Christmas in Japan by Tim Boyle, missionary Buraku Liberation Center, Osaka

Rudyard Kipling’s famous words, “East is East and West is West and never the ‘twain shall meet,” may have a certain ring of truth to them, but in many ways the “twain” have met, with both Japanese and North American cultures importing various traditions and even fads from each other. The flow has been mostly from North America to Japan since Japan opened up to the outside world some 150 years ago, but in recent years, there has been a considerable flow in the other direction, as is witnessed by the popularity of pokemon and other such phenomena.

Christmas, however, will be the focus of this article. My first Christmas in Japan was in 1971, and I have found both the familiar and the novel in the ways Christmas is celebrated in Japan.The Japanese people are known for their love of festivals–especially those that can be easily adapted for commercial purposes. Christmas is not, however, the only holiday that has been so exploited, but it certainly tops the list. As a point of comparison, importing Valentine’s Day was a sure-fire way to increase chocolate sales, and the Japanese went one beyond that, creating “White Day” a month later on March 14 for people to return chocolate or other goodies to those they had received? gifts of chocolate from on Valentine’s Day.

The Easter Bunny, however, is something that (perhaps fortunately) has not yet made much of an impact. Even within the church, Easter celebrations are proportionately much less emphasized than in North American churches, in large part due to the inconvenience of its date changing from year to year and, more importantly, because it comes at the busiest time of the year in Japan, with both the fiscal and school years ending on March 31 and beginning anew on April 1.

The relatively recent import of another North American holiday has now been given an unusual twist in connection with Christmas. Halloween is depicted in the Japanese media as a “Christian Festival” (a bit of a misunderstanding, to say the least), and this year, I witnessed a marvelous bit of syncretism, seeing my first “Halloween Tree.” It was exactly like a Christmas tree, except the ornaments were a variety of Halloween images, such as orange jack-o-lanterns, white ghosts, skeletons, and black witches on broomsticks. It was quite attractive, even if a bit jarring, and who knows, maybe that will soon become a new reverse import into the U.S. ?

Christmas also begins early in Japan, as there is no tradition of waiting until late November, after an equivalent of the “Thanksgiving Day turkey,” to begin putting up Christmas decorations. Icons of Santa Claus grace store windows as early as the beginning of November, and Christmas irumineishon have become quite common–even on private homes. (In case of confusion, that word is “illumination.” Many words are also imported and most definitely “transformed” when put into the Japanese phonetic system.) ?

North American Christians often lament the crass commercialization of Christmas and express their desire to “put Christ back into Christmas.” While the real “reason for the season” may have lost ground in North America, it never really got off the ground in the average Japanese mind. Most Japanese may recognize that Christmas is a “Christian festival,” but you cannot count on even that. A few years ago, I overheard a Japanese person comment upon seeing Christmas decorations in the lobby of a church, “Even churches celebrate Christmas!”? This lack of historical context leads to all sorts of incongruence, such as the popularity of having a “candlelight service” complete with the singing of “Silent Night” during year-end parties–even when there is not a single Christian in the group. It is the lovely atmosphere that Japanese find attractive, and this is also the primary reason that Christian-style weddings have become predominate. ?

While perhaps a bit off the subject of Christmas, this other postwar import has some interesting connections with the topic. Japanese young people prefer the “glamour” and emphasis on love found in Christian-style weddings, and so the majority of Japanese weddings are now performed in wedding chapels, which are often beautiful Christian architectural structures built right on the grounds of hotels and used exclusively for commercial purposes. One such wedding chapel I came across does, however, directly connect this phenomenon with the main topic of Christmas. Located near Narita Airport, “Hotel Chapel Christmas” is a combination hotel and wedding chapel, with a huge statue of Santa Claus inviting people in.?

So Christmas in Japan is a mixture of the familiar and exotic, and as a Christian missionary to this land, I sometimes lament the shallowness and naivet? of the ways it is celebrated. Nevertheless, this season is the time of year when we have by far the most opportunities to connect with people through the appeal of Christmas and to direct their attention towards Jesus. Thus, we make every opportunity to utilize the attraction Japanese have to Christmas to plant seeds of faith that can sprout throughout the year.

May you have a Merry Christmas, wherever you are.

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