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.