An Unexpected Christmas in Japan

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Helen Winter

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Written by: Vicki Holman

A Very Unexpected Christmas

In Japan you expect to see temples, skyscrapers, and wacky inventions, but in front of me was a huge Christmas tree accompanied by loud and high pitched carols crackling incessantly on an overplayed tape. I was pretty surprised. Even in Britain, where we start pedalling Christmas merchandise at the end of the summer holidays, we wait until December to put up the Christmas tree. Besides, I thought Japan was a Buddhist country, so what’s with all this Christmas stuff anyway?

The Christmas tree in Kokura, like the showers of white lights in Fukuoka, can be easily attributed to commerce, another happy holiday to slap a price tag on, and the Christmas tree, well, it’s just pretty. It seems that people in Japanese communities celebrate our number one religious festival.

Festive Nippon

“We give presents, but we don’t celebrate the birth of Christ, or anything like that,” one friend told me. “It is just for the fun. We give some small presents and we eat cake.” I didn’t ask her to specify what sort of cake, but I liked the sound of the festivities. It sounded like a kid’s birthday party.

“I first saw Christmas decorations when I was 25 years old,” a pensioner in my ekaiwa class told me. “I think that it was about 35 years ago. The businesses were very rich, so they could spend lots of money on decorations. We like the decorations because they are so pretty and fun. Japanese people love festivals.” She seemed nostalgic as she spoke about it, although like my friend before, she admitted it had no symbolic meaning.

The lack of religious motivation is hardly surprising when you consider that Japan is not a Christian country. In view of how far the commercial aspect has overtaken the religious aspect in Western countries – where Christianity is the most prominent faith – this becomes even truer. Although many people are still very religious, particularly in North America, I’ve been told that you are now not allowed to tell the Christmas Story in schools there, for fear of indoctrination or offending people of other ethnic groups. Meanwhile in Britain, it seems that the majority of people are apathetic.

Many sappy returns

“Christmas is just for couples,”‘ another friend told me. “Men have to save up for a long while, because they have to buy Louis Vuitton for their girlfriends.” After moaning about the expense of Louis Vuitton for a little while, he asked me, “Do people buy presents in England at Christmas time?”

It was an enlightening moment. He had no idea about English festivities, because he had never seen any English movies. It was likely many Japanese peoples’ ideas were derived from Hollywood epics, glamorous presentations of the perfect yuletide, something that the lady from my ekaiwa class confirmed. “Mmm… yes. I don’t understand why we started to celebrate Christmas. After watching films? Perhaps yes.”

Judging by the emphasis on couples, Japan has been watching an abundance of festive romantic comedies.

Fukuoka City is absolutely beautiful at this time of year. Sprinklings of white lights sparkle everywhere, lighting up the alleyways. The Streets are bustling without being heaving, and cheesy carols play in every store. Whether or not the occasion is religious, it is nice that people can enjoy the season, buy a few small things for their loved-ones, and take time to enjoy some of the nicest elements of Christmas. There is no urgency about Christmas here, no barging your trolley through crowded aisles to buy the best presents or the most food. It’s admirable that Japanese people take an interest in Western traditions whilst making them their own. 

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