Traditional Japanese Christmas
Christmas lights in Japan
Though only about 1% of Japanese citizens are Christian, there are some Western Christian traditions imported to Japan and then made uniquely Japanese. Most of the people in Japan are either Buddhist or Shinto; still, in all the major cities, Christmas is a major commercial event.
It has become both Westernized and commercialized, especially in major cities like Tokyo. The malls decorate; Christmas trees and Christmas decorations are up everywhere. Major corporations invest in the decorating and establishing a Christmas atmosphere. Christian and non-Christian families alike have fallen into the Western tradition of giving children gifts for Christmas, so all the shopping is a good boost to the Japanese economy as well as the Western world. Teddy bears are big sellers!
All the fancy restaurants do a BOOMING business on Christmas eve, because in Japan, Christmas eve is a very romantic time to celebrate a relationship. It's very important for single ladies to have a date on Christmas Eve, just as important as it is for American single ladies to have a date on Valentine's Day. Couples exchange gifts; also the traditional gifts of flowers, candy and jewelry are given to the lucky lady. It is a mark of status to a Japanese lady what quality of gift her significant other brings for Christmas eve. All the fancy restaurants are fully booked in advance. Young couples stroll the avenues, looking at the Christmas lights and holding hands.
Japanese Christmas Cake
Christmas cake in Japan is a vey popular item. It's a sponge cake, with whipped cream and strawberries. It's often decorated with the Western idea of Santa Claus; also sometimes decorated with flowers or trees, and it is also eaten on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day.
Even though Christmas Day is not a recognized holiday in Japan, and all the schools and businesses are open, many Japanese have adopted the traditional of having a Christmas meal. Turkey and chicken are big for Christmas dinner. It must mark a considerable change from the ordinary fare of Japanese folk. One fact that I found both odd and sort of endearing--Kentucky Fried Chicken is VERY big on Christmas Day in Japan. Lines form around the block for people to pick up their special Christmas box of KFC! People actually make reservations for KFC "Christmas Chicken" in Japan. It's because KFC, when first arriving in Japan, promoted the heck out of Christmas, so much and so successfully that KFC became a Japanese Christmas custom of sorts.
The Japanese have a Santa Claus!
Well, not actually our Western World Santa, which is loosely based on the apocryphal story of Saint Nicholas.
The Japanese Santa is Hoteiosho, a Buddhist gift bringer and god (actually, Buddhism doesn't recognize "god" per se; it's more like a spirit, or some say monk or priest) of good fortune. Like Santa, he's often depicted carrying a sack. Children are warned that he has eyes in the back of his head, so they'd better be good. It seems many Japanese children really prefer the Western version of Santa, known as "Santa-San", or "Mr. Santa". I'm not surprised!
Which brings me to the true meaning of the Christmas story, and how it affects Japanese culture. On the surface of things, a Westerner could go to Japan and celebrate a traditional Western Christmas, complete with Christmas tree, (which is also quite a popular adopted custom in the more urban areas of Japan) and not notice much difference. There is a difference, however, and a huge one. All of the surface things mean little to your average Japanese person. They are fun; they are an indulgence if one can afford it; they are a good excuse for a party. But, truly, the one percent of Christian Japanese are far outnumbered by the 80% of Japanese who follow some form of Shinto, and the remaining percent of Japanese who mostly follow some sort of Buddhism.
The Shinto religion is categorized rather dismissively by Westerners as "ancestor worship", which doesn't begin to describe this religion. Shinto began in Japan around 600 years before Christ. It's based on carrying forward, from one generation to the next, a set of strict traditions, to ensure continuity of both spirit and culture. It was codified and written down in the "Kojiki" and "Nihon Sholi" in about 700 AD. It has its own vast and diverse set of beliefs and mythology, and its practitioners have a similar style of dress and ritual, though they may have many internecine differences in faith. Today, Shinto is a term which means the worship of many gods or spirits (kami) some of which contain the spirit of our ancestors. "Shin" means "spirit" and "to" means philosophical or religious path. In Shinto, Kannagara, meaning the way or path of kami, or spirit, refers to the law of natural order, or the natural order of the universe. Someone who understands Kannagara knows both divine and human laws and knows how people should live. These laws, though not so specifically tabulated as such, give Shinto its code of ethics, emphasizing sincerity, honesty and purity, as well as honor. In some ways, (dare I say it?) Shinto reminds me of Judaism. The insistence on following traditions which are many thousands of years old; the importance of family; the preservation of culture through ritual; all of this reminds me ever so faintly of Judaism. What these people, especially the little girls, might love about Western Christmas is the Nativity scenes, the family scene with the newborn child Jesus.
There are also many Buddhists in Japan. I'm not sure why. Buddhism comes to the world from India, and I don't think Japan has a heavy Indian population. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 2500 years ago in Nepal. He became know as "the Buddha", or the awakened one, as his teaching spread. He experienced a spiritual revelation on the nature of life, death, and our human experience in this world. He shared the path to awakening, or enlightenment, rather than share directly what was revealed to him. There are many diverse forms of Buddhism throughout the world, though all have in common the Four Noble Truths:
- The Truth of suffering
- The Truth of the cause of suffering
- The Truth of the end of suffering
- The Truth of the path that frees us from suffering
Though there are many spirits in the Buddhist world associated with differently earthly and other-earthly things, the Buddhist faith is in essence non-theistic. There is no "God", per se. Instead, there is the Eightfold Path that frees us from suffering, whose first precept is "harm no living thing".
How would the true Christmas story seem to a believer in Buddhism? I think he/she would be deeply moved by Christ's suffering and His sacrifice in the attempt to end the sufferings of humanity which we bring about through our own sinful natures. Christ's attempt to bring us all to Nirvana would be appreciated, I think, though perhaps Christ himself would not be accepted as the Son of God. Many of Christ's teachings, of faith, hope, and charity, would resonate deeply with people of the Buddhist faith, I should think.
Beethoven's 9th--a Japanese Christmas tradition
Should you find yourself in Tokyo over the Christmas holidays, you might very well hear some traditional Christmas music--Like Joy to the World, Silent Night, even Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer!
You might also hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It has devolved into a Christmas classic for Japan, so many theaters and concert halls present "Daiku", or "The Great Nine" during the Christmas season.
Really, though, Christmas has not the significance in Japan that the New Year does. For the Japanese people, the end-of-December celebrations are called bonenkai, to throw out the old year, forget the old year, and welcome the new one. People send each other oseibo, the end-of-the year gift to each other. The days between December 31 of the old year and January 4 of the New Year are especially significant, and celebrated much more like the Western idea of Christmas. It is a time for family, for prayer. In many religions, it has very special significance. The houses are cleaned very thoroughly on New Year's Eve. On New Year's Day, everyone dresses in their finest clothes. They may follow the father of the household as he marches throughout the house, symbolically driving away all the evil spirits which have accumulated throughout the old year. He bids all the evil to depart from the house, and welcomes good luck to enter.