Thursday, December 23, 2010

Western Holidays in Japan

The last month has been a very busy one for me, and hasn't left a lot of time for reflection, writing, and updating. I am sorry for that because there have been so many wonderful things going on that I want to share with you all. I hope that during my winter vacation from school (December 23rd - January 5th) I will have free time to update some more. But as of right now I find myself on the day before Christmas Eve feeling that I should write a little about what the Holiday season is like in Japan, and what it’s like for Westerners going through this season so far from home. 


I know this one has already come and gone, but I thought I should talk about it. I feel like next to Christmas, Thanksgiving is the second most family oriented, heavily marketed, and widely celebrated holiday in America. So for these reasons, as well as some others I’ll explain, it is a holiday that makes American students in Japan really miss home and their families.

Unlike some American/European holidays that have become novel and cool to celebrate here in Japan, Thanksgiving doesn't exist at all, nor should it, there really isn't an appropriate place for it. Many Japanese people have not heard of it, and if they have it’s because they have spent time in America, or saw it in a movie or TV show. I understand that unlike Halloween which has costumes, candy, and spooky monsters, or Christmas with Santa Claus and gift giving, there isn't much appeal for celebrating Thanksgiving. And it's a holiday that is far too patriotic or at least wrapped up in American history for it to matter to other countries. In fact it’s not even that important of a holiday to me when I really think about it. The symbolism and message at the heart of the holiday I feel is good, because it truly is important to be thankful (hopefully for more than just one day a year). 

In the end the reason Thanksgiving is important to me is really more about my own personal experiences and family traditions. When Thanksgiving came around this year I couldn't help but think of my family, and wish I was with them to celebrate together and enact our usual rituals.  I missed spending that time with my loved ones, getting to cook an enormous, delicious feast, and share it all together. Because honestly the food and the family is what matters, right? Thanksgiving dinner is delicious and special (at least it should be). 

But good luck finding a turkey in japan! This year I didn't have an oven to bake with (the kitchens we share in my dormitory do not have ovens only stove tops), access to the proper ingredients, or the time or purpose to go through making all the classic Thanksgiving dishes. I settled for mashed potatoes, and was thankful all the same. 


Ginormous Omelette Rice
The "American" Diner 

I count myself as lucky though, because I did have other American students to feast with. We ended up going out to an American dinner in our neighborhood - or more accurately the Japanese idea of what an American dinner is supposed to be like. The food was an interesting hybrid of Japanese and American comfort food, and if nothing else the portions were American sized. It was a lot of fun, and when you have friends the homesickness is so much more bearable.


X-mad lights near the Tokyo Dome

Christmas, however, is a pretty big freaking deal here in Japan. Japanese people know it, love it, celebrate it, but they of course do it in their own special way. The two major differences between Christmas in America/Europe and Christmas in Japan is that 1) Christmas generally has no religious significance whatsoever, because the vast majority of Japanese people believe in a Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation and are not very religious to begin with (and there are so few Christians in Japan), 2) Christmas is thought of as a romantic holiday meant for couples to spend time together, and isn't a holiday about being with your family and close loved ones. This is alright for me though because I neither have my family nor my boyfriend here with me in Japan, so I plan to celebrate it with friends. 

The Ferris Wheel near Yokohama all lit up

3 story x-mas tree in Ikebukuro

Christmas, based on my observation, is also more pronouncedly commercial here. This might sound strange because everyone knows how Christmas has become an overwhelmingly commercial, materialistic, consumerist holiday in the USA, but I would argue it is even more so in Japan. This is because in Japan there isn’t that saccharine-sweet, loving, Jesus inspired message behind all the shopping and gift giving. It is like Japanese people adopted the holiday's rituals and symbols without taking the heart of the message as well. They've got the Christmas story without the moral. And I am not saying this is a bad thing, in many ways it takes out some of the hypocrisy of having a holiday that has become both about greed and good will toward men. It's simply interesting for me to observe, and it might be because the moral of Christmas is absent in the way Japanese people go about celebrating that makes it hard for me to get into my usual Christmas spirit this year. 

x-mas tree at the Ghibli Museum

There are Christmas decorations in most stores, light displays in popular public places, and Christmas music playing while you shop, but it still doesn't quite feel like Christmas to me. Least not the one I am so accustomed to celebrating. The signs of Christmas that I come across everyday don't overwhelm my senses and beat the season of Christmas into me like it was back home. Again I am grateful to have friends to celebrate with, and I hope I enjoy my first Christmas away from home and family. My plans are to go to Roppongi on Christmas Eve to look at all the decorations and light displays, and Christmas Day I am getting together with a small group of friends to each a big dinner that we all cook and have a Secret Santa gift exchange. 

New Years

It would be fair to say that New Years is to the Japanese what Christmas is for Americans. New Years is the holiday people spend with family and that actually retains a religious undertone. 

Traditionally people spend time with their family, eat special foods (such as osechi-ryōri 御節料理, or mochi and usually visit their local shrine. If you live in the greater Tokyo area its popular to visit one of the very old famous shrine (like the ones in Kamakura or Shinjuku) either New Year’s Eve or Day, and they will undoubtedly be crowded with people wanting to welcome in the New Year. This is the one occasion I have heard of when the trains run all night to accommodate everyone traveling. As of yet I have no specific plans for New Years, but I am sure I will find something meaningful and fun to do.

In the end the holiday season of November and December presents emotional and cultural challenges for exchanges students like myself. Some treasured holidays or rituals from one's home are non-existent in one's host country. Cultural differences abound. None of the same subtle, emotional cues that we unconsciously experience as there. But part of me is glad I didn't go back home for the holidays like many other students did - I feel this is a good experience for me and I will be even more grateful and enjoy the holidays even more next year. 

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