David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

Japan Stories #11: Bonuses and Bonenkai

Cathy woke up one morning looking like a rabbit. Her eyes were both as red and infected as you could imagine. It didn't take too long to realize that this was going to need professional attention. Hence, our first interaction with the Japanese medical community.

Professor Inoue, who works in the lab I am visiting, called and then escorted us to the Osaka University student health service. The doctor there took one look at Cathy's eyes and sent us over to the Toyonaka Municipal Hospital. Inoue-san drove us over, bearing a letter of introduction from the university doctor. Since it was 11AM---after clinic hours---the doctor had also called ahead to make sure that Cathy would be seen immediately.

The hospital was surprisingly crowded (maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise, since it is Japan after all). The halls were drafty and full of wandering patients of all ages and diseases. It didn't feel like the efficient Japan that we've become accustomed to. After examining her for about 45 seconds, the doctor diagnosed Cathy as having acute conjunctivitis. He prescribed some antibiotics for her and Inoue-san took us to pay for the visit and to get the medicine. He said we were supposed to follow the blue line to the cashier. After following it down a long hallway, the blue line split into two blue lines---bureaucracies are the same everywhere. The visit and medicine together cost about 6000 yen (about $40). The drugs took a couple of days to do the trick, and I can now look Cathy in the eyes again.

Everybody tells us that winters get cold in Japan. They haven't really so far, but apartments like ours, which are called mansions, are essentially uninsulated concrete blocks. So the real problem is that the temperature inside is not so different from the temperature outside. We do have a heater in the kitchen/dining room combination, but it's costly to heat concrete that way. So, Cathy purchased a used kotatsu from an Irish friend who was leaving Kyoto and returning to where they warm themselves the old fashioned way---with a six pack.

What is a kotatsu? It's the traditional way that Japanese heat their houses and apartments. It's a small, low table with a heating element under the tabletop. Traditionally kotatsu were heated using coal, but now they are electric. To get the most benefit from the heat, you use a fireproof blanket between the heating element and the tabletop. The blanket is wider than the table, hanging off a foot or two in each direction. You sit at the kotatsu with your legs under the blanket, where you can read, eat, watch TV, and write these stories on the Macintosh. It really does keep you toasty, seems to be energy-efficient, and we're thinking about using them when we get back to Seattle.

Even though daytime temperatures have recently been in the forties, school kids wear the same uniforms as they did in autumn. In many of these cases, especially for the younger children, this means that they are running around in shorts. Even the one morning we had some snow flurries, I saw a couple of kids wandering around wearing shorts. We've heard that the reason for this is to make the kids strong. Frankly, I preferred getting strong by eating Wonderbread and Wheaties.

Cathy wanted to build a demonstration solar box for a Japanese environmental fair that was held during Aki-matsuri, a fall festival. A solar box is a sun-driven oven that is made of glued together foil, cardboard, newspaper, and glass. Now, you might think that it might be most difficult to find glass, or foil, or even cardboard. But you'd be wrong. It was glue that took Cathy two days to find. She first went to a small household goods store (for you Pittsburghers, it's not much different from Ratners). They understood her Japanese without problem, but they had no glue. They said, "You'll have to go to a *big* store to get glue." So, she headed off to Daiei, a K-Mart style department store one train stop away. There she was told--- by a clerk who had called their information desk---that Daiei had no glue anywhere in the store. Well, Cathy was more than a bit flabbergasted and perplexed. But she wandered around Daiei for a while and found a corner that was a mini do-it-yourself carpentry section. And, lo and behold, they had glue. Cathy's theory is that most families in Japan don't use or need glue, since there is a strong tendency to throw things away rather than fix them. And why else would you need glue?

One night the doorbell rang. This is always a traumatic experience. This time, it was worse than usual. One of our downstairs neighbors came by and talked to Cathy for a long time about the holidays and about garbage. Then she gave Cathy a key, saying something about garbage being our job for a week and to pass the key onto another neighbor the following week. At least that was Cathy's best guess about the conversation. We took the key out late at night and found the door the key opened: it was the pump room, just as the key ring said. But there was no garbage, which was good, since we had no idea what we would have done with it. The next morning, which was combustible garbage day, we searched each of the six floors of our building for garbage, since Cathy thought the neighbor had said something about doing this. Indeed, there were two or three bundles that we took out in front, where we always leave our own garbage. There was nothing later in the week, and we passed the key on. Nobody has marked our door with rotten orange peels yet, so maybe we didn't screw up too badly.

There are four different kinds of garbage days in Osaka: combustibles, non-combustibles, "big" combustibles, and "big" non- combustibles---or something close to that. There is almost no residential recycling, except for beer bottles. A lot of people burn paper and lawn debris in open fires, which makes some autumn days pretty smokey. This is especially bad in Osaka and Tokyo, where pollution is a serious problem anyway.

In December we decided to have two Hanukkah parties for Japanese friends. On the third night of Hanukkah Professor Torii, my host, his wife Keiko, his daughter Kazumi, and his secretary, Satomi Nishida, came bearing gifts. To be honest, we weren't surprised, since the "gift wars" here are fierce. They brought a bottle of Beaujolais. (The Japanese are one of the world's biggest consumers of Beaujolais. Bringing the Beaujolais from France was more complicated than usual this year, since the imports were halted for nearly a week due to strict security measures before and during the Emperor's Enthronement.) They also brought incredible flowers, which Kazumi arranged in traditional Japanese style. In fact, all four of our guests are trained in ikebana, so Kazumi had some kibitzing from them. Keiko also brought a homemade Christmas wreath made of bread, as well as a sweet Christmas cake. The main course, of course, was lots of potato latkes (with sour cream and homemade applesauce), which everybody liked a lot. We lit the holiday candles, told the story of Hanukkah, and played dreidyl for chocolate Hanukkah yen.

Three nights later we peeled a lot more potatoes to feed a bigger and more eclectic group. The guests were Diane, an anthropologist, Satomi, a sociologist, Thomas, Satomi's boyfriend who had just come in from Germany the day before, and two researchers (Inoue- san and Matsumoto-san) and two graduate students (Iida-san and Kusumoto-san) from Osaka University. Fitting all these people into our place was a little tight, especially since we only own four chairs. But we borrowed two more chairs from the university, and used our new kotatsu, so everything worked out great. The general menu and activities were the same. (Well, Cathy slipped in some cranberry sauce and kim-chee to put on the latkes. This was a big hit: try it sometime!)

Of course, everybody brought presents, including plum wine, dried fruits, huge apples, and a sinfully rich pudding. The hit, though, was "Hyakunin-isshu" a traditional New Year's Japanese card game that Inoue-san brought. The game is based on one hundred poems written by one hundred different poets. All schoolchildren in Japan must memorize all one hundred poems. (Just the other day, we saw stacks of this game in one of the department stores. Some included audio tapes so students could practice on their own for the big yearly tournaments. There were even CDs with the chanting available.) To play the game you lay out a hundred cards that have the second half of each poem written in hiragana, one of the Japanese phonetic alphabets. One person chants each full poem (from another set of cards). The object is to grab the card corresponding to the one being chanted. Of course, the Japanese guests had two advantages: they read hiragana much faster and they actually remember some of the poems. However, we gaijin didn't do so poorly. Cathy got 12 cards, Diane got nine or 10, I got eight, and even Thomas got three (which pleasantly surprised Satomi, who had no idea that he could read any Japanese at all). Kusumoto-san won with 27. In Japanese-style, the players are ranked from top to bottom. The losers make a pile of their hands on the floor, with the second best on the bottom and the worst on the top. The winner winds up and slaps as hard as possible at the pile of hands: some people were soothing their hands for quite some time afterwards. The prize structure is quite an incentive to win.

Early every December and June workers receive a significant bonus: almost always more than a month's salary and sometimes three months or more. (I have heard that the difference between academic and industrial base salaries isn't so different, but the industrial bonuses are significantly larger.) At the branch of Nippon Electric Glass where Cathy taught English, there are several hundred workers. Their bonuses, *in cash*, were brought to the site in a paper bag by two company officials on a commuter train. Imagine that happening on a New York City subway.

Late December in Japan is party-time. In particular, it's bo-nen-kai ("forget the (past) year") time. There are lots of easy ways to tell this. For instance, you start to see women in kimono, some of whom are keeping warm with the unusual combination of mink stoles and rabbit furs. Another interesting combination is Japanese workers and alcohol. Although there is quite a bit of drinking all year long, after bonuses are distributed it gets out of hand. The late trains are filled with red-faced men who are only able to stand up because there are so many of them packed together. Riding on the trains can get you drunk on whiskey vapor. It's even less pleasant when you get off the train, since you run the risk of stepping into "platform pizzas", which are the result of individuals who had too much sushi, too much yakitori, and too much sake.

Cathy's English students took her out after the last class. Since it was during regularly scheduled class hours, Cathy decided to teach them some drinking vocabulary. So, now at Nippon Electric Glass bonenkai, intermediate English students can be heard saying things like: "I can drink you under the table", "Your sister drinks like a fish", and "Let's get shitfaced." It seems especially curious that there seem to be very few similar phrases in Japanese---at least nothing that they're willing to tell us---even though drinking is such a popular activity here.

We are constantly reminded that Japan is an Asian country. Cathy attended a foreign students' party at Kobe University, and I attended one at Osaka University. At Cathy's party she was the only Caucasian. At my party, there was one other, a student from Peru. Most foreign students in Japan are from China, Korea, Thailand, and other Asian countries. I often go a day or two without seeing another Caucasian face on campus.

On Christmas Day, we went to Kyoto to the Kitano-Temmangu flea market, held on the 25th of every month. It's like a flea market anywhere else, with stuff out of people's garages, good stuff and bad stuff, cheap stuff and expensive stuff, lots of people, and lots of food. Of course, there are some differences. For instance, it's held at a big old Shinto Shrine instead of at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibilities. The food includes octopus, Japanese noodles, and sake, and the stuff from peoples' garages includes old swords, kimono, lacquerware, geisha wigs, bonsai trees, coal-heated kotatsu, temple bells, toe socks, and exotic Americana (like Elvis records and lava lamps). Some of the things we really wanted to get, but couldn't quite see bringing back, included: a metal pig with the cuts of meat marked in Japanese, a traditional staircase-style cupboard that opens to both sides, an umbrella stand with a seven- foot carved bear holding a mirror (we were afraid that our stuffed bear would be jealous), and a full suit of Japanese armor. We consoled ourselves with: a set of soy sauce dishes, a red rice bowl, a set of lacquer trays, a set of lacquer bento boxes, and a two-tiered circular lacquer bowl. Although none are works of art, it was a deal and a steal. Of course, the folks who sold to us are probably still laughing about how much they got for this junk.

Christmas. The Japanese know about Christmas. They know it's a time to go to parties, to play Christmas music, and to sell an incredible amount of Christmas paraphenalia, including trees, cakes, wreaths, stuffed snowmen, and presents. That doesn't sound so different from the U.S., except that here Christmas is an entirely secular holiday. It's not at all clear that many Japanese have any idea whatsoever about the religious significance of Christmas. Indeed, Christmas Eve is the biggest night of the year for dating. Guys rent fancy cars like BMWs and Mercedes, reserve $200/night hotel rooms months in advance just in case, and give their girlfriends expensive presents (this year's hot item was anything from Tiffany's, which has a branch in one of the department stores). Hot places for dates are Disneyland, expensive restaurants, Christian church ceremonies for a taste of the exotic, and even short trips to Korea or Hong Kong.

Our neighborhood was in full Christmas swing. The loudspeakers on the shopping street played secular Christmas carols hour after hour. Once in a while, they played Japan's most famous Christmas song: Beethoven's Ninth. The bakeries all sold Christmas cakes (cakes decorated with snowmen and Santa, for instance), and many stores advertised Christmas specials. Many clerks wore Santa outfits. One night, even our pizza was delivered by a thin, black-haired Santa.

All signs of Christmas are quickly removed by the 26th to prepare for the most important Japanese holiday, New Year's Day. But that's another story entirely. (Stay tuned for that and one on Matsumoto-san's visit to Kansai.)