Friday, January 6, 2012

Do they know it's Christmas?

Happy year of the dragon!

On this, the twelfth day of Christmas, when any lingering traces of festivity must be extinguished, it seems a little passe to be discussing Japan's Christmas. But it's something that a number of folks back home have been asking me about, and I haven't really covered it in previous years, so here goes.

December 25th is a day like any other in Japan. Had it not fallen on a weekend this year, I would have been expected to report for work as usual. However, that's not to say that the end of December is completely void of festivity. New Year is a big deal here, and December 23rd also happens to be a holiday, by virtue of being the Emperor's birthday. My students have a couple of weeks off, though as usual plenty of kids can still be found hanging around the school attending either sports clubs or cram classes.

But to answer the question posed by today's title, yes, the Japanese do have an awareness of our allegedly Christian winter festival. I would say that Christmas here is rather like Halloween in the UK: retailers crack out the decorations, seeing an opportunity to drum up some business; children have seasonal parties and get all excited; a few adults follow suit and get really into it; a tiny minority of people take it seriously (Christians and Wiccans, respectively); but for most people, the whole thing can safely be ignored.

Just as the California roll is a Western interpretation of an Eastern concept (and thus virtually impossible to find in Japan), Christmas here has mutated slightly as a result of being imported into a foreign culture. Certain aspects are conspicuously absent: I haven't seen a single advent calendar, and the whole nativity angle is very much downplayed. Most people seem to be aware that Christmas marks the birth of Christ, but they would be hard pushed to come up with any more details, such as where the supposed event took place or who was in attendance bearing which gifts. Which is fair enough really, considering the average Brit's grasp of Buddhism.

Other aspects of Christmas seem strangely over-emphasised. Christmas cake, which I would consider a fairly peripheral part of the whole affair, takes centre stage here, so much so that it inspired its own shockingly misogynistic but nevertheless quite amusing proverb. (Incidentally, at 24 years and 3 months, Amber should be making the abrupt transition - from being delicious, moist, and highly sought-after, to dried up and worthless - any day now.) Finally, other parts of the tradition have just become slightly corrupted. Japanese people know what turkeys are, but they don't really have any custom of eating them, so they consider chicken to be the archetypal Christmas meal. They don't even limit themselves to roast chicken; greasy fried chicken is also apparently acceptable, at least if KFC's festive advertising is to be believed.

The choice of festive songs in the aforementioned opportunistic shops is also a little curious. Alongside traditional secular favourites like Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Silent Night - with its talk of Holy infants so tender and mild - is an incongruous sole religious offering. The situation is similarly odd with more contemporary fair; John and Yoko's Happy Xmas (War is over) is predictably popular, but I was more surprised by the ubiquity of Wham!'s Last Christmas.

For me personally, it was lonely this Christmas. Lonely and cold. A large chunk of the ALT population tend to either return to the bosoms of their respective families during the winter holidays, or take the opportunity to do some travelling. Amber, currently sunning herself in the Philippines, is in the latter group. But it really wasn't so bad being here alone. After the hectic month I'd had, it was nice just to take it easy and spend some quality time with my neglected PlayStation. In a strange way, I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make the day feel like a special occasion.

I started my Christmas Day with a video call to my parents (for whom it was still the night of Christmas Eve), during which I opened a densely-packed box of goodies they had sent me. For Christmas dinner I eschewed poultry and trudged through the snow (it was a very white Christmas here in Nanyo) to the flashy kaitenzushi restaurant - most extravagant dish: raw snow crab, 420yen. I returned home for a little Christmas dram (on Christmas Day, the yard-arm is actually several degrees below the horizon - that's a nautical / astronomical fact) then headed back out to the onsen, which I've decided is - like all baths - best enjoyed slightly drunk. In the evening I treated myself to a hearty slice of clootie dumpling, which had surprisingly made it through customs in my parents' parcel, given how closely it resembled a large block of hashish. I washed this down with some warm tamagozake ("egg sake") which tasted like thin, alcoholic custard, i.e. not particularly nice. By this time Christmas morning had dawned 144° around the planet, and I once again joined my family via Skype.

Like many people, at this time of year I like to get a bit wistful and think about the year that has just passed, and the new one to come. I think it's clear that 2012 is going to be an interesting year for me. Of course, I know exactly where I'll be in twelve months' time: Hayama Town, Kanagawa Prefecture; but at the moment I find it hard to imagine how my life is going to change in that period.


  1. Hayama! Some of my students live there! :)

    I've seen advent calendars in Japan...but only at the import shops!

    Happy New Year!