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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Pulling for the neighbourhood

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Too much rope? Photo by Flickr user Traveller_40 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
Too much rope? Photo by Flickr user Traveller_40 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Survived the Yokohama Nishi-ku 健民際(Healthy Citizen Festival). Was on the winning side of the tug-of-war, have a bag of sugar to prove it. But why was I there? It all began a couple of years ago.

Mitsusawa High Town, the condominium complex in which my wife Ruth and I live in Japan, had traditionally held an Omochi-tsuki (mochi rice pounding festival) at New Years. Then, two years ago, the people then running the condominium's local government association had decided that the Omochi-tsuki was too much bother and cancelled the event. In response, a group of individuals banded together to form the Omochi-tsuki tomo no kai (friends of the Omochitsuki association).

After turning out to help, I was recruited by the SOFTtsukushikai, a group of older, mostly retired men who used to belong to the condominium's softball team but now are a volunteer community-service group whose members provide support for local events, which—yes—include the Healthy Citizens Festival. Thus it was that I dragged myself out of bed on a cold, wet, rainy morning, wondering if the Festival had been called off because of rain.

If there is one basic rule in Japanese society, it is, "Don't touch other peoples' stuff."

No, it hadn't. Our leaders had seen a weather forecast predicting that the rain would lift and the day be clear. So, instead of going back to bed, I found myself pitching in to load the Mitsusawa High Town tent, mats, folding chairs, stools, and other festival gear into a rented pickup truck, then hiking across town to the park where the Festival was held, to wait for the truck, unload, set up, participate in the tug-of-war, then hang around to take down the tent, pack it and the mats, folding chairs, stools, and other festival gear back into the truck, then walk back to the condominium to unpack and put it all away.

As these events unfolded, the anthropologist in me noticed a few interesting things.

The arrival of the trucks and the setting up of the tents had been elaborately choreographed, given that there were only two gates to the field and eight groups setting up for the Festival. When we arrived, we were on schedule, but the schedule had been thrown a'kilter. Two elderly gentlemen were slowly unloading the truck in front of the truck in front of us, with their truck parked in a spot that blocked access to both gates to the field. Members of the other groups and the officials in charge of the event were standing around and complaining to each other, but shouganai "couldn't be helped."

To understand my reaction, it helps to know that Japanese groups can be incredibly efficient in setting up before and cleaning up after events. My memories include the members of the Japanese men's chorus I sing with, all still dressed in white tie-and-tails, pitching in to pack up our music stands and other gear after a concert in Switzerland.

I recall business meetings at the advertising agency where I used to work. When the meeting was over, everyone, clients included, pitched in to pick-up and make the room ready for whoever would use the room next. I remembered that my daughter's Japanese elementary school had no janitors. The students and teachers kept the place cleaned up. So why were we all standing around complaining while two old men were slowly unloading their truck?

If there is one basic rule in Japanese society, it is, "Don't touch other peoples' stuff." To this American living in Japan, the obvious solution to the problem was for everyone standing there to pitch in and help unload the truck, but that rule made it impossible. We all had to wait until the two old men were finished—and it didn't help that the cold rain was still sprinkling down.

One anthropological observation leads to another. When everything was set up and the Festival got under way it was clear that what was happening was a magnified version of a school sports day, with a mixture of events for children, adults, or children-and-adults together.

Some were familiar: sack races, three-legged races, baton-passing relay races. Others were more exotic. A "relay for lovers" required couples to run the race holding a ball on a silver platter at shoulder height between them, as if two waiters were carrying the same order. The point was not to drop the ball. The "stand up the bottle" race was an obstacle course where the obstacles were two rows of chairs with a bottle lying horizontally in front of each chair. Racers arriving at the obstacle were required to sit down in a chair and, using only their feet, stand up the bottle before racing on to the next set of chairs. Some had clearly done this before and were off in a flash. Others? Good for lots of laughs.

Unlike the other events, in which neighbourhoods competed, participants were randomly divided for the tug-of-war. When my side won, I felt like a bit of a cheat. Because of the rainy day, I had worn my Vibram-soled hiking books and wasn't slipping and sliding on the grass the way others were, and my weighing close to 200 pounds probably helped my side as well.

Speaking of the neighbourhoods. Here I was struck by the fact that we had representation from six neighbourhood associations but only two condominium self-government associations. Our condominium was there because—I speculate—we were one of the first complexes built in this area; the complex was constructed in 1970.

Later complexes, of which there are many, repeat a pattern found throughout the Far East, where the people with strong local roots that may go back centuries live in the valleys and newcomers live in the ferroconcrete high-rises on the hills. The former are likely to own or work for local small businesses, the latter to commute to jobs outside the neighbourhood. Those who live in the newer condominiums are less involved in local activities.

In our case, we started out as newcomers thirty-two years ago, but aging has become a strong motivator to acquire more friends in the neighbourhood. This was my first Healthy Citizen Festival. It won't be the last.


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