Dr. George Tanabe, Ph.D.

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Everything was ready for another New Year’s breakfast. My family had gathered around the table filled with our traditional dishes: ozoni soup, fresh fruit, nishime, chikuwa fish cake, kuro mame (black beans), hasu (lotus root) tempura, steaming rice. We all took our seats and prepared for otoso, the first drink of sake to welcome good fortune for the coming year. I twisted open the cap of a new bottle of sake.

“But, Grandpa,” my 8-year-old grandson interjected, “aren’t we going to do the black box?”

“The black box?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”

“That, over there.” He pointed to our butsudan, the family Buddhist altar.

“Oh, right!” I said. “How could I have forgotten?”

I was amazed at his insistence on traditional protocol. He remembered that the first thing we always did on New Year’s morning was to offer incense at the butsudan, the black lacquered box. He knew that to start eating without offering incense would be to upset the order of how things should be done. There was a right way, and I was doing it wrong, at least in the eyes of my 8-year-old grandson. I was breaking tradition. This happened at the beginning of 2015, and for New Year’s 2016, I shall be certain to remember to “do the black box” first thing in the morning.

My grandson’s understanding of tradition is shared by many people. Most people think that tradition consists of repeating what we always have done in the past and that it is wrong to deviate from established patterns. There is great comfort in repetition. It gives us a gratifying sense of being tied to all the people who came before us, all of whom, we assume, did what their elders had taught them to do. We stand in a long line of transmission, and to continue past practices is a way of recognizing our debt to our ancestors: Thank you for teaching us the proper way to start off the new year. And, what a wonderful twist it was for my grandson to remind me of what my father, and grandfather, had taught me to do. Our black box tradition has a safe future in his young hands: Do it as it has always been done.

After offering incense, we settled back into our chairs at the table. The otoso sake drinking also has a set protocol in our family. When my parents and grandparents were alive, my father started by pouring sake for his father, my grandfather, who would drink it all in one gulp and then turn the shallow sakazuki cup upside down and shake it, as if to clean it for the next person. Grandpa would then pour sake for my father, who repeated the drinking and shaking of the cup before passing it to me. All of the males went first, from the oldest to the youngest, and then it was the women’s turn, again, from the oldest to the youngest, everyone using the same cup.

In 2015, I was the oldest, the Grandpa of the family, and so my son poured the first cup for me.

Dr. George Tanabe, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of religion at the University of Hawaii at Mänoa. He and his wife, retired UH-Mänoa professor of art history Dr. Willa Tanabe, co-authored the book, “Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawai‘i: An Illustrated Guide.”


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