I don’t want to get into details about my job, but let’s just say that I work with groups of people new to Japan on a regular basis. One of the questions I ask these groups (who will be living in Japan for the middle-to-long-term) is this: does Japan celebrate Christmas? Have a think on that question for a second. What do you think? There is a right answer by the way, and from my experience there is a 50/50 chance you’ll get it right.
The answer? Yes. Yes, they do celebrate Christmas…but the caveat is that they celebrate it differently. Now before anyone thinks of jumping up and declaring that Christmas is a Christian celebration that Japan has appropriated and stripped Christmas of all meaning, three things: first, be perfectly honest, the popular idea of Christmas was stripped of meaning a long time ago, and it wasn’t Japan that did that. Second, Christmas is itself a hodgepodge of other celebrations and feasts anyway, do the research. Third, this is a light-hearted blog, and you’ve made me go temporarily serious. So boo to you.
Anyway, Christmas (or クリスマス, pronounced as ‘Kurisumasu’) isn’t an actual holiday in Japan. They simply love the imagery of it all: the snow, the trees bedecked with baubles, and Santa with his posse of reindeer. A good way to think of it is like this: in the west, we view Christmas as a time for family and New Year as a time for couples/parties. In Japan, it’s the other way around: Japan views New Year, or お正月 (‘oshougatsu’) as the big family get-together where people tolerate one another until tensions boil over at a game of Monopoly, whereas Christmas is the ‘romantic’ time of year where couples get their lovey-dovey on. In fact, if anything Christmas Eve is the more significant day compared to Christmas Day itself, as this is the day many couples pin their restaurant reservations on. Honestly, I have no idea where this comes from, though my guesstimate is that it’s because all the Hollywood movies and their climatic/romantic moments happen on Christmas Eve. And Kevin McAllister tortures two burglars. You can’t get much more perfect than that.
Well…except that the traditional Japanese gourmet of Christmas is KFC. No, seriously: KFC really pulled a number on the marketing side of things when, many decades ago, it flat-out lied to the Japanese population at large who made out that Americans eat the same thing at Christmas. Apparently. Well, I’m more sold on the alternative theory that, because things like turkey were simply not available until very recently, KFC basically surfaced as the nearest alternative that was easily accessible to the public, and the habit has stuck in Japan since. Oh, and pizza. And sponge cake. Okay, I genuinely have no idea on those.
Do Japanese people exchange presents on Christmas? Kind of, but the idea isn’t as deeply ingrained and widespread as we’re used to, and again Japan does the bulk of it’s gifting on the New Year. Any gifts that are exchanged on Christmas are usually from parent to child. The same goes for Christmas cards as well.
And yet, the balance of power is changing. I’ve been in Japan for a comparatively short time, but even with the short experience I have, I swear I’ve seen Christmas increase in prominence and popularity with every passing year. Heck, if you turn on Japanese TV in the weeks leading up to the 25th, nearly every other commercial is Christmas-based. For a country that doesn’t even view it as an official holiday, that is pretty darn impressive.
What’s even more impressive is just how…un-cynical it all seems. It’s a great irony that what many in the west view as being a cynical hijacking of the ‘real’ Christmas in the name of commercialism was in of itself hijacked in turn by Japan, but because it didn’t carry any of the historical or social baggage with it, Christmas in Japan isn’t trying to pretend to be anything more than it actually is: simply a fun time of year where folks may splash out on a bit of money in the name of romancing a lover or gifting a loved one. Or ordering fried chicken.