A Maudlin Merry X-mas From Jake, Sarah and Everyone At Japan Subculture Research Center
I wish I could be a little more cheerful around this time of year. I can remember a time when the Christmas season didn’t depress me much but it seems like decades ago. Maybe if I was in Japan where Christmas is more festively celebrated by buying tubs of Kentucky Fried Chicken and young couples flock to love hotels to consummate their undying love for each in Hello Kitty! themed love hotel suites or in illuminated Jacuzzi baths or round beds shaking to festive tunes channelled through the “body sonic” (speakers embedded in the mattress frame.)
Well, for me it’s the time of year when I began preparing to send out 年賀状 (nengajo=New Year’s Greeting Cards). It’s an important thing to do in Japan and one nengajou has the power to keep almost dead relationships alive for yet another year. To receive one and not reply is a terrible social mistake and it’s always important to send one along with a hand-written note if humanly possible. In many ways, your nengajo is considered a barometer of who you are and where you are in your life. They are not to be taken lightly although they weigh next to nothing at all.
And even though I’ve automated the process somewhat, I still find that I spend a lot of time pulling up New Year’s Cards (nengajo) from years past to make sure I have the correct addresses and am not forgetting any one. Each year that process becomes a little more painful. There are New Year’s cards from Sekiguchi Chiaki, my mentor, a great cop and and a great friend. Hamaya-chan, my co-worker and teacher. Shibata–a retired yakuza who is probably burning in hell somewhere but hopefully up for reincarnation someday. There was some good in the man. And there is Helena. Every year part of me hopes that this year, this year, I’ll get a Christmas card from her telling me she’s fine–that she started a whole new life–that I was played for a fool. I wouldn’t mind being wrong about that one. I wouldn’t mind finding out I was the class-clown and not the class comedian.
I suppose I have other Pavlovian reasons for associating New Year’s with death. As the lone gaijin at the Yomiuri, I almost always got stuck on the New Year shift, and that meant tallying up the number of people who choked to death on sweet rice cakes (mochi)–which always included old people and sometimes children. I think I did it for ten years straight and you know what–it’s not fun to talk to the families about the deaths of their loved ones on what should be a joyous occasion. I didn’t have to do it too many times but once is enough. Talk about feeling like a jackal and a heel. Of course, there are a lot of suicides as well–even if you don’t write them up, you’re supposed to call and see if there is a heart-warming, really sad story behind the suicide.
I know, I know–you’re thinking, “God, this guy is depressing.” Well, I’m not moping around the house all day thinking about these things but they do cross my mind more than I would like. In some ways, maybe it’s good to reflect on the past before starting a new year–a good chance to learn from previous mistakes and repeat them less often the next. 反省しない猿は進化しないよ。(A monkey incapable of reflection, doesn’t evolve.”–Charles Darwin. *Actually, he never said that but he might have).
I wonder how much of who we are is not just what we have done and what we remember but also what we have lost. I should be experiencing merriment at the holidays but what I feel most is regret and I suppose something akin to sadness. Regret that I wasn’t a better a friend to those who are no longer here and regret that I wasn’t a better husband and a better father, although as a father, I have my moments. . And I regret that if I had done things differently that there is a chance that some of the people no longer with us would be here celebrating the New Year’s festivities with me this year as well.
I could spare myself the pain or momentary melancholy by removing the New Year’s cards of those who will no longer be sending or receiving but I do not. Because it seems like it should be my duty to remember them, wherever they are, whether I believe in an after-life or not. Merriment not tainted a little by sadness seems like a cheap and tawdry thing. i don’t want a Prozac to make the whole world shiny and to make our battered, worn-out Christmas tree all shiny and new. It’s a charming tree because it’s falling apart.
In the midst of all this, in mourning the vanished, I do try to remember to cherish the ones that remain. I know that’s important. I do find, these days, that gift-giving does seem to bring me more joy than getting anything, which I suppose is a good thing. I used to joke that the only time giving is better than receiving is when you’re talking about the death penalty or sexually transmitted diseases. Well, it’s still sort of a funny joke but I think I was probably wrong on that one. Anyway, I thought I’d leave you, our loyal and steadfast and long-suffering readers with an uplifting sentiment and/or benediction for the Christmas holidays. I came across part of in “FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL BEINGS”, which is a commentary on the texts of Shantideva, a Buddhist philosopher, by His Holiness–the 14th Dalai Lama.
I had a talk with Tenzin Gyasato (the Dalai Lama’s real name) on a United Airlines plane in 2008 that was extremely helpful. It wasn’t exactly a coincidence but it was significant to me in a synchronistic way. And it came at a time when I really needed some good advice. But that’s another story.
By the way, the word maudlin, comes from old readings of the name of Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who reformed herself and was forgiven by Jesus Christ for her sins. The word originally meant “tearful sentiment” but now has become closer to meaning “insincere emotionalism.” Mary Magdalene is a little more than a prostitute in some Christian lore (and thriller novels) and plays an unusual role in Gnostic Christianity, the mystical and peaceful branch of Christianity that was stamped out by the Catholic Church when they took power. But I digress. I don’t think maudlin in it’s original sense is such a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s nice to get teary-eyed but not in a “I’m-frigging-crazy” Glen Beck way.
Yes, it’s probably a heresy to post a Buddhist benediction on a Christmas, but then again December 25th, really started out as a pagan holiday to celebrate the birth and magnificence of Mithra the Sun God–so I figure that in the secular–”let’s be nice to each other, shall we”–Christmas spirit–that this works just as well. Thanks for joining us this year. Thanks to Sarah for turning the blog into something worth reading on a regular basis and thanks to all the other contributors named and unnamed. Best wishes to us all.