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Easter in Japan shows signs of life as businesses tap the final festival frontier

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

“When is Easter this year?”

Pose this question to a Japanese person and I doubt if many could provide the correct answer. A majority are likely to reply, “Sorry, I don’t know.” Some might even ask “What’s Easter?”

OK, to be honest, I didn’t know when it is either. A Google search informed me that this year it falls on Sunday, April 16, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on, or after, the spring equinox (around March 21). In other years, Easter falls no earlier than March 20 and no later than April 25.

Referred to in Japanese as Fukkatsu-sai (literally, “the resurrection festival”), Easter is one of the few major calendar events in the West that goes largely unnoticed here — until now, anyway.

Despite practicing Christians comprising only an estimated 1 percent of the population, or 2 million believers, Japan has a broad tolerance for the trappings of European and North American festivals, such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Halloween and, of course, Christmas. From early November, central parts of cities, perhaps unwittingly, fete the birth of Jesus Christ with colorful illuminations, and businesses and homes display seasonal motifs of Santa and his reindeer, beribboned wreaths, mistletoe and the like.

In a survey last December undertaken by Macromil, an internet research firm, for the Asahi Shimbun, 1,822 Japanese adults were asked whether they engage in Christmas-related activities. The response was surprising: the yeas outvoted the nays by 51 to 49 percent. Moreover, 33 percent of all respondents believe Christmas to be a “good thing,” as opposed to 59 percent who merely shrugged, “It can’t be helped.” Only 8 percent of respondents said they regarded Christmas as undesirable.

Customary observances by those in the 51 percent majority, in descending order, included consuming a “Christmas cake” (a confection invented in Japan specifically for this occasion); eating chicken; decorating a tree; giving gifts to family members; placing a wreath on the door; stringing up illuminations inside or outside the house; and holding parties.

Others, however, appear to have abandoned these activities once their children had grown up. Nearly twice as many people (475) gave that reason for no longer observing the holiday than those that cited not belonging to a Christian faith (288). (Another 210 grumbled they were repelled by the blatant commercialism.)

Over the past half-decade, Halloween has become a major event in Japan with street processions in Shibuya and Kawasaki and costume parties into the night. Until they halted the practice a few years ago, even the Kobe headquarters of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation’s largest underworld syndicate, used to pass out candy to trick-or-treating children whose parents could work up the courage to ring the bell of their fortress-like building.

Yohei Harada, a researcher at the Hakuhodo ad agency, offered his views on why Halloween’s commercial impact is surpassing that of Valentine’s Day.

“Some 60 to 70 percent of young Japanese are said to be unattached to a member of the opposite sex,” Harada told Nikkan Gendai. So Valentine’s and Christmas, both of which are associated with love and romance, have less appeal to them.

“Halloween, on the other hand, can be enjoyed by anyone, and businesses are able to position products and services to appeal to a wider variety of customers.”

Easter is not entirely new: A press release from Morinaga Seika, a major confectioner, claims to have dug up data on what might have been the company’s first commercial “celebration” of Easter in Japan, 92 years ago. The May 15, 1925, issue of Morinaga Geppo, the company’s monthly newsletter, reported the opening of a Morinaga Candy Store on the ground floor of the Maru Building in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district that promoted sales of Easter-related goods that year.

Shift ahead to February 2015, when Morinaga launched sales of 10 Easter-related items, including a chocolate egg named “Kyoro-chan no Mochimochi Tamago.”

Are we witnessing a long-delayed reaction? In 2014, the scale of Japan’s Easter market was estimated by the market research firm Fuji Keizai at ¥600 million — about 1 percent of the total expenditure for Valentine’s Day. But Easter’s year-on-year growth was 2.6-fold, as opposed to only 1.2 percent for Valentine’s.

Last year, SankeiBiz, the digital service of the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, asserted that “Retailers have Easter in their line of sight.” And in a news release dated March 3 of this year, Morinaga touted Easter’s growth potential. While a 2016 survey of name recognition among 1,000 Japanese aged 15 through 59 found that Easter was only recognized by 28.7 percent of the respondents, Morinaga’s sales of Easter-related confections grew by 61 percent over the year before. According to Fuji Keizai, on a monetary basis the Easter market was projected to almost quadruple in the four years from 2013 to 2016.

“After hearing comments to the effect that ‘I don’t know what day Easter is,’ we are proposing the presentation of gift confections as a means of Easter communication in the spring, which is a time of parting and new encounters,” the release concludes.

Tokyo Disney Resort announced earlier this year that it will hold a variety of Easter-related events between April 4 and June 14, including an egg hunt program.

Along with Morinaga and Disney Japan, other companies engaging in Easter promotions reportedly include the Keio department store, Asahi Beer, Baskin-Robbins and the Ginza Cozy Corner restaurant chain. From a business standpoint, Easter is perceived as similar to Halloween in that both events stimulate consumption through so-called kotoshōhi (consumption driven by activities, as opposed to mere consumption of goods per se).

Right now, though, the emerging picture is still murky. Japanese, after all, do a pretty respectable job of celebrating spring’s arrival without any help from abroad. And needless to say, there’s no shortage of people willing to play devil’s advocate and argue passionately against forcing jelly beans down the throats of a nation of Buddhists.

One wonders what the late Irving Berlin, the Jewish-American composer of “Easter Parade” (as well as “White Christmas”) might have had to say about the socioeconomic benefits of inclusiveness.