Tokyo Christmas and New Year’s
Japanese people often ask me if I am going back to Canada for Christmas. I say no. It’s awfully expensive at that time of the year. Plus Christmas is not a holiday here and I have work. Not just work right up until Christmas, but work on Christmas. Children still have school and people are working. This year I am working both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - teaching English, mostly, but a couple other little things, too. Fortunately those English teaching jobs are near my home, at a small neighbourhood school only ten minutes away by foot. I need the money. This year is the best year I’ve had money-wise in almost a decade after suffering near total economic implosion in 2004 followed by another mini-meltdown in 2007 - reflections of the instability of foreign labour in Japan. As I have said before, foreign labour is eminently disposable. I have not worked full time since 2007. Instead, my working schedule is a crazy patchwork of a dozen part-time jobs. Some months I’m crazy busy while others I’m sitting at home doing largely nothing for several weeks in a row. Approximately 60% of my total annual income comes from late-August-to-year end.
I have usually been pretty good at decorating my apartment for all the Canadian festivals and holidays. But this year I was lazy - no, busy - and did nothing for Valentine’s Day and Easter. I did only a little for Halloween, much less than usual. But the day I took down my one Halloween door decoration I immediately put up Christmas decorations inside the apartment. I’ll do the door wreaths later. Christmas is not a holiday here as I said, but December 23rd is a holiday for the current Emperor’s birthday. This year it falls on a Sunday, and I doubt that the following Monday 24th will be a holiday in lieu of Sunday. But because Christmas is not a holiday and my children usually have school we have always used December 23rd as our Christmas dinner day, gathering at my in-law’s house to have a rather nice dinner. No turkey or roast beast, but plenty of roast chicken, salads, breads, cakes, etc. Recognizably Yule.
Many young Japanese children receive Christmas presents from “Santa san.” But lacking chimneys and open fireplaces the stockings are just placed on their beds while they sleep.
Many cities, department stores and parks put up Christmas Illumination lights, but no department store has yet hit on the idea of a department store Santa Claus for children. I think it would be a great hit and be good for business by drawing in shoppers, but ...
“Christmas cake” is popular and on Christmas Eve you might see convenience store staff dressed in flimsy Santa Claus suits standing outside and shivering in the cold on the sidewalk in front of their stores selling Christmas cake. But it is not heavy, dark Germanic fruit cake like what most Canadians imagine. It is more like a birthday cake - a very sweet cream and strawberry layer cake. Similarly, at that time of year it is a common sight in Tokyo - I don’t know about elsewhere - to see motorcycle delivery people dressed in Santa Suits. There goes a flash of red and white! It’s the Dominoes Pizza guy on his motor scooter, dressed as Santa!
When I first came to Japan I was upset by the Japanese hijacking of a Christian holiday for their own commercial interests, in complete disregard of the meaning of it all. I even remember a department store window decoration in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo - I used to live near Ikebukuro - that featured a crucified Santa. I thought, “Well, they’ve got the imagery correct, just a little scrambled.” I wish I had a photo of it.
These days, though, I’ve relaxed quite a bit and don’t begrudge different people so much their different ways around Christmas. For many people in Japan Christmas has evolved as a lovers’ holiday, a time for romantic dinners, romantic strolls through Christmas light districts. Love hotels do a lot of business from young people looking for a convenient place to share their mutual affections. I’ve never been inside a love hotel, so I can only imagine what it’s like.
The song “Last Christmas” by Wham is a very popular Christmas song here, even though it is not about Christmas but rather about a bad break-up. I hate that song. I never liked Wham.
In Japan and the rest of Asia New Year’s is the Big Thing. It is the biggest holiday of the year, sort of like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July all rolled into one. 2013 will be the year of the Snake in the Chinese calendar. 2012 is the Year of the Dragon. I was born in the Year of the Tiger, and my Japanese wife in the Year of the Dog. So I can say that my wife is a dog! There are a godzillian interesting and memorable customs at New Year’s. Shinto shrines do big business. Many people visit neighbourhood shrines or temples to pray for good luck for the new year - the ideas of Luck, Fate and Chance feature prominently in Japanese and Asian religion. Not very religious at all, properly speaking, I think, but ... Last year’s amulets and Good Luck tokens are returned to burn and new ones bought. I always go with my family and pick up a new amulet for Health, which I keep tied to the strap of my shoulder bag and carry around with me nearly every day.
Many go to shrines and temples at midnight on December 31st. At that time bells are rung 107 times representing 107 demons. If there is a shrine or a temple in your neighbourhood - and there usually is - you might be able to faintly hear the tolling of bells if you are quietly lying at home. Some people go to the beaches in order to watch the first sunrise of the New Year break the horizon. The First Things are somewhat significant every new year: the first rice meal of the new year; the first fish; the first bath; the first house cleaning; the first pay check, etc. The important first-going-to-the-shrine is called “hatsumode.”
About the house cleaning, remember that New Year’s house cleaning is the custom. In Canada we do Spring Cleaning, but here it is New Year’s cleaning, in order to start the year off clean and fresh.
At New Year’s young women are more apt than at any time other than January 15th to dress up in kimono when they visit the shrine. January 15th is the Adults Day national public holiday when people who turned 20 in the previous year celebrate their adulthood. Young men where suits, and many young women wear kimonos. Next year my daughter has her Adults Day. I mean, two months from now.
There is the special New Year’s holiday food, called “osechi.” There is another custom of mid-winter gift-giving, called “oseibo,”
followed by mid-summer gift-giving, called “ochugen.”
A big thing a New Year’s here is the “nengajo” New Year greeting cards. They also serve as raffle tickets at the Post Office. Every nengajo card has a serial number for that reason. Business people buy and mail hundreds of cards, for all their customers. Billions are mailed and delivered. Convenience stores and Post Office have already begun selling them. I used to send nengajo cards, but I stopped. I seemed that all my efforts to create good human relations and maintain contacts failed, so I stopped bothering sending the cards. But I send between 40 and 50 Christmas cards to North America and elsewhere. That annual project is well in hand.
It’s easy to over eat in Japan, especially at holiday time, especially if you go out or are invited out and accept the invitations. Food is typically served in small servings and you think, “Oh, that’s not so much.” But the small servings keep coming and coming and coming so that by meal’s end you might very well have over eaten.
Japanese New Year’s television features really stupid variety shows, especially music variety shows. The biggest is the ‘Red and White’ show, or “Kohaku.”It’s really dull for me. My wife hogs the TV and I don’t want to watch it, so I end up watching a DVD on my computer and then go to bed, often with the sound of temple bells in the distance, while my wife and children are still watching TV.
As in many countries, Japanese New Year’s decorations feature green foliage cut, shaped, and hung on doorways and even on automobile radiator grills. One of the most noticeable is the “kadomatsu,” a largely bamboo decoration that flanks both sides of a doorway, like sentries. The foundation of it is wrapped in dried grass or rice stalks. Other door decorations feature a cutting of pine bough mixed with fruit. (As in Canada, winter is the season for tangerine oranges, called “mikan” in Japanese.)