Every year people all over the globe celebrate Christmas, the festival has long exceeded religious boundaries and the ideas of giving and showing love and emotion to people close to you, as well as to people in need has won the hearts of many...
It is also celebrated in Japan with more than 90% atheists in the country. You can see Christmas decorations in every shop and even cities don't save on money to let their streets shine with bright Christmas lights. City and big shopping centers will struggle for the biggest, most abstract and most expensive looking Christmas tree. Tree? Well take and form roughly shaped like a tree, e.g. a cylinder. Oh and the typical English Christmas songs can be heard from every shop, even konbini (Japanese convenience stores) play the jingles. The sings might seem a bit to fast and remixed for the ear used to the slow and relaxing songs known from home, but well Japan is after all a fast country without rest. As a bonus many people will sing Schiller's "Ode An Die Freude" to Beethoven's ninth symphony, the traditional Japanese Christmas song. In the stores you can also see yet another Japanese Christmas addition, the traditional Christmas cream cake, which is a must on those days.
So apart from temperatures you usually have in the middle of autumn, in fact you still can see autumn colors on natural trees next to the Christmas trees. It looks pretty much like at home. Looks... sounds... smells...
But it doesn't feel like it. People are still hasty, angry if they have to wait for 5 seconds, because they can't overtake your bicycle, they will not greet you or anyone a merry Christmas and appear and leave work as scheduled (25th and 26th of Christmas are no holidays in Japan).
So that's it? That's all there is to Christmas in Japan?
No of course the modern commercial soul has been very well copied to Japan, since it makes revenues skyrocket every year. So parents have to buy presents to their children, buy! self-made presents are an indication for a poor family after all. However if you grow older starting from being teenaged, you will not spend Christmas Eve with your family. Since if you do you will be a social outcast, a loser among your friends and classmates. So what do you do, hang out with your friends? No that's still a loser. The imported Christmas is said to be very romantic, ergo you have to have sex. So sometimes as far as an advent calender in advance you will search for a date. Anything is ok, as long as it leads to sex. And everybody knows that code, you just have to ask "Are you busy on the 24th?", which directly translates to "I want to have sex with you, let's not be social outcasts!". This pressure will drive teenagers as far as calling someone they met one single time 6 month ago in a bar. Everything is better than being the one not having sex on Christmas.
What when you grow older, maybe marry and have an husband or a wife? It doesn't change much. Instead of finding a date, as a husband now have to worry about finding a present for your wife. However this is not that difficult, since the actual things is much less important as the price it cost. So you just go to the next shopping mall and buy some designer anything and best even pass it with the designer bag it was given to you to your love. She will look at it, recognize the price and mimic the romantic expressions as seen on TV. Afterwards you will have an expensive dinner and then, of course, end up in a Love Hotels (special hotels with the sole purpose of having sex there, they are quite frequent in Japan).
But what about your friends, shouldn't you express that you love them?
No, you don't want to have sex with your friends, so no presents, no card, best is not even to call them, since they might thing you don't have a date on Christmas.
What about the poor?
Do you really need to ask?
It is sad, but to be honest I think you can't blame them too much. What is celebrated in Japan is of course not the traditional festival you find in Europe, North America and other parts of this planet, but an adaption of the modern commercialized version of it. After all if you look around in the traditional Christmas countries you will recognize that it becomes more and more a commercial festival every year. It is said to see to what extent one can actually commercialize love, how you can have Christmas without everything that is important on Christmas.
So what did I do, what did the other interns do?
Christopher a friend and Japanese classmate of mine, who is doing a foreign term at 宇都宮大学 (Utsunomiya University), invited me to a Christmas Party for December the 21st. It was much like every other party, but we introduced a nice Christmas tradition from kindergartens the "Weihnachts Wichteln", a kind of present exchange. Every guest will bring a little present in a moderate price range. Then at some point of the party, everyone will get one present by chance. That way you never know who will get your present, nor who brought the present you got it the end. It was quite nice, and the people from Utsunomiya I met at the party are all really nice and kind. :)
Also unlike in parties here, the majority of people was not able to speak English and everybody conversed in Japanese. Its the first time I would use Japanese to talk to other non Japanese people :). It was a quite cool experience. But of course there were also a big bunch of interesting Japanese people, like one boy who was very interested in the protection of the environment.
December 23rd we had a Christmas Common Room party. Alas when I came home on the 22nd, getting no sleep at all from 21st to 22nd, I was so sleepy that I could not attend and slept for 14 hours. Yet I can depict how it was. The other interns had the same idea as Christoph and made a present exchange. Furthermore they invited all the Japanese persons from our office, which we knew. Since we are foreigners and having a foreign Christmas party, it is ok for Japanese persons to come, everybody is equal and the same after all. And it is much better than staying at home alone :). So indeed a lot of Japanese coworkers and friends of us came to the party and the pictures I've seen and stories I've heard speak for a wonderful party!
December the 24th I was awake again and met with Lukas, a friend and Japanese classmate of mine doing a foreign term at the 学芸大学 (Gakugei Univeristy) in Tokyo. He is currently visited by his brother and very good friend Felix. Along with us came Moni, yet another friend and classmate from me, and Matthias, another German studying also at the 学芸大学. We met in 上野公園 (Ueno Park) and went to the robot exhibition and the natural science museum. It was really impressive. At the exhibition Toyota and Honda would make performances with their newest robots. Toyota's robot being able to play trumpet and violin, giving us a Christmas Song concert and Honda's Asimo showing us how he can actually run and climb stairs as well as do a lot of jobs his "family" asks him to do over the phone. Quite impressive. Apart from that you could see the history of robots in Japan, both in comics, novels, movies and in reality. There were a lot a highly precision handcraft "robots" displayed, like the iron samurai who was able to pull out an arrow, put it precisely on his bow, pull and shoot. All mechanical only by winding up a key. In the natural museum we almost run out of time before they were closing, so we run through it and saw skeletons of dinosaurs and other items from a prehistoric age.
Afterwards we would celebrate Christmas by going to an 居酒屋 (Izakaya, Japanese all you can eat/drink pub) and doing Karaoke, with two Japanese friends of Lukas, who apparently found no date and suddenly asked us to go out with them at the evening of the 23rd, when we already would have had other plans ;).
My impression of this Christmas is not wholly negative. I have seen and heard very well, that the Japanese people are in need for real love and friendship and accept them warmly and happily, as well as being able to show friendship and love to others. However a very strange form of Christmas has been introduced in Japan, by big shopping malls, the TV and Love Hotel owners, which dictate Japanese people what to do on Christmas. And since Japanese people are very law abiding, especially concerning social laws, they submit themselves to this perverted form of Christmas. But all hope is not lost! If you show them other ways and invite them with a little actual love (not the stupid sexual kind) and friendship, they will gladly accept it and cast themselves free of the chains of society. (And of course return an equal portion of actual love and friendship to you) :)
Changing the world can happen anywhere at anytime
Wish you all a merry Christmas and a wonderful 2008
P.S. thanks to Christoph for this article about Christmas in Japan (in German)