Living here, things become so familiar that I don’t notice the differences between the Okinawan society and my own background as often as I did before. Every once in a while they do strike me, but I tend to forget to write them down or don’t think about them much, shuffling them off into a pile of unexplainable and inconsequential. Friday, however, I participated in a cultural experience that at its root shares similarities with both American and Russian cultures I know, but has very revealing differences.
On Friday, I was invited to celebrate the 100-day birthday of my supervisor’s son. First, and most obviously, of course is that fact that I’ve never been to a party celebrating 100 days since birth of a baby. Baby showers, I’ve heard of (somehow haven’t made it to one yet) and of course celebrated yearly birthday parties of people I know, but the tradition of celebrating 100 days is very new to me. I haven’t researched it and so don’t know whether it has ties to any Chinese traditions that might have come to Okinawa from there, or whether it is a Japanese tradition brought here a couple of hundred years ago or is uniquely Okinawan.
Prior to the party, birthday celebrations in Okinawa came up in a couple of conversations. Most recently, a teacher shared a story of a JHS student who confused the date of his birth with another number. I asked why that would happen and was told that in Okinawa some families don’t celebrate birthdays as we do in the West, every year. While the child is young, his birthday might be an event, but as children get older it ceases to be so important (it might have happened due to poverty Okinawans have been subjected to after WWII and nowadays younger parents tend to follow the “Western” way of celebrating birthday).
Yet there are other birthdays that are considered worth celebrating here. For example, turning 13 in Okinawa for boys and girls is an important coming of age that is celebrated with family. Likewise, when young adults in a community turn 20 in the same year, their birthdays are celebrated in a colorful fashion on a specific date in January. 88th birthday and 98th birthdays are also marked as important, as I believe is the 60th, but I’ll have to double check. So 100-day birthday seems to fall into that same category of specific birthday events.
When the baby turns 100 days, the family “introduces” him or her to the world at large. Relatives, friends, co-workers, etc, are invited to the family home to celebrate the arrival of a new member into their society. Since my supervisor’s baby’s birthday is the only one of this kind I have been to, I will not presume that all other 100-day birthday parties are held in the same fashion, though at its core, I’m sure they all are.
A flier announcing the party has been at the school for a couple of weeks, and my supervisor has mentioned it to me a couple of times himself. What first tipped me off that this party was going to be a bit different from birthday parties I’m used to was the lack of time mention on the flier. I asked what time I am supposed to arrive and was told that anytime after work hours up until 9pm would be all right. I asked whether I should bring money or buy a present, and was told that if it were someone I didn’t know too well, money would be preferred, but in this case present would be fine. I like shopping for presents, and so decided to go that route. Cliff and I went together around 6:30pm. The party was held at my supervisor’s parents’ house in Ogimi. Outside their house in an empty lot, tables were set up under tents. We went into the house with our presents. Inside, the mother and father were fussing over the baby, presenting him to others who came in. I noticed a basket set up in the middle of the room with lots of envelopes inside. I handed my present to my supervisor and noticed that ours were the only present bags in the room that didn’t look alike. These other, identical presents, were intended for the guests. Everyone, after congratulating the parents and grandparents, were given two bags of presents. There must have been a couple of hundred of these identical packages stacked along the living room wall. In the altar room of the house very important people, like the superintendent ate and chatted. All others sat outside.
After we received our “return” presents, we went outside and sat down. A lady followed us with trays of food. Each tray contained a giant bento box with homemade and store bought delicacies, a bowl of pig intestine soup, brown sugar coated Okinawan mochi, a mikan, and even a plastic bag to take what you don’t finish of the bento home with you. Outside, under a separate tent, a man was stirring and pouring goat soup. This was my first time trying it, and it wasn’t so bad, though some pieces in the mix of unidentifiable parts seemed way to suspicious for me to try. As we sat and ate and chatted with our neighbors, I noticed that people that were there when we first arrived were leaving or had already left and more people were coming into the house and then taking their seats at the outside tables. It was a constant coming and going of people. They all walked into the house, ate outside, chatted, went back inside to say “goodbye” and left. I realized that it was an expected behavior and felt that I shouldn’t sit too long, lest there isn’t room for newcomers. Cliff stayed to enjoy more conversations with the men at our table, and I went home after saying “goodbye” to the family. My visit lasted an hour at the most.
And so where do I begin with the differences? I guess most are quite obvious from the telling. The visits of people were erratic and the time they showed up depended entirely on their own schedule and not on any agreed upon time. Of course, showing up too late would have been a faux pas, though the office lady told me today that she went there just a little before my supervisor, his wife, and baby left the parents’ house for their own home around 10pm. The party was still going on, she said, with people drinking and partying until midnight or so. Of course the receiving back of presents is an unusual thing that I have to date only encountered in the Japanese society. Receiving of a present after giving my own was not new to me at this party, though the fact that it was a sizable cake as well as towels was impressive. But the gifts that are “returned” are usually worth about half the value of the expected present, so I felt bad that I didn’t spend as much money as was in each individual envelope lying in the basket. Oh well.
During the party what I was struck by as the difference in celebrating this birthday and the ones of all my Russian-speaking friends and relatives. There were no toasts! Granted I haven’t been to that many celebrations here, but so far only at the one wedding were there any toasts given by the guests, and those were only from the father of the bride and her best friend. At the parties I’m used to, people would all sit together, drink and eat and every once in a while during the festivities a toast would be made to the person whose birth/marriage/anniversary/new house/new job/home coming, etc (ok so Russians like to celebrate for many reasons) was being celebrated. And that aspect was entirely lacking. Congratulations were given individually and people came and went to allow for more people to take their turn with the baby and at the table. This way has the benefit of allowing for a greater amount of people to visit the family and to celebrate with them. In order to accommodate the number of people that must have came to the family that night, they would have had to rent a giant hall. The amount of food might have been greater, though the bentos were quite substantial… and now I’m rambling.
I was going to add a couple of other things that have occurred, but they’re of less consequence. I really wanted to write about this birthday party, so I hope I didn’t bore anyone with the details. It turned out be much longer than anticipated.