It’s both easy and muzukashii to celebrate American Thanksgiving in Japan. The easy part is finding a day for it. As it happens, there is a Japanese national holiday called Labor Thanksgiving that falls in November. So finding a day to cook and celebrate is easy. A nice coincidence!
Almost forty years ago I was living in Tokyo and regularly celebrated Thanksgiving with two other kazoku. Though we all lived in Tokyo, we were located far from each other at different ends. The three of us women were all Amerikajin and our husbands were Japanese. They had little in common but were resigned to American celebrations with us and the kodomotachi.
The year I hosted it required some amount of maneuvering. Japanese homes didn’t come with ovens, but we’d recently bought a very small one. How would a turkey even fit into it? That is, if I could even find a shichimenchō. It wasn’t a food that was eaten in Japan back then at all. So, I’d have to get on the train and go to the market that catered to the rich expat community. There were a couple, but Meidi-ya was where I thought I had the best chance.
So, I took a ruler and measured the inside of my ōbun. Then I stuck the ruler in my bag. Yes, I was going to have to measure any turkey I found! Stealthily of course. It would be a little embarrassing in front of the expat shoppers who all had American-style housing with big ovens, I imagined. So, there I was looking at turkeys, glancing around, and slipping the ruler out of my bag. Done! I had a nice five pound turkey.
But wait! How did I even know if it was a turkey? Maybe it was really a chicken. I’d never seen a five pound turkey in America. Did they have turkeys that small? At any rate, I bought it, cooked it, and it was a success.
The Japanese husbands politely ate their meal each year. After one such dinner, when we were walking back to the train station one of the Japanese husbands turned to the other and said, “Do you want to stop for ramen?” I guess it just didn’t feel like enough for them, though we all felt stuffed. And my own mother would put soy sauce on the table for my husband at the Thanksgiving meal, knowing that the entire meal was not his favorite.
My very first Thanksgiving in Japan was when I was in the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP) in the autumn of 1976. Our director had secured an invitation from the American Consulate in Kobe (Now relocated to Osaka) to join them for their celebration. Nobody said anything about how we should dress and most of us were in our jeans, flannel shirts and hiking boots. We took the train to Kobe and it started to rain. By the time we arrived at the Consulate, we were soaking wet… and still dressed in our jeans and flannel shirts. You might imagine the state of our hiking boots!
We entered the ballroom (I swear that is what it looked like!) like a swarm of maggots. The other guests were in evening gowns and fancy dress. They were older established types and people of status. We were in elite company.
More importantly to us was the incredible spread of food. Most of us made a beeline to the buffet tables. It was a little surprising to see sushi at Thanksgiving but it was an array of food the likes of which you’ve never seen before. (Sorry, but that is how T–P would describe it and he’d be right for once in his life.)
I got a little curious about OUR impact on these fancy folks. I went on Facebook to the alum group for AKP and asked. Had any other years gone to the consulate for Thanksgiving? The answer was no. I guess the Consulate didn’t invite our program back ever again. Can’t really blame them….
- muzukashii – 難しい difficult
- kazoku – 家族 family
- Amerikajin – アメリカ人 American (person or persons)
- kodomotachi – 子供達 children, i.e. more than one
- shichimenchō – 七面鳥 turkey
- ōbun – オーブン oven. There is no V sound in Japanese so it usually converts to a B sound.