It’s here: Shiwasu (師走, the month of December), whose kanji characters are composed of shi (師, teacher) and hashiru (走る, running) — put them together and you get a month so busy and jam-packed with events that even teachers have to sprint to get everything done.

The term goes back several centuries, and though teachers are now busy all year round along with the rest of us, December remains especially tight, hectic and ochitsukanai (落ち着かない, unsettled). What with deadlines for everything coming down to the wire along with colds, flu and stomach pains (from the numerous drinking parties scheduled throughout the month) that assail us every few days, Shiwasu can be a real pain in the lower extremities.

When I was growing up, the closer it got to nenmatsu (年末, end of the year) the more stressed out and ira-ira (イライラ, irritated) the adults became, to the point that any family member found lolling in front of the TV in that most deplorable of states: te ga orusu (手がお留守, hands still and doing nothing), was to be dragged before my grandmother and given a full lecture.

The only time any of us could sit around while the gale-force winds of Shiwasu blew throughout the house was during juken (受験, school entrance exams). Juken is a shared experience for most Japanese kids at least once in their lives: at 15, we go through the kōkō juken (高校受験, high school entrance exams) and three years later, the process is repeated for college. Not only is this time marked by grueling work and total joy-depletion, it’s also full of anxiety, especially for those with many siblings in a single-income family.

In my house, we were told that kōritsu (公立, public school) for both high school and university was mandatory, but in the event of a zettai kinkyūjitai (絶対緊急事態, absolute emergency) we could try for a cheap shiritsu (私立, private school), in which case we had to fund our way with several solid years of baito (バイト, part-time jobs). My brothers were all kōkō-musuko (孝行息子, parent-revering sons) in that every one of them made it through the kōritsu system, but that didn’t stop them from working behind various counters for the whole of their teens right up to shūshoku (就職, becoming a formal employee with an established company) in their early 20s.

For us, Shiwasu meant a month of pure frenzy — someone or other was always burning the midnight oil prepping for exams, or going to and from graveyard shifts at the neighborhood conbini (コンビニ, convenience store) or cleaning up at midnight in some izakaya (居酒屋, pub) after the rush of bōnenkai (忘年会, putting-the-year-behind-us drinking parties).

Come shinnen (新年, the first day of the New Year) however, even our cramped, overworked household took time out to eat, chat and play games with visiting cousins. Up and down Japan, January 1st is a day of rest and familial gathering — not that it lasts very long. Department stores and markets open on the 2nd, and it’s almost become a tradition for young people to rush to the shops on that day, and spend their otoshidama (お年玉, New Year’s money) or bonus cash on the famed fukubukuro (福袋, grab bag) that can cost up to ¥50,000 but which reputedly will contain goods worth at least three times that sum. Over at our place, we were always too exhausted from the Shiwasu stress to enjoy New Year’s festivities very much, and just glad to lie around without getting yelled at.

Besides, at the end of the day there were dishes to wash, leftovers to be stowed away, preparations to start for the next day’s round of guests and meals. I vastly preferred the stress of juken to the stress of oshōgatsu shigoto (お正月仕事, New Year’s chores) — at least I could pretend to be studying, and sit at the desk with a manga.

For us, New Year in the United States and Europe was awe-inspiring. It seemed that no one had to labor, study or stand over a sink full of dirty dishes; oshōgtasu was a glamorous occasion to get dolled up in mini dresses and guzzle Champagne. Where was the kotatsu (炬燵, a low, electrically heated table encased in a blanket to keep the warmth), the ever-present bowl of mikan (みかん, tangerines), the woolen socks and general air of excessive hominess?

They say Japanese Christmases have become a lot more sophisticated over the years — that no matter how busy and irritated we are, we’ve become adept at reserving Italian restaurants, booking online cakes at boutique patisseries and other festive acts. But the oshōgatsu grind stays pretty much the same: We usher in the New Year with work, work, work, and sprint from one task to another. Supposedly, korezo Nippon no oshōgatsu (これぞ日本のお正月, this is indeed the Japanese New Year). Oh well. Minasama, yoi otoshiwo! (皆様、良いお年を, have a great New Year, everyone!)

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