Japanese families traditionally gather to eat seasonal-appropriate foods such as Osechi ryori, and participlate in Hatsumōde (初詣, hatsumōde) which is the first Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year. In Japan, New Year’s is an important holiday to spend with family.
But I know the truth…I know what everybody really cares about…
How I spent my New Years in Japan, and how I ended up watching that…
Many people may think of the wholesome picture I painted above. Oh, not the one where the guy is getting humourously and very publicy humilitated. No no… the picture where Japanese families gather harmoniously to eat wholesome osechi ryori and do their happy humility-filled hatsumode run. No no no…
They are trying to keep it a secret…but I know the reality…
There is a harsh reality… and I know it! I know the truth that the Japanese people look forward to a national New Year’s past time that is much more cheeky than you may be thinking.
A New Year’s past time that involves copious amounts of spank-by-club
But how did I experience this…and what am I even talking about? It all started when I was hanging around in my tiny tiny Japanese apartment on new years. It was about to become 2017.
“Looks like another New Year’s in Japan spent sitting in my room eating crunky and drinking salt & fruit,” I thought to myself. Just as another man once had…
But no! I wouldn’t be relegated to a night of lonely kaigui (basically means buying a bunch of cheap sneaks at a convenience store and shoving them down your throat). No…no no it would be a few more years until those dark times… Alas. A Japanaese friend came to swoop me off my feet, and take me away from my gelatinous sugar-staled fever dream. Was this him doing me a favor? Well, life is an enigma, and most things are a matter of perspective. Salt & fruit on a Japanese New Year’s Eve can be a truly amazing experience, and a humbling one at that!…but I did ultimately decide that I would rather go and hang out with some friends.. This was back when I was studying at a Japanese university, and in living arrangements that are somewhat rare in Japan. Most Japanese university students live either on their own in an independent private apartment complex, or continue to live with their family. I was living in my university mandated semi-private set of apartments (i’m not sure exactly how that worked), and so I was living in my own apartment, but a lot of the people in my building were also studying at my university. So it was just a walk down the hall for me to enter this different dimension. The dimension of booty punishment. I’ll get to that…
Anyways, this Japanese new years event was basically a Japanese house party.
Do Japanese people have house parties?
Japanese apartments are notoriously small, so Japanese house parties typically revolve around sitting around a ‘kotatsu’, or central table, and drinking cheap beers. It’s modest, but that is part of the charm.
Here is my experience…
I was invited into a room on the end of the hall. I had walked this hall many times, but this was the first time I had actually entered another room for more than a few seconds.
I walk in to be suddenly greeted with what must have been around 500 bags of garbage. It crunches, it crinkles, it oozes beneath my Onitsuka tiger’s (A Japanese shoe brand. It’s like the Japanese equivalent of converse.) It was actually pretty disgusting…I don’t think this is a Japanese thing, but he was like that for some reason. I should mention that I had eaten lunch with this guy in question a few times prior. I didn’t just let him pull me out of my apartment and drag me off to his sticky trash dungeon. I would never do something like that…
I make my choice of trash mound. I contemplate my position, and eventually choose the used sandwich wrappers over the moist ramen containers and sticky rice mounds. I nestle in. People are drinking copiuous amounts of alcohol, but it’s more the kind of alcohol you don’t openly brag about enjoying in an unrelated conversation. Strong zero, happoushu (発泡酒) (A type of Japanese beer that is actually not beer, but is sold much cheaper because it technically isn’t beer and can thus avoid taxes. In essence, ‘near beer’.
It’s new years, so I’m curious on everyone’s plans. “They must be planning on spending some time with family. Eating some of those attractive shrimp heads I have scene posed so romantically on top of osechi ryori flyers, or maybe even going on a small trip?” I think to myself. I ask them directly.
“No, we’re really here to watch Gaki tsukai. This is everyone’s favorite part of Japanese New Year’s.”
This is what they all told me. And I didn’t believe them until I saw the first frame
But first, let me cover something more boring. Let me build up that tension. Just let me build up my thing.
Be patient! I’m building it up…
Kouhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), The other thing people watch on Japanese New Year’s Eve
Okay, okay…so not everyone watches middle-aged Japanese comedians getting their butts plastered on live TV. But the fact remains that New Years Eve is typically a day of sitting around and watching TV in Japan. Don’t get me wrong, Gaki no Tsukai is really popular, but I think that Kouhaku Uta Gassen is the perhaps slightly more popular, more mainstream thing to watch on New Year’s Eve.
So what is this Houhaku Uta Gassen, you ask in flawless Japanese pronunciation.
Well, it’s basically like Japan’s version of American idol, except all of the participants are artists that are already famous in Japan, and the whole event wraps up in a day. So, for people who are super into the modern music scene, and especially the pop scene, I guess this could be pretty fun. For me, it was the thing we flipped to when commercials started on the Gaki no Tsukai channel.
Gaki no tsukai; The original ‘try not to laugh’ challenge…with much higher stakes
‘Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!’, or more commonly referred to as just ‘Gaki no Tsukai’ is a comedy show formed by Japanese comedy due Downtown that has a long run. Since 1989! But the segment that airs every New Year’s Eve in Japan is Waratte wa ikenai, which is essentially the original “Try not to laugh” challenge. More specifically, Waratte wa ikenai is what is known as a batsu game. (罰ゲーム)
What is a batsu game?
A batsu game is a popular trope seen in Japanese comedy. The term comes from a mix of the Japanese word batsu which means both ‘to punish’ and ‘incorrect’. Typically, a batsu game refers to a scenario where participants are punished for breaking a specific condition of a game.
The batsu game of Waratte wa ikenai is… well…Let’s just say you and your butt will never be the same again.
Since from when I started watching it three years ago, the format has been basically the same. There is a theme, and the Gaki no Tsukai members are brought to some location to solve mysteries and accomplish tasks for 24 hours. The show then escalates by placing comedians in increasingly weird scenario’s, and repeatedly punishing them by smacking them in the butt with giant clubs if they dare to laugh.
You know…like you do!
At the end of the show, they show the total number of whacks received by each member. They usually start in some field where they meet this guy who tells them about the year’s theme.
Waratte wa Ikenai started in 2003, but it was not until 2006 when they decided to turn it into a New Year TV show. Now everyone knows it. Maybe this is one of the reasons why ‘Try not to laugh challenges’ never picked up in Japan, because when you say ‘Try not to laugh’ (waratte ha ikenai), everyone thinks of this New Year’s Special. Also, maybe everyone would expect a soldier dawning a black face mask and club to come out and smack them. It isn’t really ‘Try not to laugh’ if there are no clubs and butt-whacking. See the video below. I couldn’t find one with English subs, but I think you can get the idea. Basically they’re cracking jokes, playing word games, and calling each other out if someone laughs.
It…isn’t long enough…The moment I realize it will be a whole year until I can see the magic of butt-punishment again is enough to make me tear up. It’s enough to make me change my life! It’s enough to make me want to make a…resolution. A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION!
The funny thing is how normalized this was for everyone else I was watching with. They didn’t even blink. Of course this is something you would watch on a national holiday about new beginnings, new hope, and spending time with family. I can’t think of a better way to usher in the new years than a little…
*Giggle* tee hee…… SMACK!!!
No no… you see, the rear-smackdown brings us all together. Everyone can enjoy it! So, as you see, there is a reason why this kaboose-punishment fest became a Japanese New Year’s tradition.
It really is much more sentimental than you may be thinking.