Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Two Thanksgivings

Two days ago was America's Thanksgiving holiday and yesterday was Japan's "Labor Thanksgiving Day". These holidays have very little to do with each other in their modern incarnations though a little research seems to indicate they used to have a bit more in common. The Japanese holiday is the modern equivalent of an ancient rice festival according to Wikipedia and the American holiday is similarly a celebration of a bountiful harvest. This is pretty much where the similarities end.

The biggest difference is that the Japanese holiday is no longer celebrated in any serious way by the majority of people. In fact, most Japanese people don't quite know what the holiday is for and are just pleased to get a day off from work. When I ask what the meaning of the holiday is, my students usually say something along the lines of it being a way to thank people for working hard. They don't prepare any special food and few people attend the handful of festivals held on November 23rd.

In the U.S., this is a time for great excess and general food-based bacchanalia. I sometimes think that the significance of showing thanks at this time a year is often lost because of the affluence most people enjoy in America. It's a lot easier to appreciate bounty when you have a dearth at other times. It also seems that the excessive focus on food tends to distract one from being thankful for other things in life.

My husband and I cannot really celebrate Thanksgiving in Japan, at least not in the way people do in the U.S. might. There are problems with doing so mainly because my husband works from 11:00 am - 10:00 pm on Thursdays and there is hardly time for merry-making or feasting. I also private teach in our apartment from Wednesday to Sunday though I could probably change my schedule if he had the day off. It's also hard to obtain special dishes, particularly turkey (or even whole chicken), American pumpkin, cranberries, yams and pecans. Some food items can be found easily but are very expensive (celery is oddly pricey, for instance). While we can order these items from the Foreign Buyer's Club, we'd need to order everything at least a week beforehand, it'd be very expensive, and the time situation makes it rather pointless to bother.

That doesn't mean we can't reflect on the things we're grateful for. I know that a lot of people write about all the things they are thankful for and I could just as easily make a similar list here and now but I'm not sure that anyone else cares and I already know and won't forget so there's no point in recording it for my own reference. The main problem with such lists is that other people are going to be judging your life based on what you write. They might not even mean to but they will be. Those who share your priorities will feel you're thankful for the right things. Those who don't may feel that you are shallow, spoiled, or oblivious to what really matters.

How people perceive what you are thankful for is largely influenced by where they (roughly) fall on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, it's a theory which talks about what needs take priority and need to be met before you can consider more "advanced" needs. At the bottom are basic needs like food, water, sleep, sex, etc. The next levels are safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. While not all needs on a lower level have to be fulfilled 100% to start focusing on the needs at the next level, the extent to which a person tends to concentrate on needs at any particular level is influenced by how fulfilled the ones below it are. This makes sense since, for instance, a starving man isn't focusing on whether or not he's got a girlfriend.

In regards to Thanksgiving gratitude and the lists people make, those who fall below you on Maslow's hierarchy will tend to view you as spoiled when judging your list. Those who are above you may think you're oblivious of the more important things in life, declasse, or childish. I think it's really hard to appreciate needs that are below your current needs state on the pyramid and there really isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. When you can have any food you want, it's easy to take being well-nourished for granted, for example.

In fact, I think that humanity will never be able to fulfill all the basic survival needs of all people until a good portion of us have reached the top of the pyramid and are at the self-actualization stage. As long as we're all near the bottom, we're too concerned with our own selfish needs to consider viewing the lives of others with empathy and charity. Personally, I will say that one of the things I'm most grateful for is being far enough along in my need fulfillment to have the perspective that I have on life. It's not a perfect or an all-encompassing perspective, but it's not mired in concerns for getting enough food or having shelter, safety, and most importantly, love and belonging. It's my hope that everyone is able to similarly reflect on their lives with gratitude for having these things this year.


mjgolli said...

Great post! It is very interesting to find out how other cultures treat their holidays and find out what they are thankful for. It seems that our thanksgiving has not yet become more of a "thank God...a day off!" than being thankful for what we have. Judging by the number of free thanksgiving meals offered in towns around where I live, people are more than happy to offer food to the less fortunate.

Not to toot my own horn, but I am just thankful to be alive. With your inspiration, I have started my own blog. badmoodguy in paradise

Shari said...

I'm glad to hear that you're starting your own blog! In fact, I'm adding you to the roster of links.

I can see how you'd be happy to be alive given your cancer diagnosis and treatment. I strongly recommend people who read my blog read yours as well. Your story is related in a very personal but straightforward way. Your writing style is also engaging. I hope you'll keep blogging and that your recovery continues.

Thanks so much for commenting and providing a link to your blog. I'm really looking forward to following it.

tornados28 said...

It would be nice if Americans did not eat in excess on a daily basis, then it would be ok to indulge on special occasions such as Thanksgiving.

But for many people, Thanksgiving is just another day to stuff themselves which is more of adaily event anyways.

I do feel that Thanksgiving as well as xmas is a good time to be with and think about your family and friends and in that sense, the holidays are a good thing.