Sunday, December 12, 2004

Christmas in Japan

I had an interesting conversation with some of the folks in my eikaiwa (English conversation class) back in September. A typhoon was blowing through, and though we only got some bad rain, I think that was the main reason why only three people showed up that night. I'd planned on playing Charades, but with only four of us I abandoned that idea. Kenji, to whom my predecessor asked me specifically to say Hi for her, is turning out indeed to be a pretty cool and interesting guy. I hardly knew him at the time, though, so he startled me first with his English, which is pretty decent, and second with his questions.

Right out of the starting block: "What do you think about 9/11?" Then he wanted to know what I thought about the Iraq war. These things are difficult for me to express in the full robustness of the English language, mostly because I'm not entirely sure what I think about them, but it was a real challenge to explain these things in a way that he (and the other two people at eikaiwa that night) could understand. So, okay, I was mostly concerned with explaining them to him, since he could translate bits for the other two.

"What do you think about the war in Iraq?" I asked him.
"I hate it. I think George Bush is a terrorist."
He's nothing if not opinionated.

"Are you a Christian?" he later asked me.
"Yes, I am."
"Err... yes."
"Most Japanese people are Shinto, right?"
"Umm...." They looked at each other.
"Or Buddhist?"
Kenji said something to the other two in Japanese, and then, "Most Japanese people don't have a religion."
"Oh. But those who have a religion are Shinto or Buddhist?"
"I am Buddhist," he offered. "On December 24th, we are Christian. On January 1st, we are Shinto." He smiled.
"Oh." I didn't know quite how to respond to that, so I said, "In the U.S., we often celebrate each other's holidays, without 'becoming' another religion. I've celebrated Chanukah, but I'm not Jewish. Not everyone who celebrates Christmas is Christian. Do you mean something like that?"
Yes, they decided, that was more like what they meant.

It makes me uncomfortable when people here assume that I'm Christian just because I'm American; it makes me think that they don't have any regard for any choice I may have made to be Christian.

On a related note, Christmas itself is a well-known holiday, with its own Japanese traditions now associated with it, but it is wholly commercial. In the States, we always talk about how commercialized Christmas has become, but at least we know (or most of us do, anyway) the meaning behind Christmas, and those who don't believe that the birth of Jesus Christ is of any particular significance generally view the season as a time to remember our fellow man, and so forth... what I mean to say is that for most Americans (and if conversations with my other Western friends are any indication, for most of the West), the holiday season means something. And in Japan... I can't say that it does. It's all Santa Claus and Christmas cake. If it means anything more, I don't know it yet.

It's as if we started celebrating the Obon Festival in the States, but knew it only as a big drinking party.
"What do you do for Obon?"
"Oh, it's a blast, man. Best party of the year."
Though Obon is something with which I have only recently become familiar, an attitude like that just smacks of sacrilege.

I don't say this without realizing that we've probably already done this with a host of other holidays. And the Japanese attitude toward Christmas is a disrespect based in ignorance, so I can't fault them for it; I just wish that it weren't that way.
And it's why I want to be home for Christmas this year.


Joseph said...

Wait a second... holidays aren't supposed to be big drinking parties?

lapixystix said...

(((((((((Emily!!)))))))))))) Now I feel bad...I'm doing everything in my power to avoid being home for the holidays. I escaped Thanksgiving, I don't think Christmas will go over well. I'll be able to spend Yule with people whose company I actually enjoy so that'll be nice.

I've got a weird question: I read Battle Royale a couple months back and for whatever reason, most metaphors involved food. It was...bizarre. And one of the metaphors involved a christmas cake. I think it was an ax coming out of this guy's forehead looking like the chocolate on a christmas cake. So then, what is a christmas cake? Are there little chocolate axes coming out of it?

Emily Watkins said...

Oh, see, now I've elicited undue sympathy.

The fact is that I *will* be home for Christmas this year. I'm catching a plane outta here on Saturday, and I'll be splitting three weeks between Poughkeepsie and Syracuse. So this is just me grumbling.

Don't feel bad about avoiding your family during the holidays, if doing otherwise would be a headache. I just happen to like my family, though we visit Grandma in Albany out of a sense of obligation more than anything else. And yeah, it's always tricky when we've missed the previous holiday. Or four.

I've not yet had Christmas cake, though apparently it's popular enough here to drive up the price of eggs. For all I can tell, people just buy a nice cake for Christmas, decorated with holly or candy canes or Santa Clauses, stuff like that, and eat it on Christmas. Yeah. But it's like, *everyone* does it. Think Thanksgiving turkey. I was at Fuse Elementary yesterday with the 6th graders, and one of the girls asked me if we ate Christmas cake in America. "No we don't," I said (since I didn't feel like saying, "Well, some people make cake, but it's not a big traditional thing"). The kids were surprised. "Eehhh?!"

It's possible that all the cakes are chocolate, though I'm not sure. And I haven't seen any little chocolate axes on any cakes or in any photos of cakes, so I'll have to give that one a No.

Jason H. said...

So the whole notion of adopting or co-opting a quasi-religious and/or significant cultural event from another culture and making it into basically a big drinking party seems strange....

Hmmm.... Where are you on every March 17th in the states? St. Patrick's Day?

And I had some Xmas cake yesterday and it was a sponge like cake with white frosting, and I think it was traditional, so no chocolate.


Emily Watkins said...

Yeah, St. Patrick's Day would be among that "host of other holidays." For my own part, I don't spend the day drinking, and whatever I'm up to that weekend usually centers around my birthday, which is on the 16th.