Christmas in Ye Old Japan

Oh, OIP Blog, it’s been too long. The sudden uplift in my social life and the crazy rush that usually accompanies the month of December have conspired to keep me away from you and your wily, internet ways. But today, I break the cycle, and return to your loving, cyber-arms in order to write about my adventures with Japanese Christmas.

I say “Japanese Christmas” because there’s really nothing like it anywhere else, and I don’t want you thinking that it’s anything like Christmas in the West. While there may be discrepancies between American, European, and South American Christmas, they all share the same basis: there was this guy named Jesus, who was kind of a big deal, and this is his birthday. Thus, all the celebrating, get-togethers, decorations, Santa+Reindeer and gift-giving stems from that. This doesn’t hold true in Japan. While they put up trees to draw customers in department stores, light up shopping areas to get people to spend money on year-end sales, and eat Christmas Cake with their boyfriend/girlfriend. There’s little to almost no mention of Christianity (despite the fact the holiday is named after Christ…)

Now, I don’t want any of you to think that I’m going on and on about this because I’m a hardcore Jesus-fanatic; no, this is interesting to me because Christmas, like a lot of other things that were imported into Japan, has been twisted until it’s lost a lot of its original meaning and only holds the face-value identity of Santa Hats and pretty lights around the city. In Japan, Christmas is not a family holiday, but one meant to be spent with one’s significant other, so all of my Japanese friends are moaning about how they just have to find a boyfriend before Christmas Eve so they’ll have something to do. This is understandable, in a way; less than 1% of the Japanese population is truly Christian, as in attends services at a church, has been baptized, etc, so a lot of people don’t see the holiday in its original context, and still find New Year’s to be the more important festival. How Christmas became the holiday to spend with your boyfriend, I have no idea.

But it still holds that a lot of other things brought to Japan both pre- and post-WWII never survived intact in the meaning held in their original contexts. Valentine’s Day is the same: only girls are allowed to give chocolates on this day, and they are obliged to give them to almost every man they know. I think the gender thing is the most important point here – not only was Valentine’s segregated, but for the men, a whole other holiday, White Day (one month after Valentine’s) had to be created to make sure both genders could participate.

And not only holidays undergo this change. Wasei-eigo, that term most dreaded by all students of Japanese, literally means “Japanese-ized English,” and points to all the English words that have been brought into the Japanese lexicon. But the words almost never are used in the same context as English, or have the same meaning. For example, when you hear “cunning” in Japan, this isn’t an adjective used to describe something or someone witty and evasive, but a noun referring to cheating on a test, and only that. Or the word “tension” doesn’t mean being stretched tight or emotional strain, but refers to someone’s outward energy, such as when someone is down or uninterested, they have “low tension.” All in all, it means English-speakers have very little advantage with wasei-eigo; all the English words you think you know are nuanced in a different way, or have a completely different meaning. (And to all my female compatriots learning Japanese out there, a word of warning: for your own sake, never ever mix up “nafukin” and “napukin” – they mean two very different things. )

But back to Christmas. (For those of you interested in the whole “import” of things into Japan, this is really just skimming the surface and by no means a full representation. Check out other Western Holidays in Japan, as well as religions, clothing brands and movie titles for a fuller story.) Last week, I went to a commercial area in the old part of Tokyo with a friend to see some “illuminations” as they’re called. Like I said, stores and companies will invest big money in lighting up their courtyards for Christmas, and all for strictly commercial purposes. What I found the most interesting, though, was in one of the illuminations, they had set up what was supposed to be a “church” in the middle of an ocean scene. I think the artist was trying to mix Western and Japanese artistic styles, as the ocean culminated in a foaming wave like that of the famous Hokusai painting. But in the end, it looked like the tiny, tent-like church was about to be drowned by a giant wave. Maybe that’s what the artist was going for….

Anyway, in this “church,” you were supposed to go up, and ring the bells, and then the lights would illuminate a certain color, telling you your fortune. Firstly, in Japan, a lot of people think that you ring the bells in a church during a service; like ring them personally, one by one. I’m pretty sure this comes from the Shinto tradition of ringing the gong before praying to a god at a shrine. Secondly, the Japanese love “uranai” or fortune-telling, and so obviously, this Christmas scene just wouldn’t make the cut without some form of it. (My friend and I got red, which just made us look really evil…) What can I say – every day in Japan I experience something I’ve only read about. But I am happy to be returning to America for Christmas, because if I see one more add for matchmakers who set you up in time for Christmas, I may scream. I’ll be at home, eating my mom’s cooking and not worrying about that at all.

So, I’ll leave you to the crappy pictures I’ve taken on my phone, having forgotten my camera both times I went out (pouring down rain tends to do that to me.). Between the constant rain and my phone’s weak night function, I failed to get perfect pictures, but I’m hoping everyone can get a gist of what I’m talking about.

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