Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Japanese War on Christmas

As a reputable member of a Japanese eikaiwa (英会話), I found it somewhat surprising that I was asked to don a Halloween costume in late October for my students' benefit. Is All Hallows' Eve really considered an international holiday? Despite this fact, I saw no harm in playing along for the kodomos' (子供) benefit, as Halloween really doesn't evoke much religious connotation these days. What do you have? Candy, Jack-O-Lanterns, costumes, ghosts, and black cats. What do they mean? Well, honestly... nothing, from any cultural standpoint.

I don't claim to represent the true pagans or gothic worshippers in our time, but I would say with a few exceptions, all the significance has been sucked dry from Halloween. It happens. All we are left with is tried-and-true capitalism. How should you make money in late October, when it's not quite Christmas? Sell candy and expensive costumes. Oh, but how best to do these things? I know: we've got this little holiday that exists for no other reason anymore than to create profit.

Japan is completely cut off from the history of this holiday. The United States and Europe naturally have ties to its origins, but nowadays... it's all about the Benjamins.

Such is the case with Christmas. Less than one percent of the population in Japan follows Christianity (primarily Shinto and Buddhist), yet the entire country sees a sudden and immediate change in decoration around early November. Stores support "Merry Christmas" signs. Wreaths and lights are hung. Red and green are spread as far the Shinkansen can take them.

Why do this? Why bring Christmas to a country that is both geographically and emotionally cut off from the religious aspects? And the simple answer is... money, of course. Now, I don't want to come off as the hypocrit. I know America does the same thing this time of year. Not only that, but we actually bring statements like "the war on Christmas" into the media. But in addition to being more religiously diverse, a majority of the population celebrates Christmas, instead of merely buying into the holiday. About 75% of Americans are Christian.

I suppose there's really no harm done. Children get to have their presents. People can go to the stores for holiday sales. Residents get to enjoy the homely feel of mistletoe and Santa Claus around every corner. Still, this says something about the national pride of Japan; instead of creating more displays and traditions around Shogatsu, they would rather embrace a foreign concept. Halloween, Christmas... let the westernization of Japan permeate every prefecture. Soon we'll see Japanese people eating McDonald's on the run in December after doing some xmas shopping in Parco while singing along to their favorite English song and later enjoying a pint down at the new American-style strip club. Hmmm... this has probably happened already. Gambatte Christmas.

You want a direct correlation between Japan and Christmas? Fine - apparently Jesus was buried near Aomori. This was the strangest story I'd ever heard.

Jesus in Japan

Side note: many people in Japan travel to the southern island Okinawa during the winter holidays, including Shogatsu, to escape the cold mountain weather. Although Okinawa is equally as popular during the Golden Week holiday, you run the risk of rain. I've been contemplating as to whether I should take a ferry from Kagoshima to Okinawa as an alternative route. The ferry system in Japan is just as developed as JR; as long as you leave in a reasonable-sized town on the coast, chances are you've got a port. Hiroshima to Matsuyama. Matsuyama to Kyushu. Kobe to Imabari. Get connected.

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