Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas in Japan: borrowing foreignness

I heard a brilliant anecdote once about a rural Japanese community who decided to give the Irish man working in the town a nice surprise for Christmas. They pieced together the bits of Christmas they had seen in American films with their own knowledge about Christianity, and when they were finished they thought they had put together a fine treat indeed. So they brought the Irish man into the town square and there was Santa Claus...

...Nailed to a cross.

It tells us a lot about Japan's rapturous yet uneasy adoption of foreign cultures. I have heard commentators argue that when Japan accepts foreign influences Japan stays the same and the foreign thing changes. They took the entire Chinese writing system and turned it into simplified hiragana and katakana. They took European military technology and created kamikaze suicide pilots. They took America's Ford and gave the world Toyota. This ability to transform and reinterpret outside influences has been called the essence of Japan.

Now and then, though, the result of the transformation is a weird mutation, more parody of the foreign import than honest reinterpretation of it. Christmas in Japan is really weird.

A few weeks into December 2007, when I was teaching English in a small town in the south of Japan, an American woman teaching in a neighbouring town asked me to dress up as Santa for a Christmas party she was throwing for her students. The party consisted of scores of hyper children and a handful of foreign English teachers. When the children were brought up to do some carol-singing I, the sole blue-eyed, brown-haired, white-skinned person in the building, was smuggled out to get changed into the Santa suit. And when Santa arrived – what a coincidence! For he too was blue-eyed, brown-haired and white-skinned!
I pulled on the suit. It was massive and I had to jam the pillow in front of my belly just to keep my pants from falling off. The material seemed to be made of some kind of light cotton that would probably tear with a gentle tug. My American friend seemed apologetic and amused when she handed me the beard, which was made of cotton wool. I pulled it on along with the hat and caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the window. My brown hair was sticking out around the back of my hat. I looked less plump and jolly than suffering from severe and unusual malnutrition that had blown my torso and upper thighs into a rectangular paunch, but drained my skinny face and hands back to the bone. Ho. Ho. Ho.

I walked back in towards the main hall. A little girl lingering near the entrance caught a glimpse of me and gasped. For a moment my doubts about the cotton wool beard were allayed as she froze in awe. Here goes.

'HO, HO, HO!' I boomed, trying to wink roguishly. (Months later a Japanese friend asked me what a wink implies. Apparently it doesn’t have the same merry suggestive connotations in Japan as it has in the West. The little girl probably thought I had spasms.)

I reached the door and then all children were staring at me, some breathing awed 'Santa-san's', others shouting and running for me.

'HO, HO, HO! MERRY CHRISTMAS!' I found myself jutting forward my pillow belly and pretending to be tired from the weight. Children gathered in a ring around me, warily at first and then with more and more excited courage. They began touching my clothes and patting my belly.

Then suddenly I was being gestured towards the stage.

'Come up and dance, "Santa", sniggered one of the American teachers, standing now on the stage with a group of students, every one of them wearing traditional Japanese robes. Music started and the foreigners and I tried to mimic the perfectly-choreographed dance the children were performing in the front line, presumably expected to employ our Gaijin Telepathy to already know the moves. Then at the climax of the dance, suddenly the children were gesturing to me, pointing in towards the middle of the group. I walked in to the centre with everyone’s eyes on me and improvised a wild (and uncharacteristically youthful) dance for weary old Santa.
The parents had arranged two sacks of small presents for the children and they were then surreptitiously transferred to me to give out. When the children realised what was happening, all hell broke loose. Children were everywhere, dozens of pleading hands stuck in my face and grasping the presents faster than I could deal them out. The kids at the front were getting squashed from the kids pushing in from the back, everyone shouting, 'SANTA-SAN! SANTA-SAN!' The other teachers, a little alarmed, started pulling out presents and pushing them into hands to take the heat off me.

After the presents were dealt out, I made a merry exit, only to be followed by a bunch of hyper boys who started punching my pillow stomach, tugging my beard and stealing my hat. Brats. In another occasion a mighty bellow would have sent them scampering in fear but I guessed this was out of character for Santa-san so I put up with it for a few minutes until I found a quiet room to quickly get changed. I spat out the bits of cotton wool stuck in my mouth, strolled back into the room in my t-shirt and jeans and looked around like Clark Kent turning up just after Superman saved the day yet again, asking, 'What did I miss?'

If not the perils of cotton wool beards, the experience showed the strange incorporation by Japan of another foreign culture – embraced wholeheartedly but not quite getting it. As Santa I had to forego the traditional black boots since one does not wear shoes indoor in Japan. This Santa went in black socks. The children mobbed me, but on Christmas day their parents would go to work as usual.

In Japan, young couples view Christmas as a romantic occasion for a meal out. Japan's Christmas is the natural conclusion of the process conservative-minded Christians in the West have complained about for centuries, with corporations competing to cash in on a meaningless celebration and, if necessary, totally reinvent it.

The week before my Santa experience I found myself visiting the big Nagasaki Amu Plaza shopping centre to get some winter clothes. Every floor had a glittering fake Christmas tree, decorations hung from the ceiling and tinny Christmas tunes played over the intercom. Near the exit a pretty girl in a skimpy Santa costume was handing out advertisements and outside a vast fake Christmas tree attracted Japanese people to pose with the inevitable two-fingered peace salute for photos. It looked like Christmas, it sounded like Christmas but with absolutely no pretence of it having any cultural or religious significance – it wasn't Christmas.

Strangest of all, Kentucky Fried Chicken has managed to hijack the confusion over Christmas in Japan with a clever marketing campaign which advertised fried chicken as a special Christmas treat. Of course nobody in the West eats KFC at Christmas, but the Japanese weren't to know this and KFC managed to present itself as the natural choice for Christmas dinner. It is so popular now that customers need to order days in advance to be served.

I travelled to Tokyo for Christmas itself, spending my first evening exploring a trendy area called Shibuya, where Tokyo's young and beautiful were lounging around in the December dusk, posing and smoking. Flatscreens the size of houses beamed crystal-clear video advertisements high above our heads. Hundreds of sexy youngsters swaggered about in shiny gold bomber jackets, over-sized white-rimmed glasses, long blonde-dyed hair swept into elaborate halos around their heads.

This is the men I'm talking about. The women were stumbling along in high-heeled boots and skimpy skirts, while I shivered in the cold.
I walked away from the subway station and passed through a pedestrian crossing with hundreds of beautiful young people converging from all four sides at the same time. Everyone who walked did so very fast and it was an adrenaline rush just crossing the road under the vast glowing ads.

I followed my nose down side streets, still ablaze with advertisements and lights. Every form of bar and restaurant was here, along with hundreds of shops doing business late into the evening before Christmas Day. A satellite photograph of Japan at night shows Tokyo as a vast white blot of light pollution, running seamlessly into the smaller cities that make up the east coast of Japan. Cities like Yokohama, which alone has 3.6 million inhabitants, yet fits snugly within the Greater Tokyo Area. Imagine: that is almost the entire population of Ireland squeezed into a city that is just a single part of another city.
The Greater Tokyo Area has about 35.7 million people. That's like cramming the entire populations of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland and Ireland into a single monstrous metropolis. It is endless, and exhausting. I explored Shibuya for hours, thrilled by the stimulation of the place, before returning to the grim little hotel I had booked in Ikebekuro, surrounded by love hotels, stinking of cigarettes and with 12 channels of static snow on the television.

It was a strange way to spend Christmas. The next morning I rose to another business day in Tokyo; shoppers and workers hurried between perfect conical Christmas trees and the shops were ringing with Christmas tunes. In the evening I joined some Japanese friends for dinner and walking around afterwards, passing through a line of red tori gates at a Shinto shrine. One of the Japanese people asked if I was scared.

'Not really.'

'Japanese people think this kind of place has lots of ghosts,' she explained. Japan mimics the red and gold glow of Western Christmas but its enchantment – even in the heart of that giant concrete city – is of another kind.

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