Christmas in Japan instantly brings to mind that well-known urban myth of Santa’s crucifixion. The general consensus is that it occurred shortly after World War II, and that the perpetrator was a Tokyo department store. Still struggling to grapple with the concept of Christmas, and in the vague knowledge that it is somehow related to both Jesus and to Santa Claus, they decided to plaster the store with giant posters of Santa on a crucifix! Any foreign visitor to that particular store must have been left with the impression that somehow “It is Christmas… but not as we know it… ”
Japan is well known for its ability to adopt and adapt elements of other cultures, turning them into something often labelled ‘uniquely Japanese’. You would expect Christmas to translate fairly easily, considering Japan’s fondness for giving gifts, celebrating festivals and obsessing over food. The shortage of Christianity is not a real problem, considering the spiritual promiscuity of the modern Japanese. Christmas also happens to fall into the bonenkai (“forget the year”) party season, so the merriment is already in place. Besides, baby Jesus is as undeniably cute as the decorations are pretty.
So what is it about Christmas in Japan that makes it all somehow familiar and yet slightly strange? The decorations are certainly there, although mainly in shops and public places. A real Christmas tree is near-impossible to come by. You are likely to hear plenty of carols too, sung by robotic Santas or otherwise. I don’t see why Beethoven’s Ninth shouldn’t be the music of choice but I’m dubious of claims that “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (about prisoners of war) is an annual fixture on TV schedules. People give presents, but generally only to their children or partners, and enjoy traditional Christmas food, although this too produces a few surprises.
Christmas cakes are popular but rarely homemade and the selection mostly seems to include cheesecakes, chocolate cakes and sponge cakes with whipped cream and strawberries… in fact anything apart from what Brits like myself consider to be real Christmas cake (fruit, marzipan and icing). In the absence of turkey some of my Japanese friends report, with varying degrees of embarrassment, that Kentucky Fried Chicken is the definitive Christmas meal. You may even require a reservation if you want to get your hands on one of their greasy buckets of Christmas cheer during the holiday season. Kentucky or otherwise, most people choose to celebrate by going out for a meal on the 24th, seeing as Christmas Day isn’t a national holiday.
We all like to spend Christmas with our loved ones, but those who spend it with their family here risk being seen as either sad and lonely, or overly fond of their family… ‘Loved ones’ in this case means ‘romantic partners’. Hotel prices go through the roof and restaurants are fully booked as no one wants to be without a date on Christmas Eve, the most amorous night of the year. It just wouldn’t be the same without the flashy presents, expensive meal and chance to get festive with your significant other.
It seems that the Japanese Christmas may look like Christmas in the West, but superficial, commercially driven and lacking the emotional attachment that makes Christmas so treasured elsewhere. Before I go complaining about the complete lack of deeper religious meaning, disregard for the guy whose birthday we are supposed to be celebrating (Jesus, by the way), and mutilation of so many beloved, sacred traditions, perhaps I should consider Christmas back home from a more detached perspective.
Christmas in Japan is not a misguided imitation but an unintentional parody. Everything that Christmas has become is exaggerated and highlighted – secularised, commercialised, confused, and evolved to take on new meanings. Most British children associate Christmas largely with receiving presents. For adults it represents gluttony and excess and is dreaded by many. It is not just Japan that has a different take on Christmas to my own. Many traditions that I believed to be global turn out to be uniquely British. In fact, there are as many Christmas traditions as there are countries that celebrate Christmas. Japan isn’t the only country to import culture either; German Christmas markets have started to appear across Britain in the past few years (complete with real Germans).
So Christmas in Japan is a mixture of various Christmas concepts that have had a relatively short amount of time to mature from foreign novelties to entrenched traditions. It isn’t the same as anywhere else, as some people seem to believe, but neither is it as strange, exotic or misguided as the urban-myth mongers would like to think. Foreigners nationwide can take solace in the fact that, despite inevitably ending up dressed as Santa at some point this month, at least no one is going to try to crucify you.
By Paul Rollason
Illustrations copyright Shirley Wiseman 2006