Indiana University Overseas Study

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Christmas, it seems, arrived early in the form of light illuminations, store-front window displays, Christmas music, and decorated evergreen trees. Sakae, one of the larger shopping districts in Nagoya, even has an ice skating rink. Advertisement posters deliver phrases like “Many Christmas,” “Happy Wonderful Xmas,” or “X-mas Party,” and shop employees have donned Santa-inspired uniforms.

In any aspects, Japan’s Christmas season appears similar to that of America, considering the lights, decorated evergreens, and shopping ads. But how, exactly, do the Japanese spend their Christmas? Despite the elaborate decorations and catchy slogans, not many people celebrate Christmas as a big holiday event. Although themed products and extravagant shopping displays have caught on, Japan’s Christmas cannot trace its roots to the original meaning of the holiday in America.

Nanzan University's Christmas tree after the season's first snowfall

Nanzan University’s Christmas tree after the season’s first snowfall

Whereas for many in America it is the most anticipated religious celebration of the year, Christmas in Japan is completely commercial. Less than one percent of the Japanese population is Christian. If individuals do practice what they might define as “religion,” they practice the beliefs and rituals of Buddhism and Shinto. Nanzan University happens to be a Christian school, so a nativity scene has been assembled for display.

Christmas in the States is a national, federal holiday and the only day of the year during which all retailers, banks, and government offices are closed. Christmas is a time for family, friends, and relatives to gather and enjoy good company, stories, and cooking. College students return home for the holidays, eager to see their families and take a rest after those semester finals. In Japan, Christmas is just another ordinary day for those without a date; December 25 is mainly celebrated by couples, who go out to eat, shop, or view illuminations. Unless Christmas falls on the weekend, students still attend school and employees work. Besides sharing dinner, Japanese families do not celebrate much out of the ordinary.

Gift-giving plays a huge role in Japanese culture but surprisingly has little to do with the Christmas season. Americans might begin holiday shopping from Black Friday, searching out the perfect gifts for everyone, from family to friends to coworkers. The Japanese, on the other hand, do not exchange gifts on Christmas. Parents will give children gifts, but children do not give gifts to their parents.  Gift-giving comes to an end, though, when the children no longer believe in Santa.

Speaking of whom, Santa Claus makes his rounds in Japan, too. When asked specifics about Santa-san, elementary school children and college students alike reply that he enters homes not through chimneys but through windows. Chimneys and hearths are not often built into Japanese homes, so from where else would Santa enter if not through the window? I wondered about his sleigh and reindeer, until one elementary student at the Twilight School – where Melissa volunteered – enlightened us. Apparently Santa-san parks it out front before he enters the house. Shopping centers here provide children with the opportunity to meet and take photos with Santa, too; no doubt Santa will hold up that peace sign!

Melissa and Colonel Sanders outside a KFC

Melissa and Colonel Sanders outside a KFC

Between Japan and America, Christmas food traditions are completely different. In the States, family recipes passed down through generations are often put to use for Christmas gatherings.  Unlike the many American families who serve home-made feasts, the Japanese buy “Christmas sets” from the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yes, KFC.  How does an American fast food chain become Christmas tradition in Japan? “Kentucky Christmas 2012” advertisement posters depict buckets of fried chicken, salad with corn, and cake. The “family roast chicken” set is another option; raisin bread, maple sauce, and cream sauce are included.

Why does everyone eat KFC on Christmas?  I asked a Nanzan graduate student and she answered, “Because chicken looks like turkey.” Japanese kitchens are not equipped with large roasting ovens; reserving KFC’s chicken “party barrel” up to several weeks in advance is certainly much easier. Christmas cakes are another big part of Japan’s commercial Christmas. Regions may offer slight variations, but most are white sponge cake with layers of nama kuriimu (whipped cream) and glazed strawberries or other fruits. Chocolate cakes, though, are gaining popularity, and I have seen cakes with purin (flan pudding) placed right on top as centerpieces.  Japan is full of kawaii Western-style confectionary shops, but you will probably not see anyone sharing trays of home-made cookies and sweets.  Eggnog is also nowhere to be found.

Nagoya TV Tower's light display

Nagoya TV Tower’s light display

Christmas songs and light displays are a familiar part of Japan’s holiday season. Shopping malls, grocery stores and even onsen bath and spa resorts have switched their playlists out for Christmastunes, which are mainly mukashi (from old) pop hits and Western Christmas carols.  The melodies of the carols remain the same, but many of the lyrical verses have been translated into Japanese. “Last Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas” are among the most popular, according to our sensei.

As for light displays, you can find them just about anywhere.  Sakae’s shopping streets are lined with illuminated trees and window displays. The Nagoya TV Tower itself has a chandelier of Christmas lights at its base, and the entire surrounding park is adorned with blue and gold neon.  Residential houses are not often decorated, however. If families do hang their own lights, only a small section, such as a shrub or fence, will be illuminated.

Although Japan has taken mainly America’s concept of Christmas, the holiday has been “Japanized.” Features of both cultures have been combined to create something new yet uniquely Japanese. I looked forward to the Christmas cake, but otherwise I expected a much quieter Christmas than I would back home.  Happy Holidays everyone, and safe travels!

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