Zombie Christmas: Getting my head around the festivities in Japan

Christmas in Japan makes me feel weird.

During these past five months, I’ve experienced many things which are strange and wonderful to me. In the global society we live in, it’s almost encouraging that aspects of of Japanese culture are still very different to British culture. These aspects may confuse me, and on occasion frustrate me, but they do not make me homesick. This is because they are so different that they engross me completely and don’t remind me of home in any way.

Halloween tree
One size fits all: a ‘Halloween tree’ that I saw in Nitori (a furniture shop) in September

Obviously, Christmas is not one of these aspects of Japanese culture. Christmas is big here but it’s all subtly different and somehow wrong. It manages to be everywhere – every shop window, branded food and drink, my lesson plans – without evoking the same kind of Christmassy feelings I would be getting if I were at home. A traditional Turkey dinner is swapped for a nationwide KFC marketing campaign, there are no advent calendars, Christmas cards are actually pretty difficult to find and all of the Christmas songs they play in the shops are the ones I don’t like. As I was grumpily trying to avoid looking at the tacky decorations on a shopping street in Ikebukuro in November, I started to think of Japanese Christmas as the Freudian unheimlich. Translating as ‘uncanny,’ Freud’s unheimlich is something that is unsettling because it’s a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar. My lecturer in university explained the unheimlich using a zombie as an example – the zombie is frightening because it is a paranormal monster but looks like a loved one. Zombie Christmas. An imitation of my familiar beloved British Christmas that I was finding thoroughly unsatisfactory and mildly unnerving until a few weeks ago. Christmas was simultaneously reminding me of home and how far away I was from it and making me homesick.

I also find the undisguised consumerism of a Japanese Christmas slightly difficult to stomach. I’m not an idiot – I know Christmas in the UK is consumerist. Even if the John Lewis advert makes your eyes mist up in the end it’s nothing more than very good marketing. However, hundreds of years of celebrating Christmas before the invention of the television means that there are a fair few traditions behind the blatant money making. For starters, in the 2011 census 59.5% of people identified as Christian. In Japan, it’s about 1%. It’s a lot easier to believe that this time of year is about more than branding when over half of your population are celebrating the birth of their saviour. Moreover, the other half of Britons can enjoy all the charming traditions that centuries of Christianity have left them with. There’s the Dickensian peace and goodwill to your fellow man vibe going on which can be practised by Christians and non-Christians alike, strong culinary and folk traditions and, most importantly to me, hundreds of years of excellent British Christmas music. This is my first year since I was six that I won’t be participating in a Christmas concert of some kind. I’m trying hard not to think about that.

creepy shopJapan has little of this. Whilst Christianity has been around since the 1500s (admittedly often underground and harshly persecuted by the government), Christmas only really took off after the second world war – almost literally as a form of American propaganda to boost moral and promote good relations. Because Japan hasn’t had time to develop “authentic” Christmas traditions – either sacred or secular – Christmas in Japan feels glossy but shallow. Yep. Every time I saw some decorations to promote the commercial zombie Christmas I was getting thoroughly grumpy. Plus all of the Christmas music being played was always so American.

But a few weeks ago I had a day out in Tokyo during which I started to feel something like Japanese Christmas spirit. I went to the Christmas markets in Roppongi hills – sponsored by Visa, yes, but also charmingly decorated and with lovely mulled wine served by unbelievably good looking young men in Christmas jumpers. I went to Omotesando to buy some Christmas presents for my family (ironically at the “Oriental Bazaar”) and discovered that it is very difficult not to enjoy the lights there. I started to enjoy Christmas in Tokyo. Of course, it may have helped that I had just been to Takashi Murakami’s exhibition and so was feeling very postmodern and had a rekindled appreciation for glossy surfaces. Murakami + mulled wine = a recipe to embrace glitzy hollowness.

My boyfriend and I have a small Christmas tree on our table, next to an advent calendar sent to us by my parents. Although I will work a 12 hour day on Christmas eve, we will have Christmas day off together. We will go to an English language church service in Omotesando. We don’t have an oven and turkeys aren’t easy to come by here anyway so we can’t cook one, so we may even indulge in the slightly odd Japanese tradition of eating KFC on Christmas day. Then in the evening we will Skype my family, in their English country cottage with a thatched roof, with their Christmas tree in the back ground (actually they usually live in a suburban house built in the 70s, but they had a house fire so they’re in rented accommodation which just happens to look like a Christmas card…). It will still be Christmas, even if it’s not Christmas as we know it. Maybe not a zombie but a vampire, a changeling or something cool.

Have a good one guys xx

merry christmas 2


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