Eastern fun in western context

During the interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s Day, life often takes an odd pause. It is not quite the holidays, but seems as though it could be. We return things, spend gift cards and perhaps prepare for one more night of revelry.

Over the last few weeks we’ve published a series of editorials in which seasonal observances from different cultures and periods of history have been presented. New Year’s celebrations typically don’t get a huge amount of play. Yes, we might watch a ball (or some other object) drop amid confetti and champagne. Maybe we get a kiss, but none of our traditions has quite the flare of a traditional Chinese New Year. Tied to the lunar-solar year, the 15-day festival starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year (January 31, 2014) and ends on the full moon 15 days later.

More in line with American customs, the Japanese have a custom that began in the late 19th century. Started by the Matsuya Department store in Ginza, the custom is known in Japan as “Fukubukuro,” which literally translates into “lucky bag.” It is similar in concept to what we’d call a grab bag, but the custom is much more formalized in Japan.

The fukubukuro prepared by more popular stores are snapped up quickly by eager customers. Like our Black Friday sales, some stores garner long lines that snake around city blocks as customers wait for stores to open. Fukubukuro are a way for merchants to unload excess and unwanted inventory from the previous year. Not only does this have a financial benefit, but it plays to a Japanese superstition that one must not start the New Year with unwanted goods from the previous year — the proverbial clean start.

Just before New Year’s, retailers all over Japan will make up lucky bags. The bags are opaque and sealed. So you have no idea whether you’re going to get something wonderful or just something ho-hum. Fukubukuro are available for a variety of different prices. Most are priced ranging from a few hundred to a few 10,000 yen ($1– $100), but there are also a few extremely expensive fukubukuro available. In 2006, the most expensive Fukubukuro was sold for 200.6 million yen ($1.7 million) from a Jewelry store.

The Apple stores in Japan recently put iPods and Macbook Airs in some of theirs. This year, Apple’s lucky bags will sell for the equivalent of $345.

Bags containing nothing but leftover or unwanted items are known colloquially as “fukoubukuro” (“misfortune bags”) or “utsubukuro” (“depressing bags”). Some merchants who’ve prepared these less enticing bags actually name them misfortune or depressing bags and offer them at very low prices.

Interestingly enough, this custom has begun to creep onto American shores. Some retailers in Hawaii — a state with many people of Japanese descent — embrace the custom. So too are Japan-based retailers in major U. S. cities.

Not that Americans need any incentive to spend money around the holidays, but we think this is a quaint custom worthy of adopting. We also think that the motivation behind the custom — preparing for a fresh start — is even more worthy of adoption.

Most of us have things around our homes that we do not need, do not want, can’t use, won’t use or just don’t like. Wouldn’t it behoove us to divest ourselves of this pointless baggage?

Of course, we all know the peril and promise of New Year’s resolutions. Maybe we can’t summon the discipline to lose those last 10 pounds, but maybe a large donation to the local thrift shops would be an easy checkmark on the New Year’s list.