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Obama Poster for Change – Japanese character for 2008, Hen (Change)

Barack Obama’s catch phrase is nothing new for the Japanese who have plenty of hope and change without having to vote for it. The idea of “out with the old and in with the new” is probably universal, but here it is an absolute, a sharp demarcation of time, a metamorphosis.

This total rupture of time nearly did me in when I encountered it during my first winter here in December, 1974. Over the year I had built up a small, but what I believed was a dedicated cadre of language students. Then, in the last two weeks of December, each and every one of them ended the class with a somber speech:

“This is our last class so we want to thank you for teaching us this year.”

I forced a smile as I received their parting gift of wine or cake, then dragged myself home to inform my wife that I had lost yet another student. No sympathy, not even a scolding for reducing our limited income – instead mockery!

“Your students are telling you this is the end of this year’s teaching, not the end of the class.”

“But there was such a sense of finality about the whole scene!”

“Of course. It was the final class of the year!”

Just to be sure, I asked Kayoko to call each of them to confirm the first class of the new year and sure enough, all of them scheduled their usual times. For the last 35 years I have watched the same scenes played out, only with fewer gifts each year.

The other obvious cultural expression of this annual death/rebirth is the bonenkai (year-end party) that literally translates as a “forget the year party” and the  shinnenkai (New Year party) which usually follows in January.

With so many parties going on, I really expected a bang up of a New Year’s Eve, something wild and raucous like the Chinese New Year’s – wrong! While dedicated party animals can always find a place to brawl, most Japanese enjoy a sedate, even sedative New Year’s celebration.
No Champagne balls here – more often a quiet night at home. Since the 1950s, TV has dominated the event just as it does most everything here. Throughout the evening of the 31st, the air waves are filled with the NHK Public Network’s “Red & White Song Fest” where enka and J-Pops reign supreme. But many today opt for the Dream mixed martial arts championship fights – which is a good thing since my sister Lenne Hardt is the ring announcer.

Lenne Hardt in the ring for “Yareru no kai”


Not a wrestling fan? Hate TV as much as I do? Turn the damn thing off and listen. In a moment you will hear the muted song of the temple bell ringing out one of the 108 gongs of Joya no kane. Each peel of the bell drives away one of the 108 bonno (human desires) that keep us from achieving enlightenment. The last ring falls in the first moment of the new year.

If you are chasing rather than evading those desires, you can brave the elements and stroll down to your local temple or shrine to mingle with the hordes of mostly young people who line up, sometimes for hours, to beg the gods for good luck in the New Year.

Itabashi Fudohsan, Tsukuba-Mirai, Ibaraki – 2AM Jan 1, 2009

Asakusa Temple, Tokyo – 2AM Jan 1, 2008

The star of this carnival is the daruma doll. Buy one ($10 to $50), paint in one of his eyes and adopt him for the year. At year’s end you can paint in the other eye and offer him to the heavens in a blazing pyre that will obliterate all the bad karma you collected over the year.

The change is complete, the hope instilled and reincarnation is realized with a new daruma who will guide you through your new life in the new year.


The Japanese have a pleasant custom of greeting everyone formally at the beginning of the year with this quaint expression of hope and commitment.

新年明けまして, おめでとうございます。 
(Shinnen akemashite,omedeito gozaimasu)
(Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu) 

The literal translation is:
A new year has begun,this is a happy time.
Again this year,I beg your indulgence.

But what they really mean is something like this:
Happy New Year!
I hope we have another good year together.