Mochitsuki, not Pinkerton: it’s a new year

By Bob Hicks

When we talk about culture here at Art Scatter, we like to think it’s almost as wide as life. It could be historical, or political, or social, or personal, or purely aesthetic. It might be Madame Butterfly, Puccini‘s opera about a fatal clash of moral sensibilities, which returns to the Portland Opera stage beginning Friday. Or it might be Mochitsuki, the city’s annual celebration of the Japanese new year, which I took in on Sunday afternoon.

mochi-2012-banner-with-full-dragon-and-purple-textJapan has officially recognized the Gregorian-calendar dating system since 1873, which makes the official Japanese new year January 1. But traditionally the nation’s new year has followed the Chinese lunar calendar, and a sturdy tradition can outwit official proclamation for a good long time.

This year’s Mochitsuki took place, curiously but practically, at the Scottish Rite Center, a spacious building that offers lots of room to roam. As I walked in I discovered an overflowing crowd of celebrants, from the very old to the newly born, wandering through three levels of displays, performances, dining and activities. The variety was invigorating: everything from bento-making classes for kids to tea ceremonies for all comers. Calligraphy, origami, ikebana, tastes of sake, a table with contemporary Japanese art that seemed inspired by, or loosely affiliated with, manga. Lots and lots of food, from ramune soft drinks and vegetable curry to chow mein and (from a Hawaiian booth) Spam musubi. Booths with information about Japanese-American societies. Tables with books on the history of Japanese life in the United States, including the infamous internment camps for American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. The Consulate General of Japan and the Portland Japanese Garden had booths.

The crowd was predominantly, although far from exclusively, Asian-American, and it had a genuine family feel. People tended to know one another, and greeted one another familiarly, and it struck me that in a city with a relatively small Asian population, one good reason for gatherings like Mochitsuki is that the pressure of constantly being a “minority” is off and you can simply relax and have a good time.

Almost immediately I ran into my friend the photographer Motoya Nakamura, who was snapping away at a busy table surrounded by kids making teru teru bozu dolls, which look a lot like hanging Halloween ghosts, from various craft supplies. The table was organized by Oya No Kai, the parent support group for Portland public schools’ Japanese magnet program. Motoya had spent the previous day photographing felines at a fancy-cat show, and this was a considerably livelier event. As he shot the activity, Motoya was smiling widely. So were the kids.

Mochitsuki has its roots in the making of mochi, a sticky rice cake (samples were being handed out; very tasty). Here’s how artist Valerie Otani has described the very first Portland Mochitsuki, which took place in 1996 in the basement of the Oregon Buddhist Temple:

Despite the low ceilings, community members were able to take turns at swinging the heavy wooden mallet (kine) and pound the steamed sweet rice cradled in a basin (usu) made from a carved tree trunk. Older men stepped up and, with the stroke of the kine, reminded us of the athletic young men they had once been. Elders shared stories, Portland Taiko played drums and the room was so crowded that people waiting outside could only enter when someone left. It was clear that Mochitsuki was a powerful way of drawing the community together. The symbolism of creating a cohesive dough from many separate grains of rice was an inspiration.

On Sunday, a succession of ceremonial strikers kept the mochi mallet pounding. The drums were pounding, too, in the upstairs performance hall, where Portland Taiko and its student group, Tanuki Taiko, were among the day’s performers. (I was here partly because I serve on Portland Taiko’s board.) The drum rhythms are elemental but also surprisingly complex: this is a sophisticated performance genre, with strong elements of dance, mime and storytelling as well as music, and it has the almost inevitable attraction of pumping up an audience’s level of enthusiasm. When drummer Toru Watanabe executed some exacting backflips that carried him from one edge of the stage to the other, the crowd roared.

I also caught a performance by Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, of the San Francisco storytelling duo Eth-Noh-Tec, who was dressed in the barest hint of a dragon costume to tell a tale of a boy on a quest, a god who can answer great questions, and a dragon who would dearly like to earn his wings. Like all good storytellers, Kikuchi-Yngojo dealt mainly in the stirring of the imagination. His eye-rolls and broad gestures would be at home on a kabuki or commedia stage, and his drolleries had young and old laughing in recognition of human nature. There was something both jarring and wryly fitting about seeing an Asian-American actor pretending to be a dragon in a Scottish-American social hall in front of a drop that was painted with a scene of medieval warriors in suits of armor: you could imagine a dragon swooping down on the scene from a nearby mountain. Of course, anyone who knows anything about dragons knows that Asian dragons are vastly more benevolent than their diabolical European cousins.

I regret to report that Pinkerton, Madame Butterfly’s faithless and cowardly husband in Puccini’s opera, is very much the European sort of dragon.