A Happy (Japanese) Christmas
IT’S CHRISTMAS! I thought as I woke on December 1st. Like many others, I’m quite particular with when people should start celebrating things. For me personally I’ll start playing Christmas songs from Dec, and the fact that they tend to start being played in supermarkets, department stores, cafes, etc. as soon as the Halloween decorations have been packed away for another year, is to me, the ultimate sin. But now that it is finally December, I can finally start playing Christmas songs!
I started this Christmas with a bit of Slade
Until 2018, my then six years in Japan had been fairly barren with Christmas celebrations. When I lived in Okayama, I’m ashamed to say there were one or two Christmas nights that I would be at home alone, supping on a ready meal and some cheap booze, tearing up while listening to Christmas songs. After making the effort to go home for Christmas that year, I decided that it’d be the last time that I would let Christmas pass me by without even trying to make an effort. In 2019, my girlfriend and I decided to make our first Christmas together a special one, and the decision to rent out an Airbnb in the countryside is something that we will be continuing this year and will likely carry on in the future.
One thing that people will quickly realise when living in Japan is that despite their enthusiasm for the holiday, they don’t do it quite right. I have no issues with that particularly; why would they need to? In Japan, Christmas is a far cry away from the family-orientated celebrations, and for those who don’t live in Japan, I’d like to share some of my own and others’ observations about Christmas here.
Kentucky Fried Christmas
Every foreigner who has lived in Japan for an extended period will know that turkey is certainly not on the menu for Christmas Day and is near impossible to come by. Even when it is, there is scarcely an oven sizeable enough to take on the whole bird. No, the Japanese would much rather go for a family size KFC bucket than a plate of meat and vegetables piled high and smothered in gravy and cranberry sauce.
To anyone in the UK, it would seem quite ludicrous and extremely random that KFC would be the go-to for a Christmas meal, but in Japan it has been this way since the 1970’s after KFC started a very effective ad campaign. Since then, Colonel Sanders around the country adorn Santa’s outfit to deliver fried chicken to families all over Japan during the festive season.
While it could be argued that more and more Christmas in the west is becoming less religious, its roots are very much found in Christianity (in case you didn’t know), the denotations of which are found in nearly all aspects of the Christmas decorations, cards and festivities.
In Japan, however, you would be hard pushed to find anything of the sort. While Japanese Christians and clever clogs may understand the religious aspects of the holidays, many Japanese might not, nor would there be any reason for them to think otherwise. The secular iconography of the holiday does indeed remain, such as snow, Father Christmas (well, Santa Claus), presents, candy canes, etc. As with most of these types of cultural imports, it has a heavy American overtone with a Japanese twist.
Koibito No Hi (Lovers Day)
Christmas is a time for the family, right? A typical Christmas Day in the UK will look something like this (note that some of the following activities will vary by age and are not necessarily listed in chronological order):
- Wake up (possibly with a hangover)
- Switch on the telly and open presents and cards
- Open a bottle of wine, beer, whisky or any other variant of alcohol
- Do whatever can be done with presents received (e.g. spend most of the day playing a new video game or reading that new book) while mother prepares the Christmas dinner and sipping on that bottle of red.
- In the early evening, everyone sits down at the dining table for Christmas dinner, which includes the following rituals: pulling crackers, wearing paper hats, telling shit jokes such as ‘What do you get if you put a bell on a skunk? Jingle smells’ (genius), drinking mulled wine and whatever else is available, eating copious amounts of food (always turkey) and catching up with family members
- Eat Christmas pudding
- Argue with another family member with a potential physical altercation
- Watch the Queen’s speech (if you don’t watch this you will be hanged. It’s actually written in the magna carta. I think it was added sometime in the 1930’s.)
- Light the fire and watch a Christmas film (Die Hard, for some reason)
- Drink some more
Admittedly there is not a lot of religious activities on a typical British Christmas Day, but it is obvious that the main focus is really the family and spending time with each other, for better or worse. Christmas at my home back in the UK is very similar to the above, with the exception of the Christmas dinner and the fights. We tend to leave Christmas dinner until Boxing Day and have an Indian takeaway instead, as my mum doesn’t want to cook on Christmas Day. Fair enough!
The story is a bit different here in Japan, where family celebrations are reserved for New Year and Christmas is more like a winter Valentine’s Day, where couples (typically younger ones) may go on a date and exchange presents. For singles, Christmas really isn’t anything special at all and I’ve heard multiple times that those who do not have a significant other generally dislike Christmas, similar to how you might find a disgruntled Brit who doesn’t have anyone to share Valentine’s Day with.
Christmas Lights, Another Fight
While not exclusively related to Christmas celebrations, one thing I love around this time of the year is the winter illuminations. There’s not really much to say about them other than they are very impressive to see and the atmosphere at these can actually be quite romantic in the evening, with many couples walking through tunnels and fields of light. Last year I went to the Nabano no Sato illumination that is just west of Nagoya city and I’ll likely go again this year.
On reading up on illuminations in the UK, I’m a bit surprised to read that they exist there too, but from the pictures I saw it does look like it’s done a bit differently back home and it bloody costs money to visit! When I’m home for Christmas next (fingers crossed!) I think I’ll make the effort to go to one and check it out (even if would put me back a tenner).
Mistletoe and Wine
I’m sure there are many more things I could write about on Christmas in Japan and the UK, but already this blog entry is getting too long and I’m starting to get odd flashbacks of writing my dissertation, so I think I’ll introduce you to a Japanese Christmas song to finish it off. I won’t deny that I’m a bit of a sucker for a good Christmas song, and I do think that the Brits do them very well indeed! But for now, feast your ears on one of the more famous ones in Japan.
My next blog will probably be about where I go for Christmas this year. The Airbnb is already booked and I can’t wait to finally get some time off work and relax a little. Until then, stay warm.