Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas is over (if you want it)

Easter is the most important festival in the christian calander, but christmas comes a pretty close second. Anyone who’s had an even nominally christian upbringing will recognize the significance of gathering together to celebrate - if not the birth of christ - then at least the communal warmth of friends and family in the middle of a long, cold winter.

Not that that’s what christmas is all about these days, of course. These days it’s a graphically indulgent gang-bang of venal (and possibly venereal) grasping and wanton consumerism. I say ‘these days’ but I suspect it was ever thus. You need, at the very least, an appreciation of the irony of it all to shepherd your psyche through the bruising month(s) long assault of branding, annoyance, and false cheer which comprises the ‘holiday period’. Can you imagine experiencing christmas in a country which lacks not only religion, but worse, any sense of irony?

There is no god

To forestall the obvious objections, I know Japan isn’t completely irreligious, but it has two, which is effectively the same as having none, and both have always struck me more as philosophies than full on religions. And I’m not saying that Japanese people don’t get irony; most recognise it easily enough if it’s pointed out. They just don’t really do it like we do in the UK, where in recent years it seems to have become the default mode of cultural communication. Its absence in Japan is actually pretty refreshing, as it means it’s not possible to spout bigoted horseshit then claim immunity because it was, “Ironic. You should lighten up and get a sense of humour. It’s just banter, Love.

Equally though, it means that there’s often no depth of meaning at all. If something’s cute it’s just cute, if it’s cool it’s just cool, and if it’s mind-meltingly surreal and bizarre, then it’s probably cute and cool.

This is a place where you can hear a cover version of Bullet the Blue Sky as background muzak in a department store. Bullet the Blue Sky is, for you younger readers, a song about the hypocrisy and inhumanity of US involvement in the Salvadoran civil war. You can imagine how delighted I was to hear it used as a soundtrack to browse soft furnishings by.

Did I mention it was performed on pan-pipes? It was performed on pan-pipes.

See it driving nails,
into the souls on the tree of pain

Of course there’s nothing directly ironic about that, just startlingly inappropriate, but they’re of a piece. Misappropriation of foreign culture is hardly a uniquely Japanese affection, but the lack of irony seems to go hand-in-hand with an unwillingness to look beyond the surface for any deeper meaning. Even ‘unwillingness’ seems a little strong, as that at least implies some sort of conscious agency. An habitual acceptance of the superficial, might a better way of phrasing it.

So take all this, give it a good old mix and splash it everywhere for a month or so. Christmas in Japan, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Oh Japan, you so crazy

The first christmas I spent in Japan kind of set the standard. Being expected to work on christmas day was something of a shock in itself. It shouldn’t have been, of course, and the fact it was probably says more about me and my assumptions than it says about Japan. Anyway, a group of us took the day off and tried to make a fist of it. In terms of the whole ‘good times with good friends’ thing it was pretty successful, though some of the approximations of traditions we ended up with didn’t really live up to expectations. Secret Santa worked out well enough, but tinned turkey is not to be recommended.

Without the usual distractions of the Queen’s speech or some ‘special’ episode of a long-dead comedy favourite, by the time evening rolled around we found ourselves both at a bit of a loss as to what to do and unusually sober. Then someone remembered that it was a normal working day so everything was open. We could go to a bar! This was greeted with universal assent, as much for the novelty value of going clubbing on christmas day as anything else.

For obvious reasons, my memories of the rest of the evening are somewhat hazy. One thing has stayed with me though. By the time we had negotiated the public transport from my friend’s flat to the city centre’s main shopping street it was 8.02pm. If that seems unusually precise it’s because I made a point of checking the time. I made a point of checking the time because they were taking the christmas decorations down.

My family generally held with the tradition of packing up the tinsel by Twelfth Night, but the honest shopkeepers of Japan were ripping it down two minutes after shutting their doors. Two minutes. It was still christmas day. They should have been sleeping off the effects of too much sherry and brandy butter, or at the very least getting into a needlessly petty argument with their brother over a game of Monopoly. But no. Shopping’s over, down the baubles come.

It was a fairly stark reminder of the reality of christmas in Japan. A marketing strategy to shift units; be they toys, jewelry, or fried chicken.

"I know, we'll serve our food in a bucket. That'll make it
seem more appetising."

And you know what? I’m not sure that this isn’t better than the way it’s done back home. I opened this post bemoaning the ‘false cheer’ of the holidays, and there’s nothing really false here. It is what it is. And what it is is a chance to spend and profit; notions of forced bonhomie and manufactured sentiment are bracingly absent. There are no hidden depths to the Japanese yuletide because it isn’t deep and there’s nothing to hide. I actually quite enjoy the overt shallows.

I’ve finally figured out where to get a proper bird for roasting, and this year we had some friends round for lunch on the 18th and the in-laws are coming on Saturday. There are no sprouts or crackers, and it's not the day itself, so it's not exactly the ‘real thing’. It's near enough though, and the real thing is only so much window dressing anyway. Ripping it down early lets you see it all for what it really is, what it’s always really been.

A good excuse for dinner.

(I've got into the seasonal spirit by drinking slightly too much sherry myself, and submitting this to the 'christmas in Japan' J-Festa over at japingu. We may all be asking for refunds come boxing day)

Credit where it's due.


  1. "graphically indulgent gang-bang of venal (and possibly venereal) grasping and wanton consumerism. I say ‘these days’ but I suspect it was ever thus."

    Your a fucking poet!! ;)

    I just watched the Charlie Brown Christmas as I do every year and it is a shout against the corporate/consumer hijacking of the holiday way back when that was made...early 60's maybe?

  2. Cheers. I just like using the word 'thus', and try to do so whenever possible.

    My own christmas tv ritual is Raymond Briggs' The Snowman. Beautiful.

  3. You use it well! I throw swear words around at the oddest of I will never be confused with being a poet or a writer or a person with 10 woking fingers or someone who can type get the picture ;)

    Merry Christmas!!!

  4. Often no depth of meaning at all is mind-meltingly cute and cool.

    Me: What's Christmas to folks here?
    Wifey: It's treated like a festival, just like summer festivals.

    And then she went on to explain how her brother had been invited by one of his rugby team members (this was Amherst, Massachusetts) to a party on Christmas Eve.


  5. thanks for dropping in on the december j-festa kamo! a couple of years back i had to work christmas day unable to negotiate the day off. i decided on a compromise, i was attending a christmas dinner that evening with a bunch of mates so i left the office early (at 5pm) in order to make it in time for the festivities. i walked out of a full office to the death stares of my japanese colleagues who were giving me a visual "where the fuck do you think you are going" only to be pulled aside the next day by management for a lecture on office hours.

    anyways, merry christmas and all that stuff!

  6. Chris - I've heard some people say that the use of profanity indicates a lack of vocabulary and a small mind. Clearly these people are fucking wankers to the last man. If the words convey what you want them to then they're exactly right.

    Will - Is Amherst significant? Afraid you lost me a little on that. From the rugby christmas parties I've attended in the past it's unlikely to be too similar to a hana matsuri.

    Reesan - Thanks for dropping by yourself. I'm not sure if the tone fits in so well with the other submissions, but it I wrote it a few weeks ago and it was a bit of a spur of the moment decision to submit. We'll see how it goes...

    At least christmas is on a Sunday this year, so you'll avoid any issues with work this time around.

    Merry christmas to you all. And to all a good night (please ignore the timestamp).

  7. "Ripping it down early lets you see it all for what it really is, what it’s always really been.

    A good excuse for dinner."

    I like the come-full-circle of your Christmas post. I agree. I can't quite settle down with either set of traditions (those of home, or those here) but if there's good food then I guess it was well done. (maybe). Still, the lack of religion/spirituality/thanks makes me a bit lonely during this time of year. People coming together is great. We should all just leave our gifts at the mall and head to and gather together for gin and tonics.

    Merry Christmas~ :)

  8. The full-circle thing is more because I'm a glutton, and so it usually comes back down to food.

    But yeah, having it in the right place with the right people really makes a difference. It's just do obviously an artificial construct over here that in a way it's easier to realise that.

    That said, I hope you managed more than a pizza this year...

  9. It's a strange time of year, isn't it? And even weirder in Japan. I think it'd be easier if they had no Christmas at all instead of the really screwy Japanese-ified version.

  10. I don't know. If I could get all my family and friends over (plus the use of a decent sized oven) I think I might actually prefer it. You don't have to deal with people trying to justify it as something they clearly don't even believe it is themselves. Though that's just my opinion.

  11. Interesting post :). I noticed everything being taken down when I visited Japan on Christmas Day last year, which as you mentioned shows what Christmas actually is in essence.

  12. Thanks. All these mid-winter festivals basically stem from the same thing. Often 'new' ones are just co-opted into existing traditions, but it's interesting how Japan tries to do christmas in addition to New Year. To me at any rate...