Japanese Christmas says far more about the Spirit of Capitalism than anything else I have experienced in my short 23 years here on this silly planet.

You see, it feels exactly like American Christmas.

So What?

Well, let me describe some of the specific experiences I'm having, explain what exactly strikes me as odd, and then let you be the judge. Note that I live in Nagoya, considered to be the most industrialized and spiritless city in Japan. Sure, Tokyo is bigger and all, but it at least has some traditional culture to make up for it. Also, I'm an American, and have a firm grasp of what christmas is about, even if I am an Agnostic.

OK, so what is this so Strange? Let's have a few data points.

In short, Christmas is almost as big as in America, but it is unquetionally Capitalistic Tripe. The Japanese, not having anything to celebrate, turned the holiday into a romantic event. All the couples and married couples go out to the love hotels for an evening with excellent food, good alcohol, and wild jungle sex (if they stay at the right hotel anyway). This is sort of Family, sort of anti-family in that you're with your SO but your escaping your kids. There's no real tradition behind all of these festivities; it's probably driven 90% by that evil capitalism thing.

Oh, and that Christmas music thing. Despite years of schooling, the Japanese rarely speak English. Of course, they are also fairly multicultural types who just have a predilection towards crappy American music, just like the rest of the world, so I'll forgive them that. Except I'll probably snap if I hear another Reggae Christmas song.

So the Japanese are celebrating something entirely capitalism based. And it looks quite similar to America. I'm well aware that correlation doesn't imply causality, but it sure is something to think about. Of course, most of us are already well aware of what has become of this otherwise not so despicable time.

Christmas in Japan

I was in Tokyo a few years back just before Christmas, and even though it was years ago, I still remember it clearly.

Let's clarify one thing, I'm from Cleveland, Ohio, where it starts snowing in October and continues snowing through March and into April sometimes, so being in Tokyo and enjoying 8-10 degree (45-50 degrees Fahrenheit) weather was something of a treat, although it felt nothing like Christmas. In spite of the warmish weather Christmas was obviously in the air. By far the coolest thing I saw while there was at the Kentucky Fried Chicken down the street from where we were staying. The Colonel Sanders statue they had standing sentry by the door was dressed up as a happy Santa Claus, I even had my picture taken next to him.

Despite being in a foreign country and not really knowing the language, the holiday songs that were broadcast from every available speaker were completely recognizable. Of course I say holiday song because I don't feel that "Frosty the Snowman" or "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" count as Christmas songs. It was hard to not be festive with people carrying bags of presents home while whistling along with the music, and the excitement on the children's faces when thinking about their new toys was evident too.

Thinking back on it though, in the years since, Christmas in Japan makes me slightly saddened in a couple of ways. Firstly, because Christmas, second only to Easter, is a main staple of Christian theology, and as previously stated only 1% of Japanese people consider themselves Christian or Catholic. It was slightly sad to go to this specific country, with so few people knowing truly why this holiday is celebrated (not to say that atheists can't have a nice Christmas), it tended to come out even more commercialized than here with less of the redeeming values. Secondly, and more specifically it saddens me in the fact that it shows how much the Japanese really have lost some of their culture in the process of westernizing. It bothers me greatly that America has become the cultural center of the universe mostly because our culture is still struggling to create, redefine, and destroy itself. To see a society that has single handedly embraced American culture so thoroughly does indeed still send pangs of guilt and remorse to my heart.

This isn't to say that everything about Christmas in Japan is wrong. In fact, while I was there, I did enjoy it very much. It seemed like people were fairly happy despite being stressed out about shopping so hard. And the clerks everywhere I went seemed to go out of their way to help, and be friendly, though I'm not sure how much of this was typical behavior and how much of it was to ease the holiday strain. Although I was slightly disappointed at how few decorations families seemed to have in their homes, but going to the stores more than makes up for this lack, since stores seem to over do it a little. What I really enjoyed, other than the Santa Colonel Sanders, was the stark contrast of old Japan verses modern Japan. On my walk from the house to the "downtown" section of the suburb, near the train station; I would walk by a Buddhist garden and reflect upon its beauty before embarking on secular American Christmas carols in Japanese. Even though Christmas in a foreign country is weird, it was still a great learning experience to see how people far away from here celebrate such a time honored tradition that is Christmas, and how they really aren't all that different than us because of it.

In conclusion, Christmas in Japan was very much like Christmas in America, it gave you that sickeningly sweet feeling that dissolve quickly and leaves you empty inside. I spent much of my time shopping for souvenirs, trying new and strange foods, watching children make various Christmas related items (such as candy canes) from construction paper, and I saw a Christmas play at a Japanese school. On farther reflection, how is that really any different than here?

"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.

"Yes. Anywhere."

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."

"He is."

"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.

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