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Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013
My (attainable) New Year's resolutions: Giving up seiza
By AMY CHAVEZ
Having problems keeping your New Year's resolution? Not me. Because this year I chose resolutions that were easily fulfilled:
No more seiza: Seiza is an excruciating form of Japanese style-sitting (on your haunches), invented especially to torture foreigners. I know this is true because Japanese people seem to have no problem sitting this way. Many even seem to enjoy it. For years, I have feigned sitting seiza, pretending I could do it just fine and careful not to complain about the lightheadedness and "pins and needles" sensation in my legs at the end of a session.
Seiza often catches you by surprise. Overjoyed that someone has invited you to an exclusive, secret Japanese religious ceremony, you'll be led into the dark inner sanctum of the temple where incense is wafting and oh no! You have to sit seiza! For hours, possibly even years. Even if you're lucky enough to endure it, at the end of the ceremony, the Japanese will jump up and do acrobatics across the room and out the door, while you're still sitting there smiling, unable to move, destined to become a modern Daruma doll (based on a Zen monk who meditated for so long that eventually his arms and legs fell off). Seiza will definitely get rid of your legs for you.
It was this fear of becoming a modern Daruma doll that prompted me to flip through a catalogue for prosthetic legs while considering that after the next mysterious Japanese religious ceremony I might have to donate my legs to seiza science. Until it occurred to me — I don't really have to sit seiza. I could give it up for New Year's!
No more warm, flat beer: My next New Year's resolution was to stop waiting to kanpai before having a drink, even if the esteemed guest has not arrived at the party yet or the introductory speeches are not yet finished. From beginning of the year shinenkai parties to end of year bonenkai parties, and every formal event in between, the Japanese tradition is to wait until the official toast before taking the first drink. The problem is, the waiters and waitresses at the event will bring out the cold beers waaaaay in advance, leaving them there on the table to grow warm and flat. Japanese protocol dictates that you must wait for the official kanpai. You may notice, however, that there is almost always a rogue table of o-jiichan (old men) who go ahead and drink anyway. And it was at one such bonenkai that I decided that there will be no more internal tears as my throat watches the beer go flat and warm. I will no longer pity the refrigerator who expended so many kilowatt hours to produce a perfectly chilled product. I will give all that up for New Year's! I will feign rogue o-jiichan-ness, slake my thirst and drink the beer while it is cold and frothy!
No more Japanese sponge cake: Whether it be a slice of a Swiss Roll offered with coffee or Castella cake given as a gift, I will no longer eat any kind of sponge cake, not even Christmas cake. The Japanese favor the sponge variety of cake for almost everything and as a result, we all end up eating far more sponge cake than we want. Sorry, but the average sponge sold here is a poor substitute for real, moist, homemade cakes of different flavors and icings. The popularity of the sponge cake in Japan is perhaps because sponges remind people of the sea. Or Sponge Bob Squarepants. Giving up sponge cake is an obtainable resolution. I'm not saying the sponge cake here is bad, it's just not good. Why sacrifice my health for something that isn't absolutely delicious?
No more slippers: I'm over it — I will no longer pretend to be Japanese! I do not need multitudinous slipper and sandal changes when moving from the genkan to the living room to the toilet to the outdoor deck. I don't know about your deck, but mine is not dirty. Nor is my toilet dirty. Welcome to my house — which has deserted the slipperhood.
Toilet slippers are surely a hangover from the days when the toilets were located in disgustingly filthy outhouses. But these days, putting out toilet slippers is like saying, "Boy are you gonna need these — I haven't cleaned the toilet in months!" I mean, when you go camping and use a latrine, do you use toilet slippers? When you use a public toilet at the highway rest area, do you use toilet slippers? So why would you need them in your own home where only your family uses the toilet? When you know that your own toilet is routinely cleaned with disinfectants? And, while we all clean the toilets in our homes, how many of us clean the toilet slippers? Poor socks! No wonder they stink so much.
Furthermore, we need to eradicate our dependence on slippers; end the senseless slipper changes. Or at least limit them to one change — at the genkan. Every beach in the world I visit has at least one plastic slipper or sandal on it that has washed up. And no, octopus don't wear slippers. Those slippers belong to you. They used to belong to me too, before I gave up slippers for my New Year's resolution.
Having eradicated seiza, warm beer, sponge cake, and slippers from my life, I resolve to live this year thankful for the little things in Japanese life that bring me so much joy: unfailing politeness, unbridled kindness, personal safety, honest people and social rest.
May you succeed in your own obtainable New Year's resolutions!
Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter@JapanLite.