Holiday exchanges on Okinawa strengthen bonds between navies
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — The aroma of squid permeates the halls of the Navy’s Commander, Fleet Activities Okinawa headquarters thanks to some Japanese New Year’s traditions.
Sailors from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s White Beach Sub-Area Activity presented U.S. sailors with a set of kadomatsu — Japanese ornaments made from bamboo and pine boughs — and the dried-squid- bearing kagami mochi, a type of tiered rice cake, at CFAO headquarters here Wednesday.
The gifts were part of a cultural exchange that began three years ago, said Command Master Chief Kevin Haun. As in past years, U.S. sailors gave their Japanese counterparts a Christmas tree earlier this month.
These cultural exchanges are important, said Capt. Akira Akehi, commander for the JMSDF sub-area activity.
“To understand each other, the biggest step is understanding our cultures,” Akehi said.
To that end, Akehi and others explained the two gifts to assembled U.S. sailors.
At the new year, kadomatsu is set at gates or doors to welcome the god of the year and ancestral spirits. The ornament’s pine boughs represent longevity and the bamboo is a symbol of prosperity, said CFAO’s Sheryl Kohatsu.
Sailors put their kadomatsu at the headquarters’ entrance so that all who walk through can share in the decorations’ good luck, Kohatsu said.
Kagami mochi also brings good luck, she said. It consists of two rounded balls of mochi — pounded rice dough — stacked atop one another to symbolize piling on another year of life. It is garnished with an orange or tangerine and sometimes seafood.
Akehi said dried squid is used because it is chewy and takes a long time to eat, symbolizing having plenty to eat throughout the new year.
Mochi balls, which will have hardened by the time they are to be eaten on Jan. 11, can be grilled or fried Kohatsu added, but they should be smashed with a hammer. Jan 11 is kagami biraki, which means “breaking of the mochi” or “opening the mirror.” It is the traditional day for eating the kagami mochi after New Year’s day.
“If you cut it with a knife, you are cutting off your good luck,” she said.
Haun said the kagami mochi already has brought him good luck, as Jan. 11 marks 30 years of service for him.
But Capt. Bob Wilson, CFAO commander, expressed one note of concern about eating the kagami mochi: “I like the mochi. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to take on the dried squid.”
It was a sentiment shared by several of his sailors.