“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13b-14
When I was invited to attend my first bōnenkai as a new missionary, I was rather flattered to be included, but I was clueless as to what would actually transpire. Immediately after my arrival for the event, my two Japanese friends seemed quite determined to ply me with alcohol while they got steadily plastered themselves and consequently, became increasingly silly. These friends also persisted in asking me quite personal questions that were rather out of character for these normally dignified businessmen. Previously, I had naively thought that a bōnenkai was a simple end-of-year party with close friends, but I later learned that the Japanese characters for bōnenkai (忘年会) mean literally, “forget the year gathering.” In other words, it is essentially a Japanese drinking party for co-workers or friends where everyone is encouraged to let their hair down through the consumption of alcohol and, in the process, collectively forget the troubles of the past year. Even the normal lines that separate the boss from his business subordinates are temporarily erased during the festivities and whatever is said or done under the influence of alcohol is conveniently overlooked the following day.
Bōnenkai do not take place on any specific day, although they are usually held in December. They are not to be confused with New Year’s parties, which are referred to as “shinnenkai” (新年会 ) and are celebrated in the new year. Companies often sponsor bōnenkai for their employees, but circles of friends frequently organize their own forget-the-year gatherings. This tradition is said to have originated somewhere around the 16th century when groups of samurai lords gathered locally to commemorate their achievements of the past year. Following the abolishment of the feudal ruling system in the late 19th century and the rise of lifetime employment in the business world, companies began to incorporate and revise this old custom. What was previously an event exclusively reserved for the ruling caste eventually became a routinely scheduled gathering for all company employees in the yearly calendar. The following popular song, 今夜はHearty Party (“Tonight, Hearty Party”), by the famous pop singer Mariya Takeuchi, captures the ambiance or atmosphere of a typical Japanese bōnenkai. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWlgvzXI8eY
Forgetting the past is often a helpful approach as we pursue a godly lifestyle and mindset that will honor God. The Apostle Paul alludes to the importance of sometimes “forgetting what is behind” (Philippians 3:13) because an unhealthy preoccupation with our failures in the past can impede God’s redemptive work in the present. Recognition of personal sin is certainly a healthy starting point, but a myopic focus on such matters can unintentionally blind us to the amazing truth of grace. This infatuation on past failures could in turn paralyze us with guilt, rather than motivating us to move forward in life as objects of God’s love. Everyone has committed acts of which they are ashamed, but through the power of the cross, we are released from the burdens of our past and set free to fulfill our eternal calling in Christ Jesus. Like a bōnenkai, we are exhorted to forget the troubles from our past, but as redeemed individuals, we must not neglect to celebrate in faith new and better things to come, while remembering where we came from. Our new life in Jesus compels us to forget, but at the same time, remember.