December 12, 2005

The Inexplicable Subtleties of the 忘年会 (Boukenkai)

One unique feature of Japanese culture that I have experienced quite a few times, now in various capacities of sobriety and drunkeness, is the drinking social, or 宴会 enkai. Throughout the year, there are various points in time at which all members of a company, school, or any community of workers (see a past entry on society, 社会 and companies 会社 for rambling, American-oriented reflections about Japanese socialization perspectives/routines) gather to offer libations to the deities of hard work and persevarance. Ok, it is possibly just an excuse to get really drunk among your co-workers and make a complete ass out of yourself, all with no conseqeunces whatsoever. The wildest of these parties is the 忘年会 bounenkai, or end of the year party (literally it means "forget the year party"). Last Friday, I attended Koyo High School's bounenkai at the lovely, but very tacky Hotel Granvia. Though I didn't manage to forget the entire year, I did forget a huge chunk of the evening, such as calling and emailing friends in the city late at night with strange messages, biking home, buying more liquor, looking at a friend's photo album while squinting and mumbling indecipherable drunken babble to the interlocutor in my head, and finally passing out on a couch upon which I asserted that I would not sleep. Maybe they should change the title of the party under discussion to 忘夜会 bouyakai or "forget the night party." Among the many neologisms I have coined in Japanese, this is yet another which the Japanese refuse to incorporate into their lexicon. Why they don't accept my linguistic innovations, I don't know. Maybe I am still babbling to that person within.

Speaking of babbling, a very interesting phenomenon, which has a legitimate nelogogism, i.e. "nomunication" (a pun on "nomu"--to drink, and therefore more "open" talks we have when under the influence), astonished me at the most recent enkai. Among others, I spoke to the principal of my school (we have never had a conversation before) about sake and about the Japanese word for motivation, 志 kokorozashi. The top half of the character (士) means "samurai," "fighting spirit," or is also a suffix for job titles (i.e. "A ----er") and the bottom half (心) means "mind." So it was interesting to talk about this, about how this character--志--does not have the same implications for the modern Japanese "character"--at least as it is seen in the youth. But this is all "characterizing" human beings, right? Even though Principal Taniguchi asserted that young Japanese people are not as cognizant of this older concept of unflinching drive for an ideal, a singular purpose--a concept closer in time and affinity with 武士道 bushido, the way of the samurai--it still seems to be a vast generalization to say that all is lost of 志.

As pertaining to that sense of things being lost, or irretrievable, my beef with a lot of travel writing on Japan stems from the same presumptions that people make in general. Though a writer begins with very specific and concerete things he or she has seen and done, the narrative concludes with or hints at a sweeping generlization, more often than not spurred on by marketing demands, about human beings in a particular society. Thus we see books titled "Lost Japan," "Dogs and Demons," "The Pink Samurai" (actually recommended) etc. It is all incredibly fascinating writing in which the authors care a lot about the country they feel might be "lost," but it seems strange to think of a place as lost when it is right here in front of our eyes. I am being very elliptical and vague about what I want to say, yes. Let me try to put it a simpler way. I feel that what is "lost" is not a culture, a civilization, a value system, etc. Instead it is the individual who hasn't found a fulfilling way to deal with change on this earth--living things and non living things; plants, animals, and people; languages, the many forms and contents which are expressed in and by them, and the space in which they occupy, are all passing over into something new.

Gosh, I sound a bit lost myself. Returning to this 忘年会 thread that I have unravelled, I had many conversations last Friday with people whom I have seen but never met. Though the theme of the night is forgetting, there is much to remember, such as what comes next...

I take off for Ho Chi Minh City and south Vietnam in a little over a week. There are many preparations to be done, such as packing, sending off Christmas gifts/cards to family, and making sure to turn my electric blanket off. So, after two hours of sleep right now, I must sign off. Until next time, stay posted for pictures and more tediously long ruminations on things that are not very tangible or important to the general population.


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