Dec 12, 2017

What’s Christmas like in Japan?

Perhaps it’s a little too late to be asking what Christmas is like in Japan. It’s already here, and has been since the nation recovered from its Halloween hangover. Still, one hopes that this post will have longevity enough to address the potential expat-in-Japan’s concerns about spending a first Christmas away from home, whenever that might be.

Why write this post?

Celebrations of Christmas are sometimes the target of criticism to the effect that, “Not everyone celebrates Christmas, you know?” A fair point. For those whom Christmas is a big deal it can be easy to get so ensconced in the warm romance of it all as to forget that for others it means next to nothing but they have to put up with it anyway. And it must be even worse for those who are currently battling some of life’s hardships.

None of this means though, that those who want to celebrate Christmas shouldn’t.  

In the interests of clarity, the expat writing this grew up in a country, and with a family, which loves Christmas. It is, emphatically, the largest and warmest celebration of the year. Any year. And despite all the commercial trappings, Christmas is, essentially, a time to be with the family. It’s arguably the absence of said family that can make Christmas in Japan a bit of a weird one for the foreigner living here. But make no mistake, Japan does celebrate Christmas, in its own way, even if it is one that is almost exclusively driven by market forces.  

So what’s Christmas like in Japan? Well, … 

… it starts early ...

Picking up where we started, this expat can remember a time when early December back home seemed a touch early for the shops to be getting the Christmas decorations out. Well, in Japan, they’ve been out since about the first day of November.

It’s as if seasonally-obsessed Japan can’t be without something “seasonal” to celebrate. November represents a bit of a barren patch over here. Halloween is done, latching on to Thanksgiving would be pushing it, and while Japan’s winter illuminations are spectacular, they’re not really attached to the sale of product. Nope, there’s nothing to be done but get the decks out and tell the masses that it’s Christmas, like it or not.

… and it finishes even earlier! 

Perhaps the most brutal of Christmas’ realities in Japan is that New Year is way more important, and there’s not enough room for both. So it is then, that the Christmas-celebrating expat in Japan wakes up on Boxing Day looking forward to a day of present fawning, TV Christmas specials and perhaps a nice stroll out to the pub only to look outside and find out that the rest of the country has moved on. The Christmas decorations are down (something which would have happened as soon as the clock hand struck one minute after midnight - no joke), replaced with those, sorry, comparatively dull New Year’s bits of flower arranging and lumps of chewy rice. It’s like a cold slap in the face, the full brunt of which is prevented only by the fact that Christmas is generally a time to stay indoors as much as possible anyway. For the northern hemisphere at least.

Christmas Day isn’t important, Christmas Eve is

Christmas in Japan isn’t geared up to Christmas Day. It’s geared up to Christmas Eve. And it’s not for the family, it’s for the loved-up couple. Make no mistake, there will be few families in Japan putting out the mince pies and carrots for Rudolph and co. There will, however, be plenty of couples heading out for “date night”-- arm-in-arm strolls amidst Japan’s impressive illuminations, stretched-arm selfies in front of the department store Christmas tree, and then a slap up meal at a posh restaurant. Why, one could even make the case that Christmas is a more romantic affair than Valentine’s Day in Japan -- at least it’s mutual (which Valentine’s Day isn’t). 

Christmas KFC

A quick word on the custom of Christmas Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan (because it’s been well covered by now). Assuming the pronoun “I” for this bit (as this is just my opinion) -- that a fast food joint has managed to get itself the default setting (or food provider) for a collective celebration the size of Christmas, however loosely celebrated (as is the case with Japan), is both a feat of incredible marketing and, it seems to “I’, a damning indictment on the section of populace that laps it up. And they really do. Christmas at a branch of KFC in Japan resembles a high street smartphone store minutes before the latest portable communication device is about to drop (itself also damning). Chaos. Basically, and to whatever extent one deems Christmas to be important, Japan’s Christmas KFC custom is cultural bankruptcy on a quite stupefying level, and should probably tell you the core of what you need to know about Christmas in this country.

It’s surreal

What's Christmas like in Japan?  It's surreal, is what it is.  Already years in-country, this expat still gets a waft of the surreal when I hear “Last Christmas” by “Wham!” playing over the speakers in the local supermarket. Maybe it’s because Wham!’s Christmas mega-hit is surreal enough itself (especially the video). More likely though is the amusing combination of strong Christmas-with-the-family connotations and the foreign environment. There’s perhaps a sense of pride, too. Most of the Christmas classics, understandably, come from artists who hail from the West, and it’s kind of nice to see them “making it in Japan”. A proud export from home, if you will.  

The song reference though, is really a reflection of the overall surreal nature of spending Christmas in Japan -- the Christmas cocktail of homesickness, childish excitement, warm memories, dazzling lights, and the desire to make the best of it while surrounded by a populace that doesn’t know what the fuss is all about, is bonkers if nothing else.

You may have to work

It perhaps reflects how spoiled by Christmas this expat was as a child but at that time the idea that some people worked on Christmas Day would have been horrifying were it not so incomprehensible.  

Here in Japan, unless Christmas Day falls on a weekend or you’re able to use some personal holiday, then the working expat will probably have to soldier up and get into work.  

Now, of course, the world can’t grind to a halt just because of Christmas (although some countries come close to this), but you’d think that people could do without taking an English class wouldn’t you? If only out of thought for their teacher.  

Yes, having worked as a teacher in Japan, I can now rank myself alongside the police, hospital / ambulance staff, firefighters, soldiers and anyone else back home that has made the sacrifice and kept the country safe while the rest bask in their favorite day of the year. It’s a crass analogy, I know, but it perhaps explains the consternation an expat may potentially feel about having to go to work on Christmas Day. I also wonder if it reflects a potential truism in Japan that students at the eikaiwa don’t really care about their teachers. They just want the product they paid for. To be fair though, they can’t be expected to give class a miss for the myriad of important occasions that a teacher may want to celebrate.

Don't let size matter ... when it comes to the Christmas tree

I don’t know what size Christmas tree you grew up with in your house back home but the chances are it dwarfs anything that you’ll have in your crib in Japan. It’s all by necessity, of course. The average 1LDK over here could be swallowed up by the trees we might have had back home. You get used to it. And at least it’s all in proportion.

Christmas causes tension with the Japanese partner

An odd one this, but Christmas has often been the source of arguments between the Japanese partner and I. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on it? Maybe they’re putting too much pressure on it? Maybe we’re both just a bit nuts? Perhaps it stems from the urge to make everything perfect -- me trying to recapture the magic of childhood despite being years beyond and on the other side of the world, and them trying to make everything perfect for me without really understanding what all the fuss is about. Really, this just expresses a fallacy of Christmas anywhere, in any situation -- that it is that perfect and magical. There’s always that crap present that disappoints, or the relative you have to meet out of duty rather than desire, and it’s almost never white, at least not where I’m from. Still, at least most of Japan has that in common.

There’s also the issue that for many Christmas-celebrating expats in Japan, it’s the one time of year that they make that resolve to finally move back home, something potentially alarming for the Japanese partners. Like a New Year’s resolution though, for the long-term expat, it seldom sticks.

The illuminations are amazing, even if they’re not strictly Christmas

You can know that Japan’s illuminations have little to do with Christmas when you’re standing under the same ones a couple of months later on Valentine’s Day. Regardless, Japan does illuminations very well indeed and they complement any Christmas mood nicely, helping to make up for any sense of magic lost by being away from home, and way too old to believe in Santa.

Illuminations in Japan tend to kick off around mid-November with some of them pushing on through to March. 

It’s Christmas cake, but not as we know it

Fact - Japan doesn’t know anything about Christmas cake. If you think you were going to get yourself a slice of that brick-heavy fruit cake that mum or dad made back home sometime during the summer (to let the brandy soak through), you’re wrong. A few months ago we went to the launch of the Ginza Cozy Corner Christmas cake collection for 2017, and while the cakes looked spectacular, and tasted as much, there wasn’t a bit of dried fruit in sight. Sponges with plenty of cream and strawberries rule the roost over here. It’s OK though because the Christmas cake back home was usually reduced to being chopped up and put in the school lunch box for weeks after.

If you are pandering for a bit of Christmas cake that resembles something you might have had back home, the closest thing this expat has found is in the form of “stollen” (from Germany) which you can find in places like a Kaldi Coffee Farm, Seijo Ishi, or posher supermarkets and department stores. It doesn’t come cheaply though.

The above then, is perhaps just the beginning of describing the Christmas experience for an expat in Japan. It should also be noted that this post was written, again, with the understanding that not everyone cares, and also that Christmas can be a very personal thing anyway. One family’s traditions and Christmas customs might seem to another a little strange, and the other way round.  

This isn’t just about Christmas though. This is about all of those occasions for the expat in Japan that might come with strong connotations of family and childhood. It’s these times that arguably see us having to balance “festive” highs with the lowest lows we might have to endure as a result of living in Japan. Still, like that crappy job in Japan that everyone moans about on the Internet, it’s all about what you make of it, isn’t it?

What’s Christmas in Japan like for you?

Further reading ... 

Christmas markets in Tokyo and around, 2017

Winter illuminations in Japan 2017 - 2018: The classy ones!

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