Japanese New Year Tradition Serves as Generational Bridge

by Carolyn Bick

Serenaded by choruses of, “Yoisho!”, every time the mallet fell, Mochitsuki attendees tried their hand at pounding mochi dough at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s annual New Year’s event on January 12, 2020.

Mochitsuki is a centuries-old Japanese tradition that Seattle-Tacoma Fukuoka Kenjinkai President Christina Swadener believes stems from Chinese culture, but which Japan made its own.

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Celebration attendees Yuka Tokusashi (back center) and Rio Yun (front center) pound mochi, as Takumi Yoshinaga (right) kneads the dough in between strikes, during the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s annual mochitsuki event at its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

During Mochitsuki, she explained, communities will gather together to pound sticky rice into dough, in order to create plain dough balls that can be paired with sweet toppings, like anko, or sweet red bean paste, or savory toppings, like natto, or fermented soy beans. It’s as much about inviting good luck for the new year as it is about strengthening community bonds. It’s also a fun way to sneak in some exercise, during the colder winter months: stirring and pounding rice grains into dough with a heavy mallet is no small feat.

Though this year’s celebration was smaller, with just a few dozen people in attendance, this was intentional: last year, the center welcomed around 800 people, which, while exciting, was a little too many, Swadener said.

“Mostly we did this event for our volunteers, so that our volunteers can experience this kind of culture, because many of them are the Nikkei people –– you know, Japanese Americans,” she said, using the term for those of Japanese immigrant descent. “The idea is to let the volunteers have fun, instead of serving people, because most other events, that’s all we’re doing. … Volunteers don’t really have time to enjoy the event, if we’re busy serving people.”

Because the elevator is also currently out of commission, due to construction, Swadener said, they also wanted to prioritize safety.

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Narachiyo Sekine (left) and Minako Kitahara (right) make plain mochi, during the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s annual mochitsuki event at its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

Typically, Mochitsuki are held at the end of a year, but because many Japanese families also celebrate Western holidays, like Christmas, holding the celebration didn’t work for their schedules. Thus, the community center decided to wait to hold it until after the holiday season, when Nikkei families would be less busy, and could attend.

It’s also important to keep these traditions alive, Swadener said, due to the state of Japan’s population. There are more elders than there are young families, because fewer young people are having babies. Though this phenomenon is not new, Swadener said the trend is also reflected in Nikkei communities, which has led to an overall decline in the understanding of Japanese culture and heritage, even amongst Nikkei youth.

“The second generation, they can’t really speak Japanese, and the third generation? They hardly know anything about it whatsoever. They just heard it from their grandparents,” Swadener said. “So, our idea is so that we can encourage the younger generation to want to know about Japanese heritage so that they can connect with their grandparents.”

It’s also a way to keep the first generation connected with the community, especially as they grow older.

“We realize that the elders, when they get older, they don’t really drive, they don’t have any place to go. And they really want to have some place to hang out,” Swadener said. “It’s impossible for them to keep going back to Japan to visit, so this is a place that’s a home away from home, to share this culture together.”

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Takumi Yoshinaga kneads the mochi dough, during the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s annual mochitsuki event at its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

At a table towards the back, volunteers handing out a variety of mochi along with various toppings ensured attendees’ taste buds weren’t neglected. Using mochi freshly rolled into balls by Kisaragi-Kai President Narachiyo Sekine and Kobe Clube member Minako Kitahara, volunteers fried flat discs of mochi on a griddle; put some in small cups of soup, delicately garnished with vegetables cut into flower shapes; and served plain balls to be topped with sweet or savory offerings, as attendees chose.

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Different mochi toppings sit on a table, during the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington’s annual mochitsuki event at its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, on Jan. 12, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)

After he finished pounding the mochi (with some assistance by mother Yuka Tokusashi), little Rio Yun chowed down on a fried mochi disc wrapped in a small rectangle of toasted nori, the kind of seaweed commonly used to make maki sushi rolls. Though parents Yuka Tokusashi and Gangho Yun tried to get him to pay attention to more than just the savory snack, Rio wasn’t interested. After a brief pause to look towards this reporter for a photograph, Rio’s attention quickly returned to the mochi, which he polished off in one swift bite.

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