FANTASTIC VOYAGE: Looking back, looking forward: Traditions on the decline

I’ve been teaching English in Japan for a long time, and around New Year’s, I always ask students if they eat osechi ryori. Out of the 50 or so elementary school students that I asked this year, about half said “no.” Given that it’s a very small sample size in a remote part of Japan, you have to take the results with a grain of salt, but from what I have seen and heard, traditional New Year’s food is on the decline.

Each food in osechi has a special meaning; whereas some foods are used because they are homonyms (the fish tai, is used because it sounds like medetai, which means auspicious or joyous), whereas soba is eaten because the noodle’s long length is supposed to represent a long life. But glossing over these explanations, osechi is food that can easily be preserved, which is handy since most stores and supermarkets didn’t used to open on New Year’s or soon after. This is also a time when the family gathers together, so it was convenient for the women (historically speaking, pardon the gender-roles) to not have to worry about cooking for the next few days.

But as families get smaller and supermarkets stay open (as well as handy inventions like refrigeration), the necessity of osechi ryori has gone away. Now, it is mostly known as the traditional stuff that grandma and grandpa like (although even they might not like it, if truth is to be told).

I find the trend of breaking from tradition as the younger generations grow up to be interesting. And it’s connected to another trend that I see on the rise, both in Japan and America.

New Trends
Before, ownership was part of the American dream. To own your own house or own your own car was a sign that you had “made it.” People would collect things, and keep things for long periods of time. I think that time has come and gone. Ownership and physical copies of things are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Why own a DVD if you can watch it on Netflix? Software companies like Adobe and Microsoft are moving toward subscription-based models where you pay a monthly or annual fee in order to use the newest version of the software as it comes out (but own nothing when you stop paying). There is even a service in Japan called Air Closet that is like Netflix, but with clothes. You pay a monthly fee and a stylist picks out clothes and sends them to you based on your size and preferences.

Because nowadays, through advertising, the Internet and pop culture, the need for new is at an all-time high. It’s no longer about owning something, it’s about having the newest and greatest. Who cares if you own an iPhone 5; the question is do you have the iPhone 7? Why bother with all those old traditions, when you can be trying something new?

The Landfill Welcomes Our Desires
I think the desire for new things as well as old traditions being abandoned are connected. And unfortunately, I don’t think it is an endeavor in practicality as much as it is a money grab. After all, KFC makes a lot of money selling Christmas chickens, because eating KFC is a Christmas tradition here; so you can bet someone is trying to create the next New Year’s food to replace osechi. And I suppose that’s all well, if you don’t mind that sort of thing. But while tradition for the sake of tradition can hold us back, (think about the saying: “that’s the way it’s always been done”), the constant push for the new and improved also has its drawbacks. So my New Year’s resolution this year is to think more carefully before abandoning the old and embracing the new, to prevent myself from buying future-trash. And I’ll be sure to do all that thinking while eating my osechi ryori again this year.

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan, where he serves as an assistant minister, teaches English and resides with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at jeffasai@gmail.com.

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