Monday, December 31, 2007

The History of Christmas in Japan

The comments on my last post, The Christmas That Isn’t, really got me wondering about when and why Japan started "celebrating" Christmas. Wikipedia had this to say;

"Encouraged by the commercial sector, the secular celebration of Christmas is popular in Japan, though Christmas is not a national holiday. The Japanese have adopted the character of Santa Claus in their celebrations. Christmas is not as important to most Japanese as New Year's Day. In contrast to Western customs, Christmas Eve is a day for couples to date and groups to hold parties, while the official New Year's Day holiday is a day of family celebration. Most Christmas decorations come down on the 25th and are replaced by New Year's decorations. A unique feature of Christmas in Japan is the Japanese type of Christmas cake, often a white whipped cream cake with strawberries.

The first recorded Christmas in Japan was celebrated with a mass held by Jesuit missionaries in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1552, although some believe that unrecorded celebrations were held prior to this date, starting in 1549 when Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Japan to begin missionary work. Starting with the expulsion of missionaries in 1587, Christianity was banned throughout Japan beginning in 1612, a few years into the Edo Period, and the public practice of Christmas subsequently ceased. However, a small enclave of Japanese Christians, known as Kakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians"), continued to practice underground over the next 250 years, and Christianity along with Christmas practices reemerged at the beginning of the Meiji period. Influenced by American customs, Christmas parties were held and presents were exchanged. The practice slowly spread in major cities, but its proximity to the New Year's celebrations makes it a smaller focus of attention. During World War II, all celebrations and customs, especially those from America, were suppressed. From the 1960s, with the aid of a rapidly expanding economy, and influenced by American TV dramas, Christmas became popular, but mostly not as a religious occasion. For many Japanese, celebrating Christmas is similar to participating in a matsuri, where participants often do not consider which kami (god) is being celebrated, but believe that the celebration is a tribute nevertheless. From the 1970s to the 1980s, many songs and TV drama series presented Christmas from a lover's point of view."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Christmas That Isn't

I remember the Christmasses of 1998 and 2005. They weren't particularly different and it's not that I remember them in any great detail. What I do remember is savouring them. During both, I knew I'd be living in Japan the following years.
Before coming here the first time in 1999, I knew that as Japan isn't a Christian country, not to expect Easter or Christmas. That year, Easter passed without any acknowledgement what-so-ever. I even worked on Easter Sunday.
Imagine my surprise in November when the department stores and shopping centres began selling Christmas decorations, playing Christmas carols and started taking orders for their version of a Christmas cake (a fluffy sponge cake with lots of cream and strawberries).
Over the next couple of months, I was lulled into a false sense of celebration. I bought and sent Christmas cards, helped in numerous Christmas parties for students at the school I worked and was looking forward to the dinner party planned on Christmas night.
Knowing that I'd otherwise be alone on Christmas morning, my friend Jodie invited me to stay with her on Christmas Eve. We could open our presents together she suggested. Her Japanese husband would be working that day, as would most Japanese, as it's just a normal working day. This fact should have clued me in to the real Japanese Christmas spirit, or rather lack there of. I happily accepted, gave her phone number to my family so they could call me on the day and packed the ingredients for the rum balls I was planning on making for the dinner party that night.
The morning started off well with a fellow ex-pat to celebrate with . While rolling the rum balls however, I realised I needed more coconut.
"Just go down to the supermarket," Jodie suggested.
I was shocked. The supermarket was open on Christmas Day? Really, it made sense, it was a normal business day after all and really quite convenient in my current prediciment.
Part of me wishes I never had gone. A tiny piece of my love for Japan died in those very moments.
I arrived at the supermarket. The same carols were playing, the same decorations on sale, though now at 50% off, the same Christmas cakes on display and housewives wandering through the aisles doing their same old grocery shopping.
I was furious, I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I felt betrayed. It was Christmas Day and this was so not Christmas. For months, there had been a feeling of "Christmas is coming... Christmas is coming.." and now it had come, no-one cared. They had taken everything commercial and cute from the season and none of the spirit. It was a bit like someone continually telling you that they really wanted you to come to a party and then giving you the cold shoulder when you did.
I wanted to grab the grocery-shopping-Christmas-ignoring housewives by the shoulders, shake them and say "This is it! This is Christmas! Don't you understand?!?"
Instead, I quietly bought my shredded coconut, left the centre and cried.
Now every year that I'm living in Japan and November rolls around, I get a mixture of excitement and panic about the approaching Christmas. I don't want to feel that anger and dissapointment again. I don't want the hipocracy that is Christmas in Japan rubbed into my face again.
I can't really plan a Christmas dinner with many people as most of my ex-pat friends return "home" for the holidays, and my Japanese friends are working and don't quite understand. For me, the solution is to travel. I know I'm not going to have the same family and friends with me, I know I'm not going to be eating the same Christmas treats but I do know I'll be doing something special and different. This has become my personal Christmas in Japan tradition.
So far at Christmas, I've been to Singapore, Osaka and Kobe, Hakuba and this year, to Matsumoto. For Christmas meals I've eaten Chinese, Mexican, English Pub food, Indonesian and Spanish, none of them in anyway Christmassy, but all of them special.
As long as my family and friends are in my heart and I keep this one day of the year special, I'll have Christmas no matter where I live.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Tomorrow morning, Wayne and I are off for a short trip to Matsumoto in Nagano. As it's a short trip, we're lucky that we don't have much luggage and will be able to do the 30 minute walk to the station with our bags (one backpack and my camera bag). You see, I'm pretty sure we've been blacklisted by the cab company in town....

The first time I ordered a taxi to pick us up was a year ago (to the date actually) when we were going to Nagano to go snowboarding. Being a smallish town, I didn't book in advance but thought I would call with plenty of time to spare. I had however forgotten that it is bonenkai (end of year, or as some say.... forget-the-year) parties.

The guy at the taxi dispatch told me the wait would be about 20 minutes. After 40 minutes I was really beginning to worry. I called the company again, and they told me the taxi had come to our place already. I assured him they hadn't so he said they would be there soon. Another five, then ten, then fifteen minutes went by. I had called the company one hour before we needed to leave and now there was five minutes left. We had an expensive overnight bus booked and needed to get the train to get there in time.

Luckily, our neighbour arrived home and offered to take us to the station. I ran up to our apartment and rang the cab company to cancel the cab. The dispatch guy was now surprised that we hadn't been picked up yet, but promised me, a car would be there in ten minutes, I told him that we really had to leave now and insisted on cancelling the order.

Our snowboards and Christmas present laden bag was loaded into our neighbours BMW, we ran up the stairs to the station, just made the train, then ran from the train station and just made it to the bus.

The next time I ordered a cab, it was in the middle of the day with no warning. I was told a taxi would be by in five minutes. After 20 I rang the company. The conversation went something like this (though in Japanese...)

"Hi, I ordered a taxi 20 minutes ago and it hasn't arrived yet. This is Melanie from .. (insert address here...)"

"Ah Melanie-sama. No, you've been picked up already."

"No, I haven't. I'm still waiting."

"No, you were picked up about 15 minutes ago."

"No, I can assure you, I wasn't. I'm still here waiting outside the front of my apartment. A taxi came down the next road about 15 minutes ago and picked someone else up, but it wasn't me."

"No, he picked you up. He said he picked up a foreigner. You've already been picked up."

(Now, I have to say at this point, that the person who was picked up in the next street was Japanese, and that chances of the taxi driver having picked up another foreigner is very slim - there are few of us that live in my town)

"No, honestly, I haven't. That's why I'm calling. Maybe someone else took my taxi. Could you please send another one?"

"No, no-one would have taken your taxi. He picked you up. You don't need another one, you've already been picked up."

"No, really I haven't. I've been waiting out the front the whole time and I'm still here. Could you please send another one?"

"Oh, OK, if you're sure you haven't already been picked up."

Another taxi came around and picked me up five minutes later.

The next time we needed a taxi was when we were going to Vietnam in summer. Early in the evening before, I once again called the company. Again in Japanese, it went something like this...

"Hi, I want to reserve a taxi for tomorrow morning."

"Yes, address? Time?"

"It's (... insert address..) for 6.30am."

"No, we're all booked up." Was the reply barked at me. No apologies. Just a direct "Muri" (impossible).

"Oh, well how about 7am?"


"Umm... how about 6am?"




Mmmm... Personally, I find it hard to believe that on a normal workday, all the taxis have been booked out between 5.30 to 7am. I was panicked and called a friend who came to our rescue. He very kindly offered to get up at 6am on the first day of his holidays to drive us to the station.

There are two companies in town, so I do have to get the number for the other. In the meantime, I'm glad that we can walk to the station tomorrow!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Yah! Holidays!

I discovered something this month....

the 'flu + weather much colder than this queensland girl is used to + asthma = exhaustion + not much fun

.... hense the lack of blogging....

Anyway, I'm over that now, all good, and just in time for my holidays! Yah!

Yesterday was the first day of my winter vacation break and I made the most of it. The boy and I went into the "big city" - Nagoya. It's only 20 minutes away by train and we really don't do it enough. We drooled over all the English books at Maruzen, ate yummy Indonesian for lunch, I gawked at the designer stores... Camper Shoes and Marimekko being my favourites, arranged for my Birkenstocks to be re-souled, ate more yummy food at Outback, splurged on Aussie chocolate and tried not to stare at the other "round eyes" as my New Zealand friend calls fellow westerners. We don't see many in our town.

I'm now madly trying to catch up on Christmassy stuff. Having been sick means I'm now running very late. A few Christmas cards have been sent, but presents haven't. I still have to design, write and send my nengajo.

On Monday, we'll be leaving for Nagano where we'll spend a few days over Christmas in Matsumoto, a sweet little town famous for its castle. Not sure what our Christmas dinner will be, we probably won't be able to find any roast turkey dinners, but we'll just make sure it's something yummy and special.

Christmas presents are calling out to be wrapped, must dash!

If I don't get a chance to blog before I go, I'd like to wish everyone a very Merry Kurisumasu!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Engrish Break

I've been going through old photos tonight and re-discovered my Engrish collection. Sit back and enjoy....

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Love Triangle

As we've just finished exams and only have a couple of weeks until holidays, we've been able to do a few fun lessons with the kids. One activity we're doing with the high school students is giving them a sheet of paper with three pictures on it and asking them to write a story. The aim they are told is to write a funny story.

There is one in particular that I love from today's class. Before I get to it, I should explain the characters... Melanie - is obviously me and Sam, Adrianne and Mr K other English teachers at the school. I've left the mistakes in and copied it as is;

Sam said, "She is mine. Her eyes are shining. Her name is Melanie. But she has a husband. She is outgoing to love. She has sexy body. I always fall in love with her. I was wallow in her everyday."

But he kissed with Adrianne. The kisses is very passion. I have never explained such a sexy and pleasure kiss. I am steeped in luxurious pleasure. I can't live without her body. It was true.

Ah..... Which is better, Melanie or Adrianne? Melanie has perfect body. But Adrianne has perfect body too. But it is important to honest to me. I want to the most is Mr K. I was homo.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Exam Answers

We're on the downhill run to the holidays now! Yah! Just two more weeks to go and then about three weeks off. Not sure what we're doing yet, but thinking of going somewhere for a few days. Does anyone have any suggestions? I want to go somewhere I haven't been before and I've done the big sites and cities.

We've just finished the last exams for the year and there were some answers that brought a smile to my face. I thought I might share....

From Junior High, in answer to the questions;

"Who cooked your breakfast this morning?"

My breakfast eat my family.
My breakfast cooked my mother.
I cooked my mother.
Cock brakefast is my mother.
It's dreakfast cooked my mother this morning.
It my mother cook to for breakfast

Where did you do your homework last night?

I homeworked in the hoom last night.

Where did you brush your teeth yesterday?

I brashed my teachers in the bathroom.
I washed the thieves in the bathroom.
I brashed my pea in the bathroom.
I blash your teach in the kitchen.
I brush south in the bath yesterday.

In one question the high school students had to describe Sam's and my personalities. Some of the results were;

Melanie is cheerful. She is big voice and her smile is cute.
She is cheerful because her class time is very interesting and exciting.
She is like rabit because she is very praty.
Melanie is very cheerful, because she is loved everyone.
She is cheerful and easygoing, because her smile is beautiful and she makes us happy.
He is gentle. He always listens my boring and not-well-English story happily.