemed to know and regard as most significant. The 第二ボタン had been close to the boy’s heart for the three years of high school, and so receiving it was symbolic of receiving his heart. They had learned that the custom came from soldiers giving their 第二ボタン to the girls they loved before they left for the war. Graduation is obviously very different from leaving for war, but both have the same sense of anxiety about the future, about saying everything that needs to be said, because it might be the last time they see the girl they like, with no school environment to connect them anymore.

My informant was unsure as to whether this custom was performed in all of Japan, or only in the Okinawa prefecture, which is relatively isolated from the rest of Japan. She is also unsure as to whether it is still performed–but when I asked one of my friends who currently goes to high school in Okinawa, she said that it still occurs, albeit less ritualistically and more only if the boy really, really likes a girl. This, I think, is probably because of the advancement in technology and the ease with which they can contact each other even long after they graduate; there is less of a need for such dramatic shows of affection if classmates can keep in touch through Facebook and their mobile phones.

 

 

 

 

Adulthood
Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
general
Initiations
Life cycle

「青春」– Japanese Folk Speech

The Japanese word 青春 does not apply itself to an exact translation in English. The first letter of the word, 「青」literally means “green,” and in this word is used in the context of a green bud or fruit perhaps, just about to ripen. The second letter, 「春」literally means “spring,” or “blooming.” At first glance this may seem like a word meant to indicate a time in the harvest, but it is, in fact, actually a very colloquial word used to describe a romanticized vision of the teenage years of one’s life.

My informant was a teenager in the city of Naha, Okinawa, Japan, in the seventies. The word has been so long engrained in Japanese society that when I asked her about it, she looked perplexed, asking, “What do American people use to describe those feelings then?” Those feelings, as she described them to me: the first time she realized she had strong feelings for a boy, the first time a boy had asked her out, “that feeling you get when you finally get your first kiss,” the moment when she’d realized she wanted to touch the opposite sex, and not just to hit them, either.

“It’s not all this romantic for everybody. [Laughing] I mean, 青春 can be used to describe things like your first summer job, your first summer away from your parents at camp or something, but I keep coming back to this one time, after this guy I liked gave me my first kiss in front of my house, and he left, and I just sat there on the front steps of my house in the dark, just sat there thinking and thinking, that just happened, not wanting to go inside because that would kind of ruin the magic. That kind of… teenage frailty? And vulnerability, how important everything is when you’re that old–that’s what 青春 has always been for me.”

However, I found it interesting that most teenagers themselves do not use the word 青春 to describe their current state. The word is primarily used by older people who have advanced well beyond their teenage years, to look back on a time when everything was fresher, new, and exciting–in fact, it is a word that exists mostly for the purpose of invoking nostalgia. For instance, my informant remembers, when she had finally gone inside the house after sitting on the steps for a while, she had been caught by her mother in the kitchen. Her mother had said, smiling, “Anything happen then?” When my informant shook her head, she couldn’t help but stay grinning like maniac, and of course her mother knew, and said, “Kiss?” My informant nodded, and her mother sighed romantically, saying, 「ああ良いよね〜、青春」which translates to, “There’s nothing like 青春, is there?” Even in this case, it is the mother looking back on her teenage years, perhaps her first kiss, and feeling nostalgia for the time that has passed–sad, perhaps, that that time will never come back to her, but happy for her daughter, who has yet to experience so much. My informant would never have said, for example, “Oh, this is 青春,” for it is in itself a word tinged with nostalgia. Her mother saying “There’s nothing like 青春,” I thought, is the equivalent of an American mother saying, “Oh, I remember my first date,” except in Japan there is a word for it, and it comes pre-packaged with nostalgia.

When my informant asked me whether there was an equivalent word in English, I was surprised. “Puberty,” didn’t really do it–the connotations were too sexual and bodily in nature, and there was not as much of the vulnerability and freshness that colors 青春. A significant part of the meaning inherent in 青春 comes, I believe, from the fact that they do not reference the changing nature of the body; though, of course, it is apparent indirectly in the budding feelings between the opposite sexes, the word focuses more on the emotions and the intense, painful nature of love at that age. Sexual encounters in 青春 are thought of as always awkward, and always romantic, stemming from love and innocent desire more than anything else. Under the umbrella of the word 青春, everything becomes noticeably more innocent, more okay.

Perhaps this word works and is so widespread in Japan because of its extremely homogeneous society; 青春 as a word probably means very similar things to many people across the country, if only because the culture has been so standardized by television and by the homogeneity of the people themselves. There are countless movies, dramas, mangas, and animes devoted to the theme of 青春, and indeed novels concerning this period in life often make the top of the best-seller lists in Japan.

Unlike in America, teenagedom is something the Japanese look back to, then, with a certain fondness. Often, I hear people in America saying that they never want to go back to high school again, that they wouldn’t survive a single day in middle school now–in Japan, although of course some people must feel the same way, the general feeling is one of an almost maternal fondness. Remember this? Remember that? They say, as they watch a new generation of young adults going through the 青春 that they themselves had experienced perhaps long ago. “Lucky them,” my informant said. “If I could stay one age all my life, I think I’d just stay in that period of 青春, it must have been the most fun I ever had.”

 

 

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