The Holly and the Mochi: Christmas in Japan

As I write these words it is Sunday, 15th December 2013, the third week of advent.  I usually date the beginning of Christmas in Japan by the moment you notice Colonel Sanders outside a KFC wearing a Santa hat.  So Christmas in Japan this year started around November 10th.  Shortly after the Colonel donned the Santa hat (KFC often markets itself for Christmas, Turkey being rare in Japan, and Chicken being a bit like Turkey), Christmas decorations were for sale, Christmas cakes were being advertised and finally by early December, some Christmas lights are up.

Soon the staff at shops will be adorned with Santa hats; looking mightily pissed off as they force smiles to make spirit bright, impressive seasonal illumination can be found everywhere, convenience stores will be selling seasonal alcoholic drinks (148 Yen gets you a tasty malt beer) and playing Japlish-ized Christmas music. So I guess Ludolph’s nose will be growing again this December.

If you are used to Christmas being a secular affair, and looking forward to the exchanging of gifts, and possibly some over indulgence, then Japan will not disappoint you.  For ‘tis also the season of the bonenkai, the ‘end of year party’, as someone working in Japan, you will get your fair share of invites (this particular foreigner having been invited to one on the 28th), offering plenty of time for drinking and eating – although it’s likely to be an affaire sans Turkey.  Please try not to let that bother you, maybe there will be some of Col. Sanders’ chicken, after all its finger licking good!

Christmas as a singleton is never easy, but in Japan, if you are lucky enough to be coupled; it gets a bit more complicated, for three reasons.  Let me explain:

Christmas in Japan is not about your family or friends it’s about your lover!  Do not under any circumstances go out to your nearest gaijin watering hole on the 25th December.  Try not to be continuously Skyping parents back home.  You should however, be thinking of taking your significant other to a suitably romantic restaurant, although be warned she may think that is KFC (I like to find my nearest KFC on those days just take photos of the queues) to put people off going.

You may have to work Christmas Day. I am lucky, working at a public university, and mostly teaching foreign students, my work is done until early January.  But it is still a day at the office for many academics.  Expect few to be sympathetic, forgive them, they know not what they do when the suggest ‘Can you not just had Christmas on the 23rd?’, which is the Emperor’s birthday.

So you’ve got KFC booked for the kawaii gairu in your life, maybe you might meat friends on Boxing day or early on Christmas Eve.  You’ll find time to communicate with the progenitors sometime on the 25th, you’ll squeeze it in somehow.  But this brings us to sad news item number three:

By the 26th it’s all over.  That’s right folks, no leftover Turkey (maybe that’s not bad, but there’s unlikely to be Turkey at all), no twelve days of Christmas.  Many shopping centres and precincts will cruelly get rid of decorations before the 31st, although some may keep it up until mid January. Don’t they know you’re a foreigner missing home?  Nope, like Scrooge, you didn’t miss it, but it sure didn’t last long.

There is one saving grace, after Christmas comes New Year.  And New Year in Japan is actually quite special, if you are spending it with a Japanese family. If you’re Scottish, think Hogmanay with sushi instead of Turkey.  From 31st December until about the 3rd January, there will be eating, drinking, being merry and singing, the entire family will most likely surround the TV for the ‘Kohaku’, an end of the year TV sing-a-long on NHK!

Merry Christmas from Osaka, Japan.


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