Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Holiday Series Day 4: Christmas in the Land of the Rising Sun

In case you missed it, here's our holiday tidings so far.

Day 1: Nate Presenting Thailand
Day 2: Hannah Presenting Switzerland
Day 3: Holly Presenting Burkina Faso

                As that horrifying picture Holly posted at the end of her last blog of a guy dressed as Doraemon dressed as Santa indicated, today I am here to talk to you about December holidays in Japan. So what have we got? Well, there’s Christmas once again, as well as New Year’s. The other official holiday of the month is the celebration of the monarch’s birthday. This is starting to sound awful familiar…

                December 23rd is Tenno Tanjobi (天皇誕生日) the birthday of Emperor Akihito, the current emperor of Japan. This institution of emperor is as old as Japan itself, and Akihito’s dynasty claims to be descended from Jimmu, a legendary emperor said to have been the descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Jimmu’s existence has no historical evidence, but historical emperors go back to before the time of Christ, which would make the Japanese Imperial Dynasty the longest-lasting dynasty in history. Throughout Japanese history, the emperor was the source of power. During the reign of the shoguns, the emperor could not exercise any power, but was still revered as the ultimate authority. During the Meiji Restoration, the institution of emperor came back into power. After World War II, Japan’s constitution, written by the United States, removed all governmental power from the emperor, leaving him only as a ceremonial figure.

The Showa Emperor, aka Hirohito.
                The emperor’s birthday is an official holiday, and will be changed to the birthday of the next emperor upon the current’s death. The birthday of the previous emperor is now also an official holiday, known as Showa Day. On Tenno Tanjobi, the gates of the Imperial Palace are opened, which is a rare occurrence. Native Japanese and tourists alike flock to the palace to see the emperor and other members of the royal family, and hear him give an address. The address will typically be on the state of Japan and its relation to the rest of the world. After his speech, the crowd will share and wave tiny Japanese flags. There’s a blog that details the celebration here.

That blog mentions that the Japanese people have the same love for their emperor as the Thai people have for their king. While I have not yet been to Japan, from what I have heard the Japanese people, especially the younger generation, are mostly indifferent to the emperor. I have no doubt that it might have not seemed the case while attending the celebration of the emperor’s birthday. However, in Thailand, the king’s picture is everywhere. Anything with the king’s image is highly revered. Any criticism of the king, or anything that could portray him in a negative light, is highly illegal. Japan’s emperor has not been held in similar light since prior to the end of World War II. 
So, what about the few days after the emperor's birthday? Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year? Well, Christmas is definitely well ingrained in Japanese society, but it's not quite the same as it is here. It's not at all a religious holiday, it's considered a time for romance, and people eat sponge cake and fried chicken. Because Japan. 

Christmas first hit Japan in the 1500s, when missionaries from Portugal arrived to spread Christianity. In the early 1600s Japan became isolationist, banishing all foreigners from the country and outlawing Christianity, and thus Christmas with it. Christians were subsequently persecuted, and many were crucified. Some Japanese continued to practice Christianity in secret. Christmas only had a presence in Japan through them until the Meiji Restoration of the 1800s. 

Christmas in Japan, as it can be seen today, has several causes. One is the Meiji Restoration time of rapid industrialization, and militarization, of Japan. In Japan quest to become a respected world power by the west, it adopted many Western customs. Christmas was among them. Commercialism was another, which is certainly a major part of Christmas today. Department stores would decorate for Christmas, and encourage patrons to participate in the festivities. The occupation of Japan by U.S. forces after World War II was certainly another major factor. American troops brought their love of Christmas with them, which would have left an impact on the local population. It's the same way Japan's country music scene had its genesis. Finally, and most importantly, it's fun! Buddhism and shintoism are tolerant of other religions, meaning the Japanese people are free to borrow another religion's holidays in order to have another excuse to party. 

Christmas in Japan is a time to spend with loved ones, but not necessarily the same loved ones as in the United States. Christmas is less a family holiday and more of a friends holiday, and especially friends of the boy/girl variety. They say Christmas in Japan is a "time for lovers". How this evolved in Japan is unclear, but it may have been a progression of the idea of traveling and spending money on gifts during Christmas that was being pushed by the department stores. As these activities were typically performed with one's significant other, more and more couples would have been spending time together during Christmas, and soon stores would have been marketing the holiday as a time for lovers. But on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. Because Japan. 
A romantic Christmas dinner in Japan.

But what about Santa? He's still there. Santa is still said to bring presents to the children of the world, and in this spirit many parents will buy presents for their children, and say they were from Santa. But only Santa gives presents on Christmas. So children do not give presents to their parents. When children stop believing in Santa, they stop receiving presents. Thus, I have a message for the children of Japan, should they wish to continue receiving Christmas goodies.

Christmas cake is a thing in Japan. Apparently it's a thing elsewhere too? I mean, there's fruit cake, I guess, but I've never in my life actually seen a fruit cake. I'm almost convinced that giving fruit cakes on Christmas is a myth. But some countries bake cakes for Christmas, I guess, and I guess Japan is one of them. But their cake is a sponge cake, featuring whipped cream, and decorated with strawberries. Strawberries! That's adorable. Stores will have a wide assortment of cakes available to be eaten on Christmas. These cakes do not last long, however. Stores will slash their prices as early as Christmas Eve in order to get rid of excess stock. Thus, there is a phrase in Japan for unmarried Japanese women, "Christmas cake". The idea is that nobody wants to eat a Christmas cake after the 25th of December, and nobody wants to marry a woman after her 25th birthday. Of course, that's ridiculous, many Japanese women are marrying at a much older age, so the phrase is falling out of popularity. 

Finally we have Kentucky Fried Christmas. During the '70s, KFC ran a successful add campaign convincing people that eating fried chicken on Christmas was the quintessential Western Christmas meal. Many Japanese will be surprised to find that this is not the case. Some attribute Japan's chicken Christmas to being a substitute for the lack of turkeys in Japan. Japan has very few turkeys, this is true. However, I don't know about you, but my family always eats ham on Christmas. And I know for sure that they've got pigs in Japan. 

So I think bacon would be a much better Christmas meal than KFC. Just a big stack of bacon. Oh! They could form the bacon into different shapes, like a Christmas tree or Santa's sleigh. I am full of good ideas. But no, instead they simply line up outside of KFC for their chicken dinners. Missed opportunity. 
Or a cabin, that works too.
If you do a Google search for Christmas in Japan, you might come across information for a character named Hotei, who is often considered the Japanese Santa Claus. But not by the Japanese. Ever. There are some similarities for sure. Both Santa and Hotei are men with big, round bellies. Both carry sacks of gifts for small children. Hotei delivers his gifts around the time of the New Year, which, going by the Gregorian calendar, is awfully close to Christmas. Both know when you've been bad or good, though Hotei is said, by people who aren't Japanese, to know because he has eyes in the back of his head. But Hotei is not considered the same as Santa Claus. Japan's Santa is a fat white guy, just like he is in America. You can read more about comparisons between the two here. 

Just who is Hotei, then? Hotei is a figure that is pretty prominent in many East Asian cultures. In Japan, he is considered one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune, aka the Seven Lucky Gods. Unlike the other six, he is believed to be based on a real person, a Buddhist monk that lived in China during the Liang Dynasty, around 907-923. He is an important figure in Buddhism, and is considered himself a Buddha, or enlightened one. He is not to be confused with THE Buddha, Gautama Buddha, founder of the religion and notoriously skinny guy. Despite that, he often is. Images of Budai, as he is referred to in Chinese, are the source for the confusion among many in the States that Gautama Buddha was a fat man. It is believed that Budai is a pre-incarnation of the future Buddha, who will come to the world to spread the Dharma again after it has been forgotten. And once again, he is not Santa Claus. 

Finishing out December is the New Year, a much bigger holiday for the Japanese than Christmas. Historically, Japan would celebrate the New Year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, but during the Meiji period (there's that word again...) in was changed to be based on the Gregorian calendar. Many traditional foods will be eaten, most prepared in such a way as to not spoil. The foods date since before refrigeration, and as stores would typically be closed for the New Year holiday, foods would have to last throughout the period. 
One type of food that is made is mochi, a rice cake that is made by smashing boiled sticky rice with a large wooden mallet. Because Japan is really awesome sometimes.

Japan has many customs associated with the New Year. Bells will ring from Buddhist temples at midnight, 108 times. Each ring symbolizes the 108 human sins of Buddhist belief. Another custom is paying attention to the first things done of the year, such as the first sunrise, the first trip to a shrine or temple, or the first day of work. Post cards are usually sent to arrive on the 1st of January, making it the busiest day of the year for the post office. Money will be given to children in small decorated envelopes, regardless of whether or not they believe in Santa. There are New Year's games that are played as well. Above all, the New Year is a time to be spent with family, much like Christmas is here in the States. 

I hope you enjoyed this look at Christmas in Japan. Next is Hannah with holiday traditions in the Basque regions of Spain, followed by Holly with Brazil's beachside festivities. Feliz Natal! 

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