"So, imagine with me that you can go anywhere in the world during Christmas vacation. Actually, scratch that, Yuko. Anywhere you can think of." I'm crouched beside a desk, whispering so as not to disturb the other students, most of whom are having no problems completing the writing assignment. Yuko is fidgeting with her pencil case, which features a monkey draped in a Jamaican flag smoking a joint. "Bogart the Joint" is printed across the top of it, and beside the monkey she's drawn a Christmas tree. Like the rest of her classmates, she has no clue what a joint is, nor does she recognize one in cartoon form; hemp leaves are nothing more than a symbol of reggae culture, and reggae is popular among high school students.
"Another planet is okay? Jupiter is maybe fun?"
For the briefest of moments, I feel a quiet pang of guilt. Simple, rather childish questions like that one are necessitated by this persistent Japanese-to-English language barrier, but every time I hear her ask an innocent question in stumbling English, I think of small children and realize that part of me regrets every day that I'm not teaching them. Yuko is not a child. Yuko is seventeen and lovely. I have to remind myself of this any time I attempt to coddle one of these high school seniors, which is surprisingly easy to do.
Without hesitation, she states: "Amu Plaza."
I can't help but sigh. Creativity is not usually a part of the government-issued Japanese high school curriculum. Amu Plaza is a nearby shopping mall. "Are you serious?"
"Do you know? It is in Nagasaki."
"I know, but it's a bit close, isn't it? I mean, we could go there after school and be back before dinner."
She frowns apologetically, a face meant to hint that I'm talking above her. In Japanese, she says, "I don't really get it."
Last week, I asked her a similar question: If she could receive any gift from anyone, what would it be? She drew a picture of an empty house, pointed, and wrote: "I want furniture, because I live alone." This is not true in the literal sense; almost nobody in her neighborhood lives alone, let alone high school students, and I regularly see Yuko's mother at the grocery store. Still, to the reader, whoever you are, I believe you're bright enough to understand that some things transcend language, and it only takes one look at this girl when she's distant-eyed and staring out of the window towards the sea to realize that she is as alone as she claims to be.
Cultural Interlude: Student Vacations
Japanese students get precious little time off of school, including weekends. Most attend classes (or, at the very least, a club activity) on Saturdays and Sundays as well as weekdays, and a significant percentage attend night classes as well to prepare for high school or college entrance examinations. The concept of receiving two to three weeks of winter vacation is nothing short of mind-blowing to the average student, most of whom are even required to climb into their school uniforms and show up to school each day during their summer holidays. I often ask myself: why do we call it summer vacation if they have classes, anyways?
Tell them that in some countries Christmas vacation lasts almost a month, and all it's likely to do is depress them.
In the last three weeks, I've asked over 200 Japanese students what they'd like more than anything else for Christmas, and over half have answered "rest."
"Okay, when you think of Christmas, what food do you think of?"
Ten hands go up instantaneously, waving in the air. Pick me, pick me. Class is composed of twenty-nine girls, and they're abnormally genki. I am the only American man that the vast majority of them have ever met (let alone gotten to know at all), and blue eyes go a long way in drawing favorable attention here.
Though I would be officially reprimanded for saying so, I adore these girls. They are full of the stuff of being stuck between adolescence and adulthood just a bit longer: hair pulled back in lazy buns because it's convenient, not because it's a statement, the names of boys scribbled on notebooks containing impressive calculus equations. Things like that. Like most people at that age, they are a motley collection of contradictions and confusion, and I love them for it. They are all awkward grace and easy smiles.
"Chisato. What do you think of?"
"Cake and chicken."
She beams. An easy question.
"Sounds delicious, but no."
And here comes the frown.
Cultural Interlude: Kentucky Fried Christmas
It's quite brilliant really, so simple and so ambitious that it's rather difficult to be truly offended by it. Over the years, KFC has succeeded in marketing buckets of fried chicken as an American Christmas tradition and has done so with such remarkable success that families commonly make reservations weeks in advance for an order of legs and thighs on Christmas Eve, which is then taken home and eaten. KFC is so prevalent in Japan that Japanese citizens frequently mistake the company for a Japanese one, but even so it's a common belief that Americans eat fried chicken on Christmas.
"Is the food good?"
"It's the best. Except Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has the best food."
"Ever eaten it?"
"Of course not. Japan have no turkey."
"It's 'has no.' Japan 'has no' turkeys. The food isn't so important, though. It's the meaning of Christmas that's important." Just for the hell of it, I ask: "What's the meaning of Christmas?"
Chisato answers without bothering to raise her hand: "Romance!" In chorus, 29 girls giggle.
Cultural Interlude: Red and White Romance
In Japan, Christmas may be more significant for lovers than anyone else. In fact, aside from the borrowed decorations and Christmas music (with the exception of Beethoven's ninth symphony, which is extremely popular), Christmas more closely resembles Valentine's Day than anything else. Hotels (especially love hotels) fill to capacity quickly, as do restaurant reservation logs. Oblivious to so much Baby-Jesus-in-a-Manger imagery found in the West, Christmas takes on a sensual, steamy tone complimented by Santa-style lingerie and candlelit dinners.
"Okay, maybe, but I think there's more. Whatever it was, whatever it claims to be, it's still a time when people are together. It's a time when people tell other people that they love them. How often do you hear that?"
I'm getting preachy, but they're listening in that peculiar way that they've developed, head cocked slightly to the side. They can understand as long as I don't get too carried away, and I always know when I do; someone always imitates a person talking with their hand and rapid-fires the onomatopoeia "pera pera pera," a phrase used to mimic the sound of someone speaking quickly in a language one doesn't understand. (Usually Americans.)
So, I attempt to clarify. Back-track. "You know how you're always making fun of me for eating all of my meals alone?"
They nod, and in the back of the room someone says, "cup noodle!"
"Well, I didn't used to have to do that at Christmas. Do you understand?"
Yuko says: "Probably not, but maybe."
In chorus, 29 girls offer smiling nods.
One Last Cultural Interlude: What It All Means
Taken as a whole, we have a clear picture of what it all boils down to: economics and familiarity. Christmas is promoted almost exclusively by merchants who stand to gain business from it. There is no public holiday. Additionally, Christmas appeals to the Japanese predisposition towards gift-giving, though you lose the right to receive presents after you declare disbelief in Santa. Santa himself was easy enough to assimilate, as he closely resembles Japan's Hoteiosho (a figure who carries a sack and gives presents to children.) More than anything, Christmas bleeds into the new year, and so it seems to feel like a pleasant appendage to the already exciting New Year's Eve festivities.
It's after class and a few of the girls are sitting next to a vending machine while I'm buying a drink. Surprisingly, one asks: "Because this job, you can't return America for Christmas. Do you like your job?"
Shrugging, I'm exhausted enough to answer honestly. "Not really, but I like you all, so it's okay."
"But you have to do it?"
"Yes. You have to work once you finish school so you can pay your bills. Otherwise, The Man will come and take all of your bling." Each of the three girls looks at the other two to see if anyone understood, but it's clear from the look on their faces that they didn't. Not that I expected them to.
"I don't know 'bling.' What man?"
"The Man. Just an expression."
"He takes? He sounds scary."
"Well, don't be scared! It's Christmas! Christmas means be happy!" All three nod, and with that, they wave and run off towards math class.
So, you heard it here first. Taken from the people themselves, filtered through layers of mistranslation and cultural differences, the purpose of Japanese Christmas just may be single-fold, easily communicable by high school kids: It's a time to be happy.