New Year Firsts

Every Gaijin has that “first time” this year experience

Mark Guthrie

By now your new year has probably faded into what ever few memories you have of it. You’ve swept away the confetti, put away the party poppers, and consigned to the furthest recesses of your brain that awkward couple of hours where you tried to shake off the affections of the slightly deranged character that you drunkenly snogged at midnight, because you couldn’t possibly go through the New Year without kissing someone.

But hold your horses, because the New Year fun isn’t over just yet. Here in Japan, New Year is a continuous revolution of firsts to be celebrated. There is hatsumode, the first visit to temple; koshōgatsu, the celebration of the first full moon; hatsuyume, the first dream of the year; even the first day back at work is considered auspicious. Gaijin too can get in on the act and celebrate the many firsts of the New Year.

First broken promise to study Japanese every day

Back in November you saw your friends take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and thought to yourself ‘I just need to study every day and I can hit that next level’. Obviously you couldn’t start studying right away, there were too many bonenkai and Christmas parties to go to, but you promised yourself, come January you would hit those books every day. So, it’s probably January 3 by now. Where are those books? Still on your Amazon wish list, that’s where.

First awkward response to a backhanded compliment

For a Brit, compliments are tough to deal with. Someone says something nice about you and you are supposed to brush it away with a mumbled thanks before quickly changing the subject. However, here in Japan kind worded tributes are even more difficult to handle as firm denial of any positive qualities is the standard response. This is why many “Japanese in 30 Days” textbooks teach jouzu de wa arimasen on day two. Still, compliments come thick and fast from your Japanese friends and colleagues, and many of them are frankly pretty odd. We have all had the ‘you’re so good with chopsticks,’ but there are weirder still. ‘Your face is so small’, ‘your lips are so thin’, ‘you have such a big nose’! These may sound like slurs to many of us, but they are all supposed to be compliments, particularly for women as they fulfill the traditional Japanese ideal. So, how do you reply? An awkward mumble of thanks, before making your excuses and staring at your stupid little face in the mirror for an hour, crying at your stupid thin lips and your stupid big nose, that’s how.

The first spot of nonsense English on clothing


It happens all the time, but the first of the year is the best. You could be on a subway, at a festival or walking through a shopping mall and you see from a distance romaji letters. Your heart quickens its pace. They approach, get closer, until there it is in its full glory: a t-shirt that says “Oneness is the gratefulness please,” a sweater bearing the logo “Love smile, put on the climb”, or a cap that proudly claims “Mines ones looking for I’m feeling wave”. It may even be the jackpot: a little kid wearing something wholly inappropriate like the perhaps apocryphal “Too Drunk To Fuck” T-shirt child. You smirk, surreptitiously take a photo and upload to Instagram with some smug comment. How can they be so clueless? You chuckle, absentmindedly stroking that “くそったれ馬鹿外人” tattoo* on your arm.

First rage at the Japanese way of doing things

By now you’re probably used to the Japanese way of life, and you have come to grips with the fact that they do things differently here. You are au fait with personal space being violated on subways and you have even learned to swallow your rage when you see Japanese female colleagues constantly denigrated for their gender. But there comes a point when it gets on top of you, and it may be a pretty innocuous thing. But some day, and it will no doubt be soon, you will find yourself screaming into the sky as the supermarket staff wave away your visa card because they only take cash, even though the banks close at 4, the ATMs close at 4:30, and you finish work at six so you can never get any money out so how are you supposed to bloody well buy groceries and oooohhhhhh fffffuuuuuuuuaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!!!! Okay, take a deep breath. Feel better now? Smile at the clerk, scrape together your spare change, buy a cup ramen and live to fight another day.

First adoption of a Japanese cultural hobby

You have been saying all the previous year that you are eventually going to get involved in something from traditional Japan. So finally you’ve pulled your finger out, contacted the Nagoya International Centre, and enrolled in the first class. Judo, chanoyu, shodo, kyudo, you are so happy to finally be immersing yourself in the old way of life. Just make sure that, in two months time that that tea-making kit doesn’t end up for sale on the Chubu Treasure Trove page, like the karate gi from last year. Or the kyudo bow the year before that…

First homesickness

The chances are that you may have gone home for Christmas and New Year and, while it was of course lovely to see everyone, you probably realised how much you really missed Japan. It was most likely at the point when a friend finally exploded and screamed “for the love of Christ, will you stop beginning every sentence with the phrase ‘well, in Japan…’ or I’m going to beat you to death with this turkey leg!” But now you’re back in Nippon’s bosom, daily life is in full swing and you’re missing home. Family, food and the ability to turn on the telly without being bombarded by images of celebrities slurping food amongst a cacophony of sound-effected graphics. It’s bound to happen at some point, so when it does, head to the International store, pick up a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate, or a jar of Skippy peanut butter, or whatever you’re missing from wherever your homeland may be, and focus on the positives. Yeah, home is great, but Japan is pretty fucking awesome too. It’s gonna be a great year.

*Asshole idiot foreigner

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