Triangle Japanese celebrate new year


Author(s): Peggy Lim Staff Writer Date: January 21, 2008 Section: News

DURHAM — After the cask of sake was broken and the rice wine distributed, the whole room at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens center lifted their glasses and welcomed the New Year together. “Kanpai!” everyone said in unison — or “Bottoms up!” in Japanese. From the sake toast to the sticky-rice pounding ceremony and the multilayered boxes of special Japanese foods, the Triangle’s Japanese New Year celebration, or Shinnenkai, on Sunday was all about relishing traditions. The Japanese community has long had roots in the area, thanks largely to companies in the Research Triangle. It was only the second time that the area’s Japanese cultural and business groups had come together for New Year’s.

This year, Tsuguyosi “Rocky” Iwashima, president of the Nippon Club of Triangle, strove to incorporate a rich mix of Japanese customs. He invited a professional drumming group from the foothills of Mount Fuji to tour North Carolina and perform at the New Year’s party. His wife, Yoko, traveled to Tokyo to gather boxes, called jubako, to serve the event’s meal in. Another Nippon Club member, Toshikazu “Mizo” Mizobuchi of Chapel Hill, retrieved a 150-pound stone mortar from Japan in which to pound sticky rice. And the Triangle Japanese Business Association special-ordered a wooden sake barrel from Kobe.

Miyuki Hara, 30, said the event helped her feel closer to home. Hara, her husband — a Duke law student — and their 1-year-old daughter went home to celebrate New Year’s Day with family in Osaka. “But it was only a week — too short,” Hara said. “When I came back here, I felt so homesick.” She and her husband were pleasantly surprised after untying the pink paper napkins wrapped around the jubako boxes, which resembled lacquered wooden jewelry boxes. In the boxes, they found foods Hara’s mother had made them this year, but that are tough to find in the United States. “These are very delicious,” said her husband, Masakazu Hara, 31, holding kazunoko, or herring roe, between his chopsticks.

Several women from the Nippon Club and employees of the Waraji restaurant had begun preparing foods for the celebration about five days ago — simmering burdock and taro root and smoking salmon and eel. Almost every item held a special significance. The fish eggs represented the desire for fertility. Kuromame, or sweetened black beans, symbolized the wish for health. Konbu, or seaweed, is tied to the Japanese word for “joy.”

During the meal, some men went outside to demonstrate another Japanese New Year custom — the making of mochi, Japanese rice cakes. With a large wooden mallet, the men mashed grains of steaming hot sticky rice. Kenta Iwasaki, 32, stood by adding hot water and kneading the dough as others took turns pounding the rice until it was shiny and smooth. “You have to be rhythmically right or you could be hurt,” said mesmerized onlooker Yuri Yamamoto, 47, of Raleigh. The mochi, eaten plain or filled with sweet bean paste, is a favorite Japanese food during New Year’s. But Noriyoshi Inoue, one of the men who pounded the rice Sunday, said its sticky texture can be dangerous. “Some Japanese people — especially the elderly — die when they eat it,” said Inoue, a business advisor with the Japan External Trade Organization. “They choke to death.”

Some news shared at the event was likewise somber. Budget cuts have reduced the N.C. Japan Center based at N.C. State University to less than a third of its original funding, said John Sylvester, who became the center’s first director in 1981. The center continues to offer classes and support to businesses involved in Japanese-American trade, but it has no full-time staff.

Still, the New Year’s celebration ended on a festive note. Some of the nearly 90 audience members almost jumped in their seats, startled as the pounding of drums began the performance of the professional drumming group Fugaku Taiko. But then women in silk kimonos and men in happi coats and Western suits clapped their hands as they listened to the powerful beat. “It’s exciting,” said Meg Anderson, 32, a music teacher from Greensboro who recently joined the Triangle Taiko drumming group after a three-week Fulbright scholarship to Japan. “It captures your whole body and soul. … And they’re the best.”

TAIKO PERFORMANCES Fugaku Taiko, a professional drumming group from the the foothills of Mount Fuji, has a few more performances before it leaves the Triangle. – 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. today, Progress Energy Center, Fred Fletcher Opera Hall. Free. Seating is first come, first served. – 7 p.m. Tuesday, N.C. State University, Stewart Theatre. Tickets, $22 to $30. For more information, visit www.-

BY THE NUMBERS 160 – Japanese companies in North Carolina 30 – Japanese companies in the Triangle 1,000 – estimated Japanese population in the Triangle (NORIYOSHI INOUE, N.C. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE INTERNATIONAL TRADE DIVISION)

THE NEW YEAR IN JAPAN Before 1873, the Japanese New Year followed the Chinese lunar calendar and celebrated the beginning of spring, an occasion that contemporary Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese cultures continue to celebrate. Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Catholic Gregorian calendar. So the first day of January is the official New Year’s Day in modern Japan. In the United States, however, Japanese-American communities are more flexible about the day they actually gather to celebrate the holiday.

Copyright 2008 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.