It’s Christmas in Japan

Much like so many facets of good ol’ Christian culture, the fanatic reverence for Christmas has spread to countries who would rather not dabble in the religious aspect as much as the crazy parties that come with it.

Here in Japan, much like back in the US, as soon as the calendar hit November 1st, the catchy tunes in the grocery store whiplashed into merry Christmas jingles, albeit slightly different from the normal covers we are used to. But as I tell my students, who dutifully follow along to John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas (War is Over),” the celebration of Christmas as they know it greatly differs from how the rest of the world sees it.

For one, the go-to song is “Jingle Bell Rock” if you please.*

(*Author’s personal favorite. Other choices include Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Let It Snow, Winter Wonderland, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer among many others. For the love of Christmas spirit, don’t let screeching children be your song of choice for Christmas.)

For two, Christmas is a holiday. For those of you outside the loop, the Christmas holiday is just as hyped in Japan as it is in the US (or in Europe/any Christmas-celebrating region). What with the lack of pine trees, Japanese decorators make up with intricate strands of lights. If you Google “Tokyo Christmas” you might get an idea of how their attitude toward artistic expression via light bulbs rivals even the most hardcore of Christmas light shows in the US.

However, if you thought work would let you off for the holiday, think again. Yup, work still happens both on the Eve and Day. To all of you reader aghast at the idea of working on any day related to Christmas (my condolences and gratitude to all public service employees who work through the Christmas season), Christmas in Japan, more specifically Christmas Eve, is like Valentine’s Day: There’s a chance you might get laid and your girlfriend will expect a(n expensive) romantic date. There’s also this nonsense:

KFC is the go-to restaurant for Western holidays with any relation to food and, yes, that includes Thanksgiving as well.

For those of us out here in the boonies (read: anywhere other than Tokyo, Osaka, or the US Army Base), Christmas is more like that quirky tradition that people in other countries celebrate and hey, I might get a date on it. The family might order some KFC much like the Hannukah crowd orders Chinese food and small children might run up to foreigners yelling a mix of “Santa Claus!” and “Merry Christmas!”, but hardly any people will stockpile presents for a mass opening or gather the family together for Christmas dinner.

The reasons why Christmas is “celebrated” so differently here are twofold: 1) Lack of Christians and 2) Objectification of Christmas in global media.

I’m not saying spread the “Good Word” to Japan. We have enough religious crusades already and Japan already has a set belief in place. The main issue is the bits and pieces of Christmas that splinter off and fall into non-Christian countries. Let’s take a look at our Christmas movies that have made it overseas:

(of course there are others as well)

Themes to recognize: buying the perfect gift and finding a Christmas love.

Most of my students are familiar with Santa bringing presents and Christmas trees, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who connects Christmas with a time of bringing family together. Even less know of the Nativity story other than “it’s the Christian god’s birthday, right?” For Pete’s sake, they didn’t even know Rudolph had a name.

So without the solemn birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve and without the family dinners and rabid partying on Christmas Day, what’s left of Christmas that reaches non-Christian, non-Western eyes? A fat guy in a red suit, lots of songs about snow, and the ever-prevalent desire to buy the perfect present for your special someone. That is, after work.


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