USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’
Childhood
Customs
general

Bath Time – Japan

My informant was born and raised in Japan, but moved to America to finish her college degree at the University of San Diego. She told me about a childhood custom that is common among Japanese families.

“In Japan a little daughter and dad shower and bath together is normal–with son too. People from other countries say that’s disgusting. (But) it’s because normally dads don’t have time to communicate with their kids cause the work, so bath time is perfect time to have kids time to them. We did until I was 7 or something.”

I knew she had an older brother, so I asked if her dad would shower with both of them simultaneously or one by one. Her response was:

“Both! But that’s only when we’re little like 3 or 4. After that let’s say probably when I’m taking the bath my dad join me after. We just talk and play in the bathtub. Maybe he help me wash my hair, but not the body.”

I thought it was interesting how my informant pointed out how other countries saw this custom as strange, and felt the need to provide an explanation (almost in a defensive manner). I think it is because in Western culture it is more commonly heard of for mothers to take baths with their children since they are the ones to have given birth and are the “caretakers” of the family. A father  taking a bath with his child–especially a daughter– could be interpreted as inappropriate or even as sexual abuse.

However, baths are a huge part of Japanese custom. Japan has numerous public bathhouses located all over the country, varying from rural to urban areas. These bathhouses have large communal baths that are typically segregated by gender. Visitors comfortably bathe and walk around nude in front of complete strangers. With this information in mind, I was not surprised to hear that it is typical for children to bathe with their fathers.

Folk Beliefs
general
Myths
Narrative

Japanese Creation Myth (As Told by a Scot)

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate had heard this story from somewhere he couldn’t remember, and thought it would be interesting to see how it reflects the “real” Japanese myth.

Dialogue: I would  love to refresh myself on, like, exactly the history and, like, what the names are and stuff, too, but… I think basically, the gist of it was, there are these gods, or like deities at least, in heaven, in like the spiritual realm, um, and two of them one day, I think by order of, like, the elder gods or whatever, um…. There were two of them who were ordered to go down, or maybe just decided, to go down to Earth, the kingdom of Earth, and basically, like, start humanity, like they would do a little pole dance and then everything was born. More on that in a second! So they go, they go down to Earth…. um, it’s like a male god and a female god… They go down to Earth, they’re like descending this crazy cool pole or whatever, and they like do this dance around the pole, um, and like all of life was born, and then they realized, “Wait a minute… Everything’s shitty! None of this… is good.” And, uh… Wait a minute, I’m trying to remember… The order of the speaking is important here, but I don’t remember the order of the story structure, so… Yeah. I’m about to get it though, I’m about to get it. Anyway, point is, they finish their dance, they gave life to everything, and the girl was like… “Great! We’re done!” And the guy was like, “WOAH, that’s weird, that you talked first, hold on! Let’s start EVERYTHING over.” So they go back up to heaven, and they do the dance again, and the guy says, “Hey, that’s great, we made life!” and then the woman was like, “Yeah, right!” and he’s like, “Okay, awesome, everything’s good.” So that’s Japan’s explanation eternally for, uh— Not explanation for misogyny but just a justification, I guess.

Analysis: Two parts of this stood out to me. The first was what my roommate mentioned, the fact that his version of this myth would most certainly be different from the “real” or “official” one, and how interesting it would be to compare the two versions. There were a good amount of pieces of the myth that my roommate left out, including the name of the deities (Izanami and Izanagi) and how the land of Japan came to be specifically, rather than simply “they gave life to everything.” He also added the element of a “pole dance” to the myth, which isn’t present in any other version I’ve looked through.

The other part of this narrative that stuck out to me was the fact that my roommate saw the myth as a justification of misogyny, rather than simply as a pre-science explanation for how Japan and the world came to be. This is what stood out to me as the main difference between hearing the myth told by someone of Japanese cultural heritage and someone (like my roommate) who is not.

Annotation: I looked up more “official” versions of the creation myth, and found that there was a progression from one version to another to the one that my roommate eventually recounted to me. The most similar version to the one above can be found here. The version being credited as taken directly from “Kojiki, the Japanese ‘Record of Ancient Things'” can be found here.

Childhood
Customs
Festival
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival)

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

When I was small, every year on March 3rd, we celebrate this holiday called Hinamatsuri, which is Girls’ Day. And you set up these dolls called hina-ningyō on these 5- to 7-tiered stands called hina-dan and the dolls are supposed to protect the family from evil spirits. And you’re supposed to leave the dolls up for a few days after the holiday because putting them away quickly will be bad luck.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first performed this ritual during her trip to Japan on New Year’s Day in elementary school. She enjoyed Hinamatsuri because it was a memorable family bonding event and it was fun handling the dolls.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

Hinamatsuri, also known as Doll Festival or Girls’ Day, is celebrated every year on March 3rd in Japan. On this day, the parents pray for their daughters’ happiness, health, and growth. This festival originated from a thousand years ago in the Heian Period. It is a tradition to display ceremonial dolls, dressed in the attire of the people of the traditional court, on tiered shelves.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I find it endearing that there is a festival purely dedicated to ensuring a daughter’s happiness and wellbeing in Japan. Over time, it seems that the festival’s promotion of one’s health and good luck has also spread to other members of one’s family. However, the placement of the dolls, decreasing in status as one moves down the platforms, remains generally the same. The festival connects the past to the present by having the ancient court from the Heian Period watch over and protect families of today.

Childhood
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Omusubi Kororin (The Rolling Rice Ball)

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

So an old man was eating rice balls for lunch and he accidentally dropped them into this hole. And the man goes to see where the rice ball went and in that hole he hears like a bunch of mice singing, “Yay, yay!” And then the mice see the old man they’re like, “Oh thank you for the food. You’re so nice. Let’s give you a souvenir. Yay!” And they say, “You can either choose this small box or a large box as a souvenir.” So the old man chooses the small box and when he goes home the small box has a bunch of money and gold inside and since he’s so nice he gives the money and gold to all the people in the town. Then his next-door neighbor hears about this and becomes like super jealous. Then he tries to copy what the old man did and he puts the rice balls in the same hole and the mice were also, “Yay, happy, thank you, you’re so nice!” And then one of the mice asks what he wants for a souvenir. The old man imitates a cat and he tries to scare the mice so they go away and the mice get mad and they attack the old man and they kill him.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant heard this folktale from her grandparents as a bedtime story when she was just a small child. She remembered this tale because of the violent ending and because she likes eating onigiri, or rice balls.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

In Japan, parents would often teach their children important lessons and values through folktales. The lesson of this narrative is that a greedy man never prospers; it teaches children to not be selfish and materialistic.

My Thoughts about the Performance

Considering this is a story mainly directed at children, I was startled to hear such a violent ending. The folktale was very entertaining overall, but I did not expect the villain, the other old man, to die. However, there are many variations of this folk narrative; one alternate ending is that the old man escapes the mice’s den only to be accidentally hit on the head by his wife’s stick, and another is the old man successfully escapes the den without gaining any treasure.

For another version of this folktale, see:

“Omusubi Kororin – The Tumbling Rice Balls.” Morgan Schatz Blackrose International Storytelling. Trans. Morgan S. Blackrose. N.p., 20 Aug. 2016. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <http://www.schatzblackrose.com/blackrose_web/pdf/Omusubi%20Kororin.pdf>.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestures
Signs

Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays

Japanese New Year’s Ozoni

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM described to me some of the basic traditions her family has for New Years Day, especially the cooking of “ozoni”:

“Ozoni is just a soup made with chicken broth, green onion, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, chicken and mochi. My Auntie Kazuko would make it for us every year when we were growing up, and it’s always the first course of a New Year’s Day meal. All of [my mom's] siblings and my cousins would get together at [Auntie Kazuko's] house and while most of the day would be, you know, just a family gathering, we would all sit down together to eat the ozoni. It’s only cooked on New Year’s and you have to go to special Japanese markets to find the ingredients.

“Now with my siblings and kids and nieces and nephews, we get together at my sister’s place – she’s married to a Japanese man, and his mother makes the ozoni. The holiday is pretty similar to how it was for me, where everyone just gathers at someone’s house to watch football and eat food, but the making of the soup and eating it together is like one concrete tradition we do every year. I’m not sure who will keep making it after [my sister's mother-in-law] passes away though…”

My analysis:

The most interesting part of this food tradition for me is the shared background of the family members who actively carry it out – KH told me her Auntie Kazuko was most connected to their Japanese heritage, which is why she insisted on making the soup every year. Similarly, her sister’s mother-in-law is from Japan, and she is the one who facilitates the tradition. It really reveals how certain customs make it overseas when families would move to America, but also how fragile they are. KH isn’t sure anyone else in her family is motivated enough by their Japanese traditions to continue the laborious process of making this particular food. Traditional holidays tend to become more Americanized (in this case) over the years they’re observed away from their roots, and unless enough people are committed to certain customs, they can easily die out.

For more information about ozoni, see:

“Ozoni (Zoni) Recipe.” Japanese Cooking 101. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.japanesecooking101.com/ozoni-zoni-recipe/.
Foodways

Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner with Mac and Cheese

Tradition: An adult male, half Chinese half Texan, brings mac and cheese to his family Thanksgiving dinner every year. The family is a mix of ethnicities: Japanese, Chinese, and Caucasian.

The informant is a half Japanese half Chinese female, age 20.

Informant: For Thanksgiving, we have one cousin (Eric) whose sole responsibility is to bring the mac and cheese. And every year, our aunt asks everyone what they want to bring, and on the list, she’ll write “Eric-Mac and Cheese.” Apparently it’s the best mac and cheese.

Collector: Do you like it? Does your family like it?

Informant: It’s pretty good, I’ve eaten it. I assume that my family likes it. Because he’s demanded to bring it every year. I’m just waiting to see what happens when he doesn’t bring it.

Collector: Where did he learn to make it from?

Informant: I asked him about it, and he said he pulled the recipe off the internet. And he proceeded to forward it to me, so I can make it for myself.

Collector: What do you think it means to you or to your family?

Informant: I think it’s funny that my aunt assumes that that’s the only thing he can make and that we can eat. This has been going on for five years now. So whenever it’s Thanksgiving, I know that there’s something that I can eat–there’s gonna be mac and cheese!

Even though the family has a mix of different ethnic backgrounds, it’s interesting to see that every year, they demand and designated for one family member to bring the mac and cheese to Thanksgiving dinner. I think that this family tradition is reflective of the “melting pot” culture of America, where families come together and share their food cultures with one another.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chado

About the Interviewed: Yuki is a Japanese student  from the University of Hokkaido, currently studying western art and culture. She’s currently participating in an American homestay at a friend’s house in Southern California. Yuki is ethnically Japanese, and she’s said that her family has lived in Japan for a long time. She’s about 21 years old.

My subject, Yuki was willing to tell me about a folkloric tradition in her family. 

Yuki: “My dad performs Chado for work. In English, it means “Tea Ceremony”. Chado is the art of making exquisite tea, but it is also very difficult. You have to train for a long time to do it properly. Chado requires absolute [specific] steps. You can’t make mistakes. People pay a lot of money to watch Chado because it’s traditional.”

I ask Yuki if she can explain what a “Chado” performance looks like.

Yuki: “I can’t do [demonstrate?] it. It’s too hard. My dad studied for a very long time. I’m sorry. I can explain it though. You take a bowl, and you carefully clean it. Then you prepare the tea in a very special way. Chado is history. People used to make tea for Kings using the Chado style.”

I carefully ask if Chado is more about technique, or if the Tea is just that good.

Yuki: “(laughs) The technique is more important. But the Tea is better than most. Chado is about watching tradition.”

I ask what Chado has meant to Yuki.

Yuki: “I think it’s interesting. I just can’t do it. (laughs)”

Summary:

Chado, or Tea Ceremony, is a traditional art performance that has deep historical roots. It involves making tea using a highly articulate technique that requires intense training to master. People pay to watch those who know the technique perform their craft.

Yuki was unable to perform the tea ceremony for me, but independent research has shown me that there are a large number of materials required to make the ceremony “work”. It has a lot to do with the concept of “authenticity” in folklore. People want to engage in a culture that is as close to its original counterpart as possible.

Proverbs

“If you try, you may succeed.”

About the Interviewed: Yuki is a Japanese student  from the University of Hokkaido, currently studying western art and culture. She’s currently participating in an American homestay at a friend’s house in Southern California. Yuki is ethnically Japanese, and she’s said that her family has lived in Japan for a long time. She’s about 21 years old.

“為せば成る                                   Nasebanaru  
為さねば成らぬ何事も              Nasaneba naranu nanigoto mo
成らぬは人の為さぬなりけり”    Naranu wa hito no nasanunarikeri

This was a cool proverb that my subject, Yuki, shared with me. Transliterated, it means something like:

If you try, you may succeed.
If you don’t try, you will not succeed. This is true for all things.
Not succeeding is the result of not trying.

She told me that she didn’t come up with it, but rather that it was a proverb from the Edo period of Japan. She said that her parents repeated it to her a lot.

One thing I found striking about this proverb, was how it embodies a drive for success that addresses a fractures ego. Someone who tells themselves they cannot, according to the verse, will not succeed. It takes an open mind and a strong determination to find success in something, at least that’s what I get from it.

Folk Dance
Kinesthetic
Musical

Kamigami-sama Eisa Dance

Eisa is a traditional Okinawan folk dance, and it uses small handheld drums called paranku. People used to dance eisa during traditional festivals, but now it is just performed for cultural entertainment. It is closely related to taiko.

Our taiko group dances eisa to a song called “Kamigami-sama”. It’s from the soundtrack of Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away, and it incorporates many elements of traditional Japanese music. The song’s title means “The Gods”, and it’s actually a silly song about all sorts of gods needing to take all sorts of baths. But people who don’t understand Japanese can’t really tell.

This song has been in our repertoire for quite a number of years now, and we basically just have older members teach the new members every year. Sometimes we might change a bit of the movements or formation, depending on the Artistic Director or on the dancers’ opinions, so each performance is a little different.

Kamigami-sama

The informant is the Executive Director of her taiko group, so she is knowledgeable about the group’s repertoire and the stories behind most songs.

It is interesting that this piece is never performed the exact same way more than once, since the performances are never written / made “sacred”. With this more fluid nature, performances of “Kamigami-sama” could potentially take big changes as the years accumulate.

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