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CHRISTMAS IN JAPAN

Japan has its Christmas cake and eats it, too

by Setsuko Kamiya

‘Tis the jolly holiday season and the streets are filled with bright illumination, sparkling decorations and cheerful Christmas songs to mark the big day next week.

Although Christmas is a Western observance of the birth of Jesus, most Japanese, not being Christian, view the occasion in a secular fashion.

In this week’s FYI, we look at how Japanese in general observe Christmas and how this event reached its present status.

When was Christmas introduced into Japan, and how did it spread to the public?

Christmas was first observed on a very small religious scale by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century. But spreading the word about Christianity was soon banned, and thus there were few converts.

It was only from 1868 when Christmas could be openly observed, after Japan’s isolation policy ended and the door was opened to Western cultures.

In his 1999 book “Christmas: How it took root in Japan,” German Japanologist Klaus Kracht observed that Japan’s acceptance of Christmas was motivated by its desire to be accepted in international society.

In the late 19th century, upper-class Japanese were exposed to Christmas through their contact with foreigners employed by the Japanese government to provide various expertise to modernize the country. Some intellectuals who studied in Europe were also catalysts of introducing the holiday, with all of its festive trimmings: decorations, exchanging gifts and special feasts.

As modernization progressed, Kracht wrote, Christmas gradually came to be observed as a seasonal event by wealthy urbanites, and merchants were quick to seize the sales opportunity. The media also helped disseminate the Christmas celebration to a wider public.

Christmas kept a low profile during the war because of the holiday’s association with Japan’s enemies but returned with the postwar Occupation. Americans at the time used the occasion to provide charity to war orphans as well as others in need.

Eventually, as Japan climbed the economic growth ladder in the 1960s, Christmas became even more popularized and commercialized, signaling the nation’s return to international society, Kracht noted. According to him, Christmas became the festive occasion it is today starting in the 1960s.

How do Japanese in general regard Christmas?

Unlike New Year’s Day, one of the most important holidays of the year bringing families and relatives together, Christmas is not a national holiday.

Christians attend church services that are also open to any who wish to celebrate or observe Christmas in a religious way. For most Japanese, however, it is simply one of various yearend festivities, replete with special meals and gifts fueled by consumerism. Many consider Christmas Eve to be more a time of celebration than Christmas Day itself.

Christmas in Japan falls under no rules of observance, but surveys indicate more people are spending the day at home with families. About 70 percent of the 5,800 adults questioned by beverage company Kirin Holdings in November said they associate Christmas with a happy feeling where they spend time with families at home.

Some 20 percent also consider Christmas a day for couples, too. In fact, many couples regard Christmas as one of the most romantic times of the year and commercial endeavors cater greatly to this notion.

Many hotels offer Christmas overnight packages specifically targeting couples who want to spend a special night together.

Even though there are no rules, are there any typical things people do for Christmas?

According to a multiple answer questionnaire last January by the Internet survey firm My Voice Communications, 45 percent of some 10,000 respondents said they bought Christmas cakes, while 40 percent bought presents. Twenty-nine percent had some kind of Christmas decorations in their homes, and 25.8 percent said they had a party at home. More than 20 percent prepared Christmas dinner at home. But 26 percent said they did nothing special.

What are popular Christmas feasts?

Many Japanese will likely have special Christmas cakes and roast chicken, along with champagne and sparkling wine, several surveys show.

Unlike fruitcakes in some countries or puddings in others, a typical Christmas cake in Japan is a light sponge affair covered with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries and other toppings. They are bought in whole instead of in slices.

Confectioner Fujiya Co. is said to have popularized Christmas cakes in the 1950s, but Fujiya spokeswoman Hiroko Ueda said the success was also backed by technical advances.

Before the 1960s, Ueda said, sponge cakes had butter cream icing that did not require refrigeration. However, most households had a refrigerator by the late 1960s, so butter cream gave way to whipped cream. Strawberries that can be harvested year-round also became a Christmas cake mainstay.

Because of the Christmas demand, domestic poultry sales annually peak in December, according to the Japan Chicken Association. In fact, Kentucky Fried Chicken Co. spokesman Naoyuki Oishi said the firm’s Christmas sales comprise 20 percent of annual sales.

Oishi said KFC’s campaign in Japan in the early 1970s helped spread the idea of eating fried chicken on Christmas.

He noted there is an in-house legend that an American ordered several pieces of chicken to go from a Tokyo KFC outlet around Christmas 1971 or 1972. The customer said the family would have to settle for chicken because it was hard to find turkey in Japan.

“We believe it captured the hearts of many Japanese who thought American culture was cool,” he said.

Do Japanese children believe in Santa Claus?

In general, yes. Japanese kids generally believe that Santa Claus will bring them presents if they are good and are asleep when he comes. Parents often will find out through conversations what their children want for Christmas, while some children also write letters to Santa.

When they wake up on Christmas Day, children might find the presents by their pillows instead of under Christmas trees, but this varies by family. But for most households, Santa Claus is unlikely to come down the chimney because most homes do not have a fireplace. Parents have to figure out where Santa gets in.

What are popular Christmas gifts? How much are people willing to spend for them?

According to a survey by toy maker Bandai Co. in November, computer game software tops the list again this year for the sixth consecutive time.

Among the 2,000 parents with children ranging in age from newborns to 12 who were surveyed, 535 favored game software. Most respondents of this answer had kids older than 6. Bandai said this is largely due to the popularity of computer hardware such as Nintendo’s DS and Wii and the Sony PlayStation 3.

For younger kids, toys based on animation character Anpanman are also popular. Other favorites include books, computer game hardware, clothes and stuffed toys. Parents were willing to spend an average of ¥7,200 for their Christmas presents.

Adults also look forward to receiving gifts from their partners. Surveys show that accessories tops women’s wish lists, while wristwatches and clothes rank high on men’s wish lists. According to Kirin’s survey, adults are willing to spend an average of ¥13,100 for presents this year.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk