Christmas In Translation
Flashing Christmas lights decorate the store windows. Malls and restaurants are playing Christmas music and snow will soon be falling in the northern climes. Presents are wrapped and greeting cards signed, and the KFC dinner is on the table for the big feast. (Insert screeching record sound here). Kentucky Fried Chicken? For Christmas dinner?! What's going on? Turkey and pumpkin pie may be staples of Christmas dinner in America, but it's KFC and Christmas cake in Japan.
I'm an expatriate living in Japan. I've been here just over five years, and I tell you, living overseas can be tough. Even when things are similar, like McDonald's, supermarkets, and Christmas, sometimes the little differences between what you’re use to and what the custom is, are the hardest to deal with.
Christmas in Japan is not a religious holiday. While Christianity is present in Japan, Buddhism and Shinto are the two dominant religions. Christmas came to Japan in the 1800s by missionaries and the first recorded Christmas was celebrated in my home prefecture of Yamaguchi, at the southern end of the big island. That being said, Christmas is looked on as a romantic holiday, more akin to America’s Valentine’s Day.
Couples often have romantic dinners, take walks to enjoy the light displays, and give each other a gift of affection. Romance is in the cold winter air, there’s a reason WHAM’s Last Christmas and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You are among the most popular Christmas songs. Christmas is somewhat romantic in America also. It’s a time for friends and family, visiting each other’s relatives, maybe even popping the question on that perfect sleigh ride. I spent my first Christmas in Japan alone, with my two feet tall fake tree and some DVDs. But it didn’t get me down. I decorated the tree just like I use to in America, listening to Amy Grant Christmas music and putting the presents mom had mailed me under the tree. Sure, I was alone. But by doing the same holiday traditions in Japan I had done in America, I brought a little piece of home with me. Was it a bad Christmas? No. Just different.
Presents are another staple of Christmas and here in Japan, even this is different. There is no Black Friday or Cyber Monday here; in fact, my wife (who is Japanese) had never heard of these terms before. There are Christmas sales at the store but there is no loud push for you to buy, buy, buy and get that last-minute shopping done. Most people, even children, get one or two presents. That’s it. Sure, some get more, but the norm seems to be one or two. And Santa (whom Japanese kids think lives in Finland or Norway, maybe Greenland) doesn’t put their presents under the tree, which is typically three feet high; he puts them beside their pillow or on the floor at the head of their bed.
When it comes to food, that may be the biggest difference. Turkey is almost non-existent in Japan, and even if they did live here, there is no way they would fit in an average sized oven. Most Japanese people I have met have never eaten turkey in their life; for them, chicken is close enough. KFC runs specials on absolutely gorgeous Christmas dinners for the family and eating KFC on Christmas is usual. But if an American can’t live without turkey or pumpkin pie on Christmas, the Japanese can’t live without their Christmas cake. Often white with strawberries on top (sometimes chocolate or buttercream flavored as well) these are a holiday staple everyone eats every year. Every store, food shop, and convenience store sells these cakes and most of the time you have to order them.
But what is truly missing from Christmas in Japan is the rush: the madness to shop, shop, shop, the stress of getting every family member a gift, driving from store to store looking for the best deal. Christmas is just another holiday here, slightly more important that others, but not the biggest. It’s for the couples, for the romantics, for the parents to show some love to their kids.
That’s what I love most about Christmas: love. Christmas is more about love than Valentine’s Day. It’s the love of Christians for Jesus Christ. It’s the love Santa has for children, wanting to make boys and girls happy. It’s the love of humanity helping each other. It’s a season to love and be loved. And the slowness the Japanese have about the season, the emphasis on romance, is what made me like Christmas even more.
Teaching junior high students about Christmas and discussing differing customs with Japanese people made me realize I can make my own Christmas. Here in Japan, I got to introduce Christmas the way I wanted it to be. I don’t look at my waist high tree as puny, I look at it as the tree my wife and I bought together. She enjoys American music and I was able to introduce my tradition of listening to Amy Grant while we decorate. Her parents are delighted that I give them gifts for Christmas. I’ve eaten Japanese Christmas cake and looked at the Christmas lights while holding hands with my wife. I’ve made my own Christmas here. And when you’re living apart from everything familiar and comforting to you, that’s what you have to do. Make it your own. No matter where you are, Christmas is where you make it.
Cody Martin: Cody is an author living in Iwakuni-Shi, Yamaguchi, Japan. Cody teaches English to junior high students in Japan, as part of the JET Programme. Cody is originally from Cody, WY, USA. He graduated from Kansai Gaidai University in 2005, and the University of Alabama in 2006.
Cody is the author of Adventure Hunters - Artorius, Regina, and Lisa, are three adventurers who explore ruins and ancient buildings looking for treasures. Most of the time, they're just trying to make ends meet. But when they explore a town rampaged by goblins, they get more than they bargained for. They uncover a cache of ancient war golems, powerful weapons of destruction once thought to be only myths. Soon,they are in a quest for the Lambda Driver, the key to the golems's activation. But they aren't the only ones, and they will have to defy their own king to find it first. If King Ryvas has his way, he will unleash the golems's destructive power on the neighbouring kingdom. The adventurers's quest will take them from mountains to poisoned valleys and enchanted forests but they must hurry. Where is the Lambda Driver? What secret do the golems hold? And why does their friend Regina seem to be in the midst of it all?
Thank you for sharing the amazing customs and traditions of Christmas in Japan. It all sounds so delicious and romantic. Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!!!