USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’
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.

Legends
Narrative

Yuki-Onna the Snow Lady

One day two pair of woodcutters Minokichi and Mosaku go out into the mountains to gather wood, but a snowstorm prevents them from getting home. Mosaku—the father of Minokichi—suggests that they should find a cabin in the mountains to stay in to hide from the storm, and they do just that. When Minokichi wakes up the next morning though, he sees that Mosaku has been frozen to death, and a beautiful lady in white—that’s Yuki-Onna (雪女; lit. “snow woman”)—is standing over him. She finds Mosaku very handsome so she does not kill him and lets him go, but she says, “You must promise you will never tell anyone about me, or else I must kill you,” and then she disappears.

Years later Mosaku falls in love with a woman, and they get married and have children and everything. But the wife doesn’t age. One night Mosaku tells his wife, “You know, you are so beautiful in such a magical way. Every time I look at you, I remember this one time I met a snow lady just as beautiful as you, and she spared my life.”

Mosaku’s wife becomes angry, exclaiming, “That Yuki-Onna was me!” She wants to kill Mosaku but she didn’t want to hurt her children too, so she spared his life once again, and disappears.

Informant had studied abroad in Japan and considers herself more Japanese than Chinese or American. She learned such folklore from her Japanese friends.

The story of Yuki-Onna seems to have been adapted into a number of fictional materials, possibly because of the motif of the evil but beautiful white-clad woman that kills men, but also possibly because of the plot twist.

Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Kappa, the River Child

Kappa (河童) is a creepy child-like, frog-like creature that has a bowl of water in its head. They also have a shell and a beak and webbed fingers and toes. They’re very mischievous and they’re excellent swimmers becuase they live in the rivers and lakes. They always have to have water in their bowl though, because the water gives them strength. It’s like their blood.

They like playing pranks on people, and sometimes they do worse things too, like drowning people. But if you can somehow get it to spill the water on its head by making it bow down to you or otherwise, you can make the kappa subservient to you.

They love eating cucumbers. Some people say that if you eat cucumbers before you go swimming, you’ll get attacked by a kappa, but others say it could prevent that from happening.

Informant had studied abroad in Japan and considers herself more Japanese than Chinese or American. She learned such folklore from her Japanese friends. The story of the kappa may be used as a cautionary tale in Japan to keep children from playing in water without supervision.

Legends
Narrative

Momotarō

One day an old woman was washing her clothes by a stream and a giant peach floats down the water. When she took it home to show her husband and to share the peach, a boy popped out, claiming to be their son sent from the gods. Because he came out of a peach, the couple decided to name him Momotarō (桃太郎).

When Momotarō grew up he decided to go on an adventure, and he befriends a monkey, a rooster, and a bear. Together they fought oni (鬼; ghosts) on an island and claimed their treasures, which Momotarō then took home to his parents. They lived happily ever after.

Informant had studied abroad in Japan and considers herself more Japanese than Chinese or American. She learned such folklore from her Japanese friends.

Folk Dance
Kinesthetic
Musical

Seijun Suzuki 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.

An old member of our taiko group is now with L.A. Shisa, a local eisa group, and she recently came back to teach us this song. She danced to it and had us follow step by step, and eventually we performed “Seijun Suzuki” in our annual Spring Concert for the first time.

The funny thing about this song is that it is based on a hip-hop song by Blue Scholars that is named after a famous Japanese movie director called Seijun Suzuki. Another alumni of our taiko group remixed the song “Seijun Suzuki” to combine local Angeleno culture and taiko’s Japanese roots.

Seijun Suzuki Eisa

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.

Not only is this contemporary eisa piece similar to the pop-culture mashups that are the craze on YouTube, the way the informant’s taiko group learned Seijin Suzuki was also very performative too, since the L.A. Shisa member had taught them through performance.

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