What do you enjoy reading the most here on my blog?

Search My Blog

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


For those of you who are unaware of the phonetic nature of the katakana alphabet of the Japanese language, that phrase translates to "Merry Christmas" - and is heard around Japan from November until Christmas Eve, even though less than 2% of the population is Christian.

So how - you might ask - do the Japanese have such a fondness for Christmas, and why - you might also ask - are they celebrating it in any way, shape or form at all?

The short answer: Marketing.

Like many holidays here in the United States, ranging from St. Patrick's Day to Valentine's Day to Secretary's Day - holidays provide a source of income to companies producing gifts, decorations, cards and other holiday-type items as the nature of the holiday demands it. In Japan, Valentine's Day has traditionally been the giving of chocolate from women to men. While the most special chocolates given are usually hand-made, chocolate companies profit greatly. Moreover, this holiday has a related holiday called White Day, celebrated on March 14th, one month after. On this day, men decided to thank the women who gave them gifts by giving THEM gifts in return. For younger males, this is traditionally a gift of cookies. For the adults, the most popular gift is actually lingerie. How do I know these holidays have been commercialized? It is widely-known that the White Day gift is meant to be twice the value of the Valentine's Day gift in order to be of proper thanks.

But I digress, this is about Christmas. And surely you must be saying, "There HAS to be more to Christmas in Japan than your answer of 'marketing' and profiteering." You'd certainly be right.

The long answer: Tradition.

The story of Christmas in Japan goes back quite a long time. Not as long, obviously, as Christian roots in the holiday, but starting around 1549 - when a Portuguese man named Francis Xavier first taught Japan about Christianity. Among the teachings of Christianity, of course, was the idea of Christmas - and the first recorded Japanese Christmas Mass was held at Yamaguchi Church in 1552 as popularity of the religion made its way throughout the country. This led to the "KAKURE", or "Secret Christians" who kept their religion secret and celebrated with Christmas carols sung in Latin, and this sect remains to this day. Why did they have to keep it a secret? Well, in 1639, National Isolation was imposed on Japan and they were shut off from the Western World for quite some time so there was little support religiously.

National Isolation was lifted in 1854 by naval Commodore Perry - and Japan took to the Western civilization once more. During/after WWI, American companies began ordering their Christmas products from Japan since Germany was no longer a viable source. All of the Christmas decorations and toys and aluminum Christmas trees slowly started seeping out from the factories and into the culture as Japan became the new "North Pole" for all things Christmas. After WWII and upon finding Hong Kong and Taiwan for cheaper mass production, the remnants of Christmas had moved from the factories to the Western shopping malls in Japan as the holiday was celebrated more in the spirit of the Western world than the Christian world.

This paradigm shift in Christmas from the Christian notions to the spirit of America and the rest of the Western world led to a great deal of Western traditions being implemented in the celebration of a Japanese Christmas. For example, the traditional Christmas dinner during decades past was "Hamburgers and Stew" in honor of the American style of cooking brought to Japan after the war. Eventually this shifted to another American food tradition - Fried Chicken. In fact, at Kentucky Fried Chicken and American-style restaurants, you can even place your Christmas Dinner orders in advance to reserve your family some of that glorious fried chicken. I read one account of a Japanese woman being asked why chicken, rather than turkey, was the traditional food. The response? "The ovens aren't big enough."

The other food from the Western world that made it big in Japan and became one of the few OFFICIAL Christmas symbols in the country: sponge cake. In fact, the combination of sponge cake, strawberries and whipped cream is the official "Christmas Cake" and NO Christmas celebration is complete in Japan without one. Bakeries even hire people (usually students and teenagers saving up to buy a special someone a gift) to advertise on the street to make sure every Christmas Cake is sold before Christmas Day. Why before then? Well, the Japanese really only celebrate Christmas Eve, and there is no use for a Christmas Cake on the day after. The Japanese are often flabbergasted when they learn that there is no "Christmas Cake" in America nor a hint of a tradition matching it, unless you accept the vague jump to "cookies and milk" left for Santa or the "gingerbread house" whose sole purpose seems to be a marketing push for gingerbread itself. The Christmas Cake in Japan is most related to the Christmas Tree in America in the "what would Christmas be without it" tradition category.

So speaking of Christmas Trees and saving up to buy someone a gift - what about the presents? After all, most children in America know Christmas by that tradition more than any other - the gifts! Well, presents in American Christmas celebrations are usually associated with Santa Claus, and in Japan, Santa is not so much of a mascot for the holiday as he is a mere logo. While he's seen on advertisements and commercials, he doesn't visit shopping malls and ask children what they'd like for Christmas. Even so, there is still gift-giving to be found. Parents give presents to children, but children never give gifts to parents. This is because parents give gifts to children only as long as they still believe in Santa Claus. Once they stop believing, or more likely figure it all out, there's no need to keep giving them gifts in his name - and there's less need for children to give gifts in return since there's no one to return the favor to.

Gifts ARE given to that "special someone". Somewhere along the lines (and believe me, I'M still trying to figure this gem out) of tradition, it became a belief that Christmastime was the best time to declare your love for someone. The act of "confessing" to your crush is often SAVED for the Christmas Eve night, since it's rumored that you will have extra luck in having someone confess back to you if you confess to them on Christmas Eve. Call it a "Christmas Miracle", if you will. This led to the giving of expensive gifts, as a bonus alongside the confession of love, and couples will often exchange gifts as it is a merchandise time of year and when special seasonal gifts are available.

Oh, I'm sorry. Did I make it all the way full-circle to Marketing?

Well, you can't blame the holiday for that. Japan tried to incorporate as much of the Western tradition as possible into their idea of Christmas, and eventually it fell into the same type of rut that America has been in for quite some time, which is why my short answer to the question of Christmas in Japan will remain to be "Marketing" - even though I admit to the long list of tradition as the longer and sappier answer.

Some other Western traditions have not yet been fully tainted in Japan, as is evident by one of the other major traditions that I learned about in my research. Remember how I said that Santa doesn't do his little mall-tour act? That's because there's something more interesting in the malls aside from Christmastime sales and cake-peddlers. It's the haunting chorus of "Hymn to Joy". That's right, the American Christian hymn spread to Japan and it often sung in shopping malls by large choruses as the words are sung in English. It's certainly a nice change of pace from the same flood of sappy Christmas music about reindeer and sleighs and jingling bells that pipe over loudspeakers in Japan just as much as here in America. In fact, the Japanese refer to this tradition as "Daiku" - which means "Great Nine". This is in honor of the fact that "Hymn to Joy" (or rather "Ode to Joy") is the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Lastly, I'd like to mention that Christmas comes very close to the New Year holiday. Here in America, this fact is often drowned out by the Christmas celebration and festivities, as those last few days after recovering from parties and whatnot spark a quick interest in the American mind before it's time to find a partner to kiss at midnight and then make New Year's resolutions that are more than likely going to fail before February even draws near. In Japan, it's quite the opposite. While they may have fully embraced fried chicken and Christmas Cake and a bit of commercialism to back it all up, they overshadow Christmas with New Year's traditions. New Year's is really the time that they sit down as a family and have memorable get-togethers and a big feast and heartfelt joy. Christmas is a one-night fling that involves couples more than families and although they're reminded of it almost as long as we are here in America, the actual preparation for the event lasts as long as we Americans prepare for the New Year's Eve.

Even so, in conclusion, Christmas is a big deal in Japan - even without a large population of Christians to back it up. It's based on tradition as much as it is a spread of ideas passed down across an ocean as they embrace their long-distance neighbors' spirit for the holiday. Hopefully this humble article has instilled in you not only the knowledge of how and why Christmas came to Japan and continues there to this day - but also a little insight into the holiday itself and a few of the things beneath the surface. In turn, when someone asks YOU why you celebrate Christmas here in America - you'll remember that although the short answer to the question can often be seen as "Marketing", there's always a longer answer and a lot of thought to give to the "Tradition" and the spirit of the holiday itself.

MERII KURISUMASU to all - and to all, a good night.

No comments: