Chapter 11: New Year’s Day
When I first moved to Japan, Christmas was the hardest time of the year. My family have never been the close, clingy kind — we are spread out geographically and early on in my life independence and a love of travel were held up as aspirational traits — but Christmas was special. After my parents divorced it became even more so — two Christmases! Twice the turkey! Two whole days where alcohol at breakfast is not only acceptable but positively encouraged!
My first year in Japan — 2005 — I worked Christmas Day and it was the only time I remember being homesick. The students didn’t help, wanting to know all the details about a traditional Christmas. It was exasperating repeatedly telling them that we don’t eat cake or go to KFC on Christmas Day. I explained how most people have turkey, but not everyone. One of my friends has a family tradition where they try to never repeat an animal for Christmas lunch. Duck one year, goose the next, wild boar and so on. Thinking about all that roasting meat made me miss home even more
The following year, I flew back to Scotland just before Christmas. I had really bad jet lag all through the festivities and got stuck at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for 10 hours on the return leg thanks to a blizzard. After that, I decided to grow up. Really, Christmas is for children. I am not a child and we are childfree, so Christmas is little more than a chance to torture myself with nostalgia. And as an atheist, the supposed “meaning” of Christmas is just ancient cultural appropriation.
Japan, having been forever free of Victorians and Christians, rightly views Christmas as a shopping extravaganza: a quaint festival not to be taken seriously by any but the retail sector and young paramours. The new year, however, that’s the thing. Companies close from around Dec. 29 to about Jan. 4 and everyone heads home. If Chris Rea were Japanese he’d have delayed his song by a week.
For us that means visiting my wife’s family. This year was bigger than usual. My wife is a nurse and usually volunteers to work New Year’s Eve but this year she was off. My brother-in-law is an architect and has been working in Mozambique for the last couple of years but had worked things so that he could be back in time for the party. For once, the entire extended family would be there.
This year, the party was held at Uncle’s house, an all-day affair. Lunch and dinner, separated by a sobering walk.
To be honest, I think the way to stop whale hunting in Japan is to let people try eating it.
The in-laws like a drink. It was one of the things that helped smooth things over when my wife brought a foreigner home. People who like to drink tend to enjoy a healthy love of schadenfreude and schadenfreude makes the world go round. My fumbled attempts at polite Japanese and frequent foot-in-mouth moments caused friendly laughter rather than disapproval. We bonded over that and the drink.
My father-in-law, in particular, is a fan of malted barley and hops. I remember on the day of my wife’s sister’s wedding he had been told by his wife that he wasn’t allowed to start drinking until I arrived. We pulled into the driveway just before eight a.m. to find him standing on the tarmac, a can of Asahi in each hand, beckoning me onto the rocks like Calypso.
This year, I took a case of Brewdog’s Punk IPA — product of my homeland, born not far from where I came into the world and now available in Japan — and a bottle of The Glenlivet as ambassadorial gifts. While the niblings ran amok with toy trains and envelopes of otoshidama (cash given to all children on New Year’s Day and an expensive tradition for the childfree), we adults sat on the tatami around low tables partaking of sushi, sashimi, various fried meats and Uncle’s impressively large sake collection. In his retirement, he has decided to become an expert in the field, mainly, I suspect, because “connoisseur” sounds so much better than “heavy drinker.” He likes playing the host and the food and drink flowed freely.
Foreigners who live in Japan know and loathe the hassle that comes with public eating. Every dish laid before you is accompanied by the question “Taberaremasuka? (“Can you eat this?”) followed by the kind of surprise usually only seen on the faces of simpletons at magic shows when you announce that yes, you can indeed eat potato salad, fried chicken or salmon. It’s well meaning but inspired by a moronic media that believes it’s only role is to support the idea of Japanese cultural uniqueness. Every second TV show has a foreigner on it looking suspiciously at a dish or acting amazed at how delicious uncooked fish can be despite the fact it’s now available in most cities around the globe. Over the years, we’ve managed to train my in-laws to stop asking, so it was with some disappointment when Uncle laid a plate of something in front of me and I heard him say: “Taberaremasuka?”
“Yes, of course,” I answered, slightly more tersely than I intended and without even looking at the plate. Really, we’re back to this? I thought as I reached out with my chopsticks and took something that looked worryingly like bacon made from Play-Doh — kind of white and pink, but in shades of those colors not found in nature. Some kind of reconstituted fish, I assumed, putting it in my mouth. It was revolting. Gelatinous and fatty. I quickly swallowed it down followed by an entire glass of beer.
“You’ve had it before?” Uncle said.
“I don’t think so. What is it?”
“Did you like it? I got it as a gift. I’ve never tried it before either. To be honest, it isn’t that great, is it? I didn’t think you’d want to eat it. I didn’t think any foreigners ate it.”
“What is it?” I could feel it settle greasily somewhere near the top of my stomach. I was getting worried.
“Whale! But that’s…”
“It’s what?” My wife came over and prodded the meat. As I slipped quietly to the bathroom and less quietly disposed of the whale bacon, an argument started up about the ethics and politics of whale hunting. Few things are more seasonal than a family argument over the holidays. Nobody was in favor of whale hunting. Rather the argument revolved around what to do with an unwanted gift. Chuck it out, was my wife’s position. Free food is free food, said my uncle. If someone gives you a gift you don’t just toss it away. You try it first, then give it to the dog.
To be honest, I think the way to stop whale hunting is to let people try eating it. Few people I know in Japan have ever tried it. Most never even think about it. According to various reports the meat ends up either taking up space in freezers, unsold or “donated” to elementary school canteens. As Uncle proved, it’s nearly impossible to even give the stuff way. It’s utterly disgusting. There is no economic argument for hunting since that requires both supply and demand. There is literally no demand. The only argument the government has for continuing to hunt whales is that it’s tradition. But “tradition” doesn’t automatically mean something is good and can’t be ditched. Despite Christmas once being a pillar of the year, I’ve tossed it to one side and replaced it with a new tradition. It can be done. Admittedly, some aspects of this new tradition are similar to the old one, like the family argument in the middle of the day followed by a walk to let everyone cool off.
In the garden, we looked at my nibling’s pet rabbit, all white and fluffy, big ears flopping around.
“In Scotland people eat rabbits,” said my wife, helpfully. Fortunately no niblings were nearby.
Everyone turned to me, horror in their expressions. “How can you eat rabbits?” Aunt said. “They’re so cute!”
“And delicious,” I said. “A friend of mine had rabbit stew for Christmas lunch once.” I looked at Uncle and pointed at the rabbit. “Taberaremasuka?”
For a second there was an awkward pause. Then he burst out laughing.
“Let’s try some of your Scottish beer,” he said, and we went inside for round two.