Japan from the inside out

Visions of mochi dancing in their heads

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 24, 2011

ARE there any people more culturally syncretic than the Japanese? Examples of that syncretism present themselves every day in Japan, but this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.

A Fukushima City nursery school held its annual Christmas party this week, and about 50 parents and children attended. Though only about 1% of Japanese identify as Christians, secular Christmas parties are commonplace, as they are in some other non-Christian countries. Speaking of syncretism, one survey that broke down the national population by religious affiliation found that the statistically average Japanese would consider himself a believer in 2.7 religions.

This was a party for young children, so the guest of honor was Santa Claus. But it wasn’t the usual department store actor playing Santa. The report said this Santa was certified by the Finnish government. The newspaper was probably referring to the Lapland government, which has a Santa Claus office at the Arctic Circle.

So, how did the Fukushimanians show their appreciation for a visit from an officially certified Kris Kringle? They put him to work pounding mochi!

Mochi is a type of rice cake, for want of a better term, made with a particularly glutinous form of rice. The old-fashioned way to make it was to place the steamed rice in a large container called an usu that serves as a pestle, and to pound it with a wooden mallet known as a kine until it solidifies. Mochi is a popular traditional snack and soup ingredient, and the cakes are also used to decorate the home during the New Year. One traditional seasonal activity is to have a gathering of family or friends to do the pounding out in the yard. I’ve done it — once. It was worth it to be invited to be a part of the tradition and to see what happens, but it’s also real work that requires almost as much energy as chopping wood. Good timing and care is essential because two people work together: One to do the hammering, and the other to turn and wet the mochi in the usu. The rice will stick to the mallet unless it’s moistened, but the assistant has to get his hands out of the way fast.

The local report doesn’t say how long they put Santa to work swinging the kine, but it does say the kids got excited because he pounded so hard the water splashed on their faces. Good for Santa for getting into the New Year spirit!

Eating mochi also requires care, because it takes a long time to chew. Some people get impatient and swallow chunks of it that are too large. Early in the new year every year there are newspaper reports about the number of people nationwide who died from choking on their mochi.

By the way, any junior Scrooges concerned about exposing the kids to radioactive rice and air can relax. The nursery school bussed everyone to Yonezawa, Yamagata, for the event, where they used a borrowed space. The school has been regularly driving the kids to Yonezawa and back this year because it wants them to play outside without worrying about nuclear plant fallout. The head of the school said it allows them to talk to the parents about education rather than radiation.

That also allows Santa to return to the North Pole without having fed his reindeer any radioactive hay!

One of the best mochitsuki videos is this one showing a performance with music in the United States. The handclapping at the end is how parties are often ended in Japan.

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2 Responses to “Visions of mochi dancing in their heads”

  1. toadold said

    I read somewhere that if a Japanese claims they are not religious it is because they often don’t realize how religious they actually are. They’ll line up and freeze for the New Years trip to a shrine for instance and participate in various religious holidays, superstitious gestures, observe the religious protocols for weddings and funerals and etc. The explanation given was that religion was part of the culture and they really weren’t aware of the religious aspects of their lives.
    T: Now to determine whether that is religiosity, or is a respect for and comfort in traditional ceremonies and rituals.

    – A.

  2. camphortree said

    Merry Christmas to all !
    When I was struggling to utter English to explain how to make mochi my daughter, then a kindergartener helped me.
    She said, “Dad, you put the whole steamed rice into a giant wooden bucket. You hold the neck-handle of a wooden horse and pound the rice with the horse’s head.”

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