Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Very Japanese Christmas

'Tis the season... And to understand just what all the following posts talking about my trials and the cross that I bear come every December here in Japan, you gotta understand Japanese Christmas.

To start with, one has to understand that Japan is in now way shape or form a Christian nation. If anything, it's a very secular nation with most of the population reporting that they have no religious faith. That said, the Japanese are rather... well... As I previously noted, the joke is that if you asked the Japanese about religion, 78% would be Buddhist, 78% would be Shintoist, and 78% would claim no religion at all. Even the Japanese joke that they are Shinto for birth, Christian for marriage, and Buddhist at death, denoting the popular practices of going to a Shinto shrine with a new baby, having a 'romantic' Christian style wedding, and asking that a Buddhist temple attend the passing of a loved one.

And no, the Japanese see nothing wrong with this, you do what works around here.

So with that in mind, it makes sense why a non-Christian nation would somehow adopt Christmas. The problem is that, well, if there has ever been any Western custom that has been adopted by the Japanese and implanted with a Japanese heart, it's Christmas. The problem is that for an American who did grow up with Christmas, the result of this implant is a creature with a bad personality overlay. The feeling that, something is just not right. That the heart, the soul, is missing from this time of year and has been replaced with... Something. Something odd.

It's not Japan's fault of course. They already have a winter holiday that ends in exchanges of gifts and family gatherings. New Year's, or Oshougatsu in Japanese, is THE major holiday for the year. People return to their families. The year's beginning is marked as a solemn occasion instead of with parties. Or as I like to put it, things are flipped in Japan in terms of Christmas and New Year's. So when you take out the family, and you take out the gifts (kinda), and the religion, what are you left with?

Japanese Santa
Well, if you're a child, you're left with Santa. The big man is well loved in Japan, if there's an undercurrent about if Santa should be Japanese or not.

Makoto, used to his father playing Santa and seeing American Christmas movies was a bit confused when Santa visited his school and didn't talk to him in English. He was also very put out that he didn't know how to Ho ho ho properly.

But Japanese children are taught that Santa will come at night on Christmas Eve and leave a present by their futon or maybe in their sock (No stocking over here). Santa doesn't come down a chimney here of course, someone has to let him in. But he does come and it's a poor child who doesn't expect some kind of visit by Santa.

MERRY Christmas!
If you're a young adult, Christmas is... well... *ahem* Sex. Kinda. Well. not kinda. Before New Year's, many Japanese engage in what is known as 'Forget the Year' parties. So the end of the year is a party time, especially if you're old enough to drink. Adding to this is an imported idea that Christmas Eve dates are romantic (Damn Western media) and thus for young couples, Christmas is the time where they can get together, and I mean together. Christmas Eve is apparently the most popular date for a young Japanese woman to loose her virginity.

The general idea is that the guy will take his lady love out to a very expensive hotel to enjoy a 'traditional' Christmas dinner of roast chicken (It should be noted that foreigner, missing turkey, would be noted eating chicken as a substitute. In the 1970's, KFC took note and managed to convince the whole nation that fried or roast chicken is exactly what people around the world eat for Christmas and thus does the Colonel, dressed as Santa in front of every store, sells out of chicken buckets come Christmas Eve with lines reaching around the block) where he will present her with a suitably nice present. After Christmas cake (Someone apparently told Japan that Christmas is Jesus's birthday, thus it must be celebrated with something akin to a birthday cake, complete with candles) and French wine, the couple retires to a love hotel he he gets to unwrap her.

For just about everyone else, unless you're a parent and thus dealing with children, Christmas passes by almost without notice.


Bears are Christmasy, right?
There are Christmas carols, many translated into Japanese. And Christmas lights, the Japanese who have a long standing tradition of seeing lights at night (During the fall and spring, trees are illuminated for people's enjoyment), have gone gaga over Christmas lights. It's easy to find parks with massive Christmas illuminations set up, though there's, again, the feeling that something isn't right. Encountering hearts as if for Valentine's Day, or bugs for example.

Yes, bugs. The park that I take the boys has Christmas lights set up to look like such Christmas subjects as dragonflies or beetles.

If you want to fully imagine what a Japanese Christmas feels like, just toss a Santa hat on something, anything, and that's it. From 2 foot tall trees to Doraemon nativity scenes, it just feels wrong. Fake. Transplanted.


And I mean this, for many Japanese it's fun. For my sons, they like it. They may get more by way of me, but this will be the Christmas that they remember and that's not a bad thing. I plan to go more into tradition mixing, but I will note that while we do not have roast chicken, we do have Christmas cake, or rather I do bake a cake, if not a simple sponge one. We do listen to Christmas carols in Japanese. And we do go enjoy the Christmas lights shaped like bugs at the park. I'm not complaining about how Japanese celebrates Christmas or even that it does, but it does bring up a problem with the culture clash that comes when I try to bring in a deeper meaning to this holiday in the face of Santa, KFC, and bug lights.

But more on that a bit later.

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