Christmas rhapsody in Japan

Christmas rhapsody in Japan

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

It’s Christmas time and Japanese children are excitedly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, just like American children. Streets and towns across Japan are decorated in lights, just like in America. Malls and stores in Japan are crowded with Christmas shoppers and pump out holiday music, just like in the States.

That’s where the similarities end.

In the United States, Christmas is a national holiday and a majority of the nation recognize it as the birthday of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, it is not a national holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun and only one percent of Japanese are Christians.

Ask Japanese children about the meaning of Christmas, and many might say it is the birthday of Santa Claus, while others would say it is a day of eating a good meal and exchanging presents.

Though most Japanese homes don’t have Christmas trees and it’s a regular day of work and school, Christmas is one of the most important days for Japanese children: Santa Claus is coming to town! 

Japanese children will hang up large stockings decorated in green, white, red and gold colors on the wall of their bedroom on Christmas Eve, expecting Santa to deliver a gift while they are sleeping. Like American children, many write letters to Saint Nick, although you won’t find Japanese children baking cookies for Santa.

I confess that I believed in Santa Claus until sometime in my junior high days, about 40 years ago.

When I was a 6th-grader, I wished the Norwegian saint for a guitar. I hung up the largest stocking I found at a shop, although it seemed too small for a guitar.

To my joy, the next morning I found my stocking tied to a shining, brand new guitar! Santa really came through that year.

When I became a father, I became Santa to my daughter. Although some of my friends dressed up as Santa Claus and presented a gift to their children by hand, I would hide my daughter’s gift somewhere in house and put a letter written in old northern European characters into her stocking to tell her where her gifts were.

Throughout the years, Santa delivered to my daughter computer games, dolls, toys and whatever else she wanted – or at least what Santa could afford. My daughter believed in Santa until she was about ready to graduate from high school. Somehow she traced one of Santa’s letters back to my computer. 

For years, my wife, daughter and I spent the evenings of Christmas together enjoying a nice meal and Christmas cake that we specially ordered every year. Japanese Christmas cakes are beautiful and tasty. Now that my daughter is an adult, we no longer have the cake together. My wife and I usually save her a piece.

According to my daughter, who is now a 27-year-old company employee, Christmas is considered a day of dating for younger people. Some of her friends (not my daughter, I believe) try to make boy or girl friends before Christmas to avoid spending the day alone.

“We usually go to parks or places beautifully lit up or illuminated, such as Tokyo Midtown, Yokohama and Kobe ports,” my daughter said. “Then we have French or Italian dishes at a hotel restaurant or café to exchange our gifts, rather than KFC.” My daughter was referring to the craze where young couples go to KFC on Dec. 24-25. You’ll be surprised at the lines waiting for the Colonel’s chicken. 

And you’ll also be surprised that there are almost no signs of Christmas across Japan on Dec. 26. Christmas decorations are replaced with traditional Oshogatsu (New Year’s) decorations. On the streets, you will hear traditional New Year’s music or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, instead of White Christmas, Jingle Bells and Silent Night.

If you are lucky, you may be able to purchase a Christmas cake at a fracture of price at a bakery or department store. But I suggest ordering one in advance and making it part of your Christmas celebration.

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