For as long as I can remember, Oshogatsu (New Year’s) and me just haven’t gelled.
Whenever Christmas ended, the depato (department stores) hastily switched their background music from “White Christmas” to nonstop (and unbearable) koto music and the neon-lit trees were cleared away in favor of New Year’s decorations. It meant that I was headed straight for a massive attack of the Oshogatsu Blues.
No one in my family paid particular attention, as we took it for granted that these blues come around every year to strike any female over the age of 12. I grew up around women who were irritable or depressed, or just plain exhausted every Oshogatsu season.
And who can blame them, as Oshogatsu had been rigged from way back to drastically decrease female blood-sugar levels. There’s the osoji (mega-cleaning) of the house; the nengajo kaki (writing of New Year’s greeting cards, in some cases hundreds of them); osechi ryori zukuri (the making of traditional New Year’s dishes); and an incredible amount of shopping. The men could sit around and eat and drink themselves into a stupor, but women, as far as I can see, don’t sit down until midnight when the last guest leaves, the dishes are washed and everyone has gone to bed.
By the time I hit 15, I knew that no joy ever came from sticking around the house during the holidays, so I resorted to the only means of escape I knew: fuyuyasumi no baito (a part-time job during the winter holidays). This consisted of taking the 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at the neighborhood convenience store, which had the added incentive of having a jikyu (hourly rate) that went up by ¥150 during sanganichi (the first three days of a new year). The work was hard, but at least I was getting paid for the labor, unlike my female compadres at home.
Naturally, such selfish dereliction of my frontline duties scandalized the family, especially my grandmother, who admitted loathing Oshogatsu. Nevertheless, she plowed through the chores with unquenchable energy and admirable dexterity just the same. She was of the generation that didn’t question why women had to be shut up in a cold, dank kitchen while men sat nice and toasty around a warm kotatsu (a low table with a heat source covered with a quilt to retain the heat) over sake and plates of goodies. To this day, many households all over Japan adhere to the same mindset.
On the other hand, things have changed dramatically in built-up areas where women have a lot more options. Many simply choose kaigai tobo (an escape overseas). Others work so hard during the year that they become sick and are besieged by the flu every winter holiday, which is actually a godsend. “Neshogatsu hodo ii mono wa nai (There’s nothing better than to sleep through the new year)” is how one female friend puts it.
Some simply advise their mothers not to cook and to buy depato osechi (New Year’s dishes sold at department stores) instead. These women show up for the meal with the family, clean up the debris of empty osechi boxes and make a discreet getaway before their mothers start feeling guilty about being liberated from kitchen enslavement and hastily boil some beans or something.
Then there’s that Japanese kirifuda (trump card) — in this case shigoto (work) — which most Japanese women deploy at least three times during their adult lives, if not more. Take it from one who knows: It’s much easier to “work” through the new year and ignore the festivities than participate in what’s actually an orgy of endeavor with a fukin (dishcloth) clutched in one hand and a pair of saibashi (long chopsticks used for cooking and serving food) in the other.
Strangely enough, however, the further I escape from Oshogatsu the more I long to be back in the kitchen with my female relatives, arguing over which plates are used for which food.
I miss the sight of women wearing aprons over their new-year kimonos, occasionally sitting down with the men for 20 minutes for a little sake and conversation before heading back to their chores. I miss the deep sigh of relief they heaved come Jan. 4, when the sanganichi was over and the workload returned to normal.
Most of all I miss whining and complaining about what a bummer Oshogatsu is. The new year just isn’t the same without a nervous breakdown.