Christmas is not a holiday in Japan. There’s no Black Friday. No eating orgy or year-end weight gain. No shopping spree. No television movies and specials. No department store Santas (yet). As usual, I work Christmas Eve. If Christmas Day falls on a weekday children go to school. My celebrations are correspondingly abbreviated. I attend a dinner party on December 23rd, which is a national public holiday for the Emperor’s birthday, conveniently near to Christmas. But that dinner is a mere fraction of the size and calories of a North American Christmas dinner blowout. My first Christmas dinner in Japan - December 1989 - was a Big Mac on a cold, rainy night all alone in a freezing apartment with a TV with bad reception. That’s a bad memory. At that time I thought, “This is one of the greatest cities in the world. It’s Christmas Eve. The Ginza is a world famous shopping district. I’ll go down to the Ginza and mingle with people on Christmas Eve.” But when I got there it was totally deserted. Department stores were closed. No people were on the streets. No Christmas decorations on lamp posts or store windows, no winter lights, etc. It was depressing. My second Christmas in Japan was a little better, barely.
None of this means that I do not celebrate Christmas, nor that I fail to have a good time doing it, nor that I do not spend a significant amount of money. Compared to Japanese my family does one hell of a big Christmas, but it’s only a fraction of what goes on in North America, but it suits us and our circumstances.
Compared to those days 2015 is remarkably different. The spread of this kind of year-end holiday merry-making has progressed unstopped. It’s still not a holiday, but Japanese people are much more into it. Christmas here has developed into a children’s festival and also a lover’s festival. Young adults go on dates that end in one of the ubiquitous love hotels (that rent rooms in two- or three-hour increments). Rather than having a living room full of wrapped presents under a tree many Japanese children go to sleep with their Christmas sock draped at the foot of their bed, which is where they find it when they awake. A stocking full of gifts is all they get. Then they’re off to school for the last day of classes of the year.
Over the years a custom has developed of dressing KFC Colonel Sanders statuettes in Santa Claus costume. No one is quite sure why. (I wouldn’t be surprise if the custom started in Osaka. Those people are a little weird.) I think most Japanese probably don’t even realize that Col. Arlen Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, was a real man. I remember as a boy, when Sanders was still alive, seeing him on TV spots for the restaurant chain.
The year-end holidays are a time for me to hoard. Hoarding like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter is a feature of my year-end activity. Hoarding, or stockpiling, is related to my income, which is highly irregular. Some months I’m flush with cash, while other months I’m the definition of poverty. December is usually a pretty good pay month, so I take advantage of that to stock the house with as many daily supplies as I can afford and the apartment can hold: toilet paper; tissues; laundry and dish detergents; body soap and shampoo; toothpaste and ear swabs; garbage bags and bleach, vitamin pills, shaving cream, and more. It’s surprising how expensive tissue and toilet paper can be, and it’s surprising how much space it takes up. My dream is always to have a one-year supply of these things, first, so I don’t have to think about any of it for the rest of the year and, second, so I can avoid situations like being in the shower before realizing I’m out of shampoo, or being on the toilet before realizing there’s no toilet paper or tissue. It’s also a kind of disaster plan - insurance against a destructive earthquake. If an earthquake of the magnitude that struck the Tohoku region in March 2011 struck Tokyo you can be sure that stores would be emptied in minutes: beverages, batteries and toilet paper will be the first to disappear. I don’t mean rioting and looting like what you see in America would occur. Japanese are not like that. They are orderly, and in an orderly fashion following a major earthquake they would quickly clear store shelves of everything necessary and useable. That’s what happened in March 2011 even though the earthquake epicenter and the coastal disaster zone were hundreds of kilometers away from Tokyo. I have never achieved that dream of a one-year supply because there’s just not enough space in my digs, but I always aim high. Having a goodly supply of these things feels stable, secure and homey, anyway.
I still mail postal Christmas cards. I like to receive as well, although the Christmas card custom is evaporating very quickly. Holiday cards are a warm bit of home. In the 1990s I might expect to receive about 30 each December. In 2015 I received only eight. I like to use cards as decorations, hanging them up in the house on a string, so this decline affects me. Because I receive so few cards now I look for ways to solicit cards or letters from people - so my mailing list includes prime ministers and presidents, popes, queens, kings and prison inmates. Japanese don’t believe me when I tell them that I sent/received cards with the Queen of England, the Pope, or the President of France, Brad Pitt, or with a convicted murderer in California until I show them the results. They seem surprised that it is possible for anyone to contact celebrities or high profile people like these in today’s world. I wonder if they understand the internet? It only needs a little effort and they, too, can have a card from Buckingham Palace, the White House, or their own Emperor.