Cakes and kings: Christmas in Japan
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But it’s badly placed, less than a week before the far more significant celebration of the Japanese New Year. I blame the pagans.
The Celts that occupied northern Europe in the iron age were clever people. Their winter solstice revel wasn’t a primitive tribe beating drums to try to ensure the return of the sun. It was an intelligent community encouraging procreation at the time of year when it was best to conceive.
A child conceived at midwinter would be carried through summer, when its mother could feed well and build her strength for the rigors of labor. It would be born in late September, when there would be the harvest abundance to support a village full of babies.
In contrast, a child conceived in late spring would be born in the cold depths of February, when its chances of survival were poor.
The wisdom remains, though mangled by time, in an admonition against May weddings.
The early Christian missionaries to northern Europe had no truck with heathen practices like these. If they couldn’t affect a forceful conversion, they did something more devious. They built their churches next to, or even directly upon, sites of pagan worship.
They organized their yearly festivals so that they coincided with the existing pagan festivals. Christmas, new hope in the darkest hour, was shouldered onto the midwinter revel.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the turning of the year was shifted from the end of February (where we still tag on our leap year days, and from which months like September and October are numbered) to the end of December, butting it awkwardly against the Christmas celebration.
This is fine in the west, where the new year means very little. It’s more awkward in places like Japan.
Unlike its neighbor South Korea, which converted wholesale to Christianity, Japan still claims itself to be Buddhist. Paradoxically, it also claims to follow Shinto, the native polytheism which has interesting similarities to Celtic paganism.
Just like those early Christian churches in Europe, Buddhist temples in Japan are often positioned in the same compounds as Shinto shrines.
But the comparison ends there. Japanese Buddhism seems remarkably toothless. Having found its niche in the social apparatus as a kind of religious fast-food franchise, the McDonalds of funerals, it seems content to coexist with its rival.
Most Japanese will tell you they believe in both Buddhism and Shinto, and practice worship in both. But these are largely public rituals.
For this reason, Japan is sometimes characterized as an atheist society. And certainly its young people find little in these religions to attract them, reserving their fanaticism for otaku obsessions like Yo-kai Watch, Hello Kitty, or AKB48.
But don’t the otaku obsessions suggest that all these young people are desperate to believe in something?
Christmas in Japan occupies a tight seasonal niche. It starts the moment Halloween’s over, when the stores sweep away their pumpkin iconography and start putting up decorated trees and Santa Claus balloons and the streets and houses are festooned in billions of fairy lights.
It ends promptly on Christmas day, when the trees and Santas all vanish and the Christmas foodstuffs are cast into the remainder bins. The lights remain, since they double for the New Year celebration, and they’ll stay up until February. But Christmas itself is gone in an instant.
Christmas day is not a new start. It’s a dead stop.
The Japanese attitude to Christmas—and, sadly, to much else—is summed up in the concept of “Christmas cake,” a derisory term for a female office worker who hasn’t found herself a husband by her 25th birthday.
Nobody wants to eat it after the 25th.
And I bet there’s no more than a fraction of Japanese who could tell you what all this Christmas frippery is supposed to mean.
But for the short time it exists, non-Christian Christmas iconography is everywhere.
You’ll probably have a Secret Santa raffle in your workplace, exchange presents with your family, and buy a cream-and-strawberry filled cake with an icing Santa on top (though it may well have Mickey Mouse ears), but it’s less likely more than a few of your hipper Japanese friends will give you a Christmas card.
A week later, your letterbox will be brimming with hundreds of New Year postcards from just about everyone you’ve ever met—and you’ll spend Christmas writing hundreds of cards of your own.
The Christmas shopping binge is followed immediately by the New Year sale binge, just like in the west. And talking of binges, the seasonal drinking parties are end-of-year drinking parties, though they’ll happily co-opt the Christmas imagery: Santas, Santas, Santas.
It’s near impossible to find the mainstays of my childhood Christmas here: British crackers and rich, black Christmas pudding. What’s the dinner without mottos, paper hats, and curly polythene fish?
But every hundred yen shop will sell you a Santa hat and beard.
Could Christianity win over Japan, like North Korea? It’s an interesting thought experiment. In a country that resolutely turned its back on Asia to align itself with the USA after the Pacific War, how did the Christian message get lost?
I suspect that a Christian Japan would be a less immature Japan. It would certainly stave off the gaudy sects that this country keeps throwing up. The ones with saran gas, for example.
But Christianity was actively persecuted in Japan for centuries, and is still poorly understood here. Regardless of its Buddhism, Japan doesn’t take kindly to abstinence, and it would take a concerted effort to convince its people that all humans are equal, let alone that abortion is murder and homosexuality an abomination.
Besides, Christianity doesn’t seem interested in the country. The Scientologists, as I mentioned in my post Science, fiction, faith: do we still need colorful stories?, are far more vocal about their Far Eastern ambitions.
There are plenty of churches here. I pass by my local church every day, but it never looks welcoming. Apart from one small wreath on the door, you’d never believe it had anything to do with the Christmas that bursts out all around it in such mad profusion every year.
Meanwhile, I suspect Shinto is about to make a comeback. It’s just too convenient a symbol of Japanese exceptionalism.
As a means of cultural identity, Shinto was battered almost into extinction by the Pacific War, when the Japanese authorities used it to force rabid nationalism onto their people. The Emperor, after all, could trace his lineage directly to the Shinto gods, which made him a deity himself.
After Japan was defeated, and the Emperor was within a hair’s breadth of execution, Shinto might have died for good. Who could blame the people for tearing down these symbols of their own oppression?
It was Shinto that had sent young men to their deaths by flying their planes into enemy structures, decades before 9/11. Kamikaze is a Japanese word that means “wind from the gods.”
But the Emperor survived, and so did Shinto, and so—to the region’s continuing chagrin—did the nationalism.
Today, the country’s enormous right wing political apparatus remains closely bound to Shinto, for example in its observances at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honors the kids sacrificed to Japan’s imperial ambitions, including those kamikaze pilots.
The country’s current remilitarization is dolled in its patriotic apparatus, which is prideful and defiant.
The closest public holiday to Christmas is actually Emperor’s Day on December 23rd, but I try not to dwell on how our god-king’s presence might become inflated as the war machine gears up.
Absurd as it seems, Japan really might be arming itself for round two, and you can expect more Shinto to be shoved down our throats on the march to our destiny in China.
It’s a heart-stopping thought. Perhaps a little Christian humility is just what this country needs?