The Christmas business

Japanese marketers are well aware that Christmas ranks second in popularity only to New Year’s — above even the Bon holiday in August, when people flock back to their hometowns to pay respect to their ancestors.

Here, as in many of the 150-plus countries where Christmas is celebrated, Santa’s sack of goodies has largely come to be what the whole thing is about. In a local twist, winter bonuses — often worth well over a month’s salary — fuel a shopping frenzy at the nation’s department stores and big-ticket meccas like “Electric Town” in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.

The result: Supermarket and department store sales of clothing, accessories, furniture, electrical appliances, household equipment, gift certificates and (not to forget our palates) food and beverages swelled to 2.1 trillion yen in December last year, more than a third higher than the monthly average, according to data from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

While this festive consumerism is much the same as in other developed economies, in Japan there are some distinctively local touches (besides the bonuses) that give its shopping spree a flavor all of its own.

For one, as the home of computer games, year-end is when software makers like to hit the market with some new, must-buy products. This year, it’s Sega’s new game, Shinobi, that’s become wildly popular with teenage boys lured to its action-hero Hotsuma, who draws on ancient ninja magic as he runs around Tokyo fighting off demons with his samurai sword. Leading video-game magazine Weekly Famitsu says at least 113,000 units have already flown off the shelves since the Dec. 5 release.

In a different take on consumerism, there’s the cultural anomaly of Japan’s Western-looking Kurisumasu keki (Christmas cake) which, with its cream and strawberry topping over the sponge confection, has no traditional Christmas counterpart in the West.

But the most peculiar aspect of Japan’s year-end hullabaloo, from an outsider’s perspective, is the hotbed of activity that sweeps the nation’s hotels at this time of year.

December has been an extra-good month for the hospitality industry ever since the immediate postwar years. Then, hotels looking for ways to attract homesick — and affluent — foreign businessmen decided to mark the Christmas those foreigners yearned for with fancy dinners and ballroom parties. Eventually, these events lured in locals, as well. Hey, ho! A tradition was born.

Today, an evening dinner show followed by a stay at a posh hotel is considered by some to be a great way to celebrate the Santa season. That, of course, suits hotels just fine. “For the companies, December is nothing less than the time to reap their harvest,” remarked Minoru Murakami, managing editor of Weekly Hotel and Restaurant, a service-industry publication.

Late December is the high-water mark, and managers scramble to fill the house. Strategies include stocking rooms with balloons and champagne or, in the case of one hotel, serving up dinner of sauteed foie gras garnished with truffles flown in specially from France.

But more fabulously flamboyant yet are the country’s inimitable love hotels, many of which lay on special packages encouraging guests to stay the whole Christmas night or, for a smaller fee, to “rest” for a few hours — the perfect arrangement for enamored, but cash-strapped, turtledoves eager to bill and coo.

For a glimpse into this world, walk past some such venues in Tokyo’s seething Kabukicho or Shibuya entertainment districts this week. On Christmas Eve you’ll spot couples everywhere darting into the screened entryways of places like the Hotel G-7 in Kabukicho. There, about 10,000 yen buys a night’s stay in a room whose sparkling chrome-and-granite decor faintly suggests a set from “Star Trek.” As part of its special Christmas service, guests are offered “Color Color” — brand white wine, whose bottles come in three sensuous hues: daisy pink, iris blue and yellow poppy.

Somehow, G-7’s package has become an annual sensation. So many people descend on the 33-room pleasure palace that, on Christmas Eve, the place has been full to capacity, though it’s not exactly standing room only, even during the economic dry spell. Says the hotel’s manager, Masaki Aikawa, “We just leave the doors open and the crowd pours in.”

However, not all Japanese are so thrilled with this hedonistic hurly-burly. Fed media images of Christmas charity drives and church services in the West, they wonder whether there isn’t more to Yuletide than this.

Decked out in red felt hats with furry white brims and pom-poms, Yumiko Horikawa and Mariko Hirasawa were distributing promotional flyers for a cellphone company one chilly afternoon in Shinjuku last week.

Asked for their thoughts on their country’s take on Christmas, Horikawa was the first of this pair of part-time Santas to answer, saying: “I recently visited Italy, where I went to St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. I felt such a sacredness there. It was absolutely wonderful.” She adding that while she felt no particular urge to convert to Christianity, “in my opinion, Japan needs more of that kind of thing.”

Her coworker Hirasawa agreed: “Families everywhere else in the world celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas.” She looked down at her handful of pamphlets. “Here, businesses exploit Christmas as a sales tool. I mean, what do cellphones and Santa have to do with one another, anyway?”

The cultural disjointedness is reflected in a Christmas TV spot for Boss Coffee. This shows Santa (in the shape of J-Pop superstar Ayumi Hamasaki) trying to wiggle down a chimney with a gigantic sack of presents. Squirm as she may, she ends up getting stuck — mirroring, surely unintentionally, the whole phenomenon of Christmas as perceived by the Japanese. In other words, no matter how much they party, no matter how many pretty lights they ooh and aah over, deep down inside many feel there’s a Christmas spirit abroad that they just can’t penetrate 100 percent.

Never mind that people in other countries also worry the holiday has become too commercialized. Much of Japan — other than the estimated 0.8 percent of the population that is Christian — feels excluded from something special.

On the other hand, there are some Japanese, particularly among older people living in the countryside, who would be just as happy without Christmas altogether. Such types refuse to acknowledge that the imported festivities have now become an integral part of Japanese culture. Christmas, they mutter, is about as Japanese — and, for that matter, as appealing — as yak’s milk or grilled locusts.

Granted, Christmas in Japan has none of the traditional resonance of, say, clapping and bowing before a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day. However — and whatever those country folk may think — it’s no recent cultural upstart like blue jeans or hamburgers. Indeed, Christianity here goes back more than four centuries, during which Christmas on at least one occasion long ago left a notable footnote in history.

According to “How Christmas Came to Japan,” by German Japanologist Klaus Kracht and his wife, Katsumi Tateno-Kracht, in 1568 a Jesuit missionary called Luis Frois managed to persuade Japanese Christians in the ranks of warring feudal camps to stop slashing and spiking and hewing each other long enough to gather together for a Christmas feast. Legend has it that the guests even prepared their own dishes to brighten things up a bit.

Frois’ festive party was an overnight success — that is, it succeeded as long as the night lasted. The 70 or so assembled diners “rubbed shoulders like brothers” and even sat for confession. After that, however, they trudged back to their respective sides and resumed fighting where they had left off.

But such religious openness didn’t last long. In 1614, fearful that Christianity was spreading too fast, and with it the potential for regime-threatening change, the Tokugawa Shogunate ordered missionaries to leave the country and then cracked down mercilessly on the believers they left behind. For centuries thereafter, they were forced to practice their faith underground, and sometimes shrouded their worship by timing religious events to coincide with local agricultural festivals.

Then, in 1853, U.S. Cmdr. Matthew Perry and his small fleet of “Black Ships” shook up the status quo by forcing Japan to interact with the rest of the world. Freedom of religion was introduced, at least technically, in 1889, and images of Christmas began sprouting up — including, in a children’s book from 1898, what is believed to be the first Japanese depiction of “Santa Kuro.”

In the succeeding decades, however, nationalism — allied to militarism — increasingly reared its head. Finally, after the outbreak of hostilities with China in 1937, the Tokko Keisatsu (thought police) ordered department stores not to display Christmas goods, and rightwing groups pushed for excessive merriment to be banned.

With Japan’s surrender in 1945, though, the United States was back on the scene. With Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the helm of the Allied Occupation, a stupendous “Merry X’mas” (sic) sign was slung from his headquarters in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district. A few years later, an optimistic Japanese mass media was prodding the public to buy electrical goods at Christmas to help celebrate the season and create a shiny, new Nippon. And hoteliers, of course, were by then figuring out new ways to get foreigners — and later, Japanese — to come in and part with their money.

Which brings us back to our star-crossed lover boy, Katsuhiro, whose girlfriend hung him out to dry. Nursing his wounded pride, he kept a trunk-load of stuffed animals — yet another gift he had planned to give her — in his room for two months. Then, miraculously, he pulled himself together and put the whole fiasco behind him.

Looking back, looking abroad, he realized there may be more to the Christmas season than gold rings, expensive dinners or nights at hotels. As he approaches yet another Dec. 25 — still single and searching for his special someone — he wonders whether maybe this year he can squeeze down that chimney and feel some of the Christmas warmth shared around the world — unencumbered by a big bag of gifts.

As he, himself, recently put it:


“It once all came down to
Presents for my honey.
But I’ve finally learned
Christmas isn’t all about money!”

Additional reporting by Staff writers YOKO HANI, MASAMI ITO and SETSUKO KAMIYA


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