What A Japanese Christmas Tree Teaches You About Japan

Japanese Christmas Tree

This is my Japanese Christmas tree. It’s less than a meter tall and one of the few decorations I put up. It has something to say about Japanese culture, though admittedly this will focus more on Christmas in general. Anyway, let’s begin.

Christmas Is Christian, Japan Is Not

Japan is mostly Buddhist and Shinto, though aside from traditional homes giving daily offerings to ancestors on a Butsudan (family altar,) religion is largely reserved for holidays, births, deaths, and prayers for those hellish entrance exams.

Shinto also borrows from other religions, so accepting a Christian holiday isn’t so odd. Shinto used Chinese Taoism, namely its concepts of yin and yang, in its creation myth. The ancient government’s Bureau of Onmyoudou, ying yang masters who oversaw astrology and calendar keeping, also relied heavily on Chinese geomancy. In time, Shinto and Onmyoudou even influenced each other so much that today some yin yang masters are considered a type of Shinto priest.

Shinto was also influenced by Buddhism, which has historically incorporated other religions into its own pantheon. Buddhism’s most extreme influence on Shinto was transforming some of its gods into Buddhist Bodhisattvas (savior deities.) The most popular was Hachiman, patron of warriors. In early Buddhist texts, the Buddha himself conversed with the Indian devas (gods) and converted many to Buddhism. Japanese folklore also has a few stories where Shinto gods accept Buddhism, then go on to found Buddhist temples. A Christian holiday like Christmas could be easily adopted in Japan, though not practiced in any religious sense.

A Secular Holiday

Christmas is a secular holiday in Japan, a consumer event where origins are completely ignored. Japan is full of holidays that were, quite frankly, just invented to make another holiday.

Greenery Day, founded in 1989, is a day to commune with nature and be thankful for its blessings. It was originally the late emperor Showa’s birthday, but when the new emperor ascended to the throne it was changed to Greenery Day to celebrate his love of plants. The date was also moved to make Golden Week longer. The holiday was then moved again to the middle of Golden Week, the 4th, and the 29th, now the old Greenery Day, was changed to Showa Day to commemorate Emperor Showa.

Then there’s Marine Day, the day to give thanks to the ocean and appreciate what it has done for Japan. Prior to 1996 when it was made a public holiday, it was called Marine Memorial Day, a non-public holiday to commemorate the Meiji emperor’s journey in an iron steamship around the Tohoku region. Like Greenery Day, it was also moved from its original date under the “Happy Monday System,” which I suppose is a perfectly fine name in Japanese. The Happy Monday System creates more three-day weekends to give the overworked Japanese population better quality off-time. Most people don’t have Christmas off, but it’s still another chance for Japanese to enjoy themselves over a bucket of KFC.

A Consumer Holiday

Every country uses holidays to drive their economy and Japan is no exception. After WWII, the U.S. government’s plan was for Japan to become a dam against the communist expansion in Asia, and by 1948 it was thoroughly democratized. Once the Japanese government had settled into something reliable, postwar policy then switched from nation-building to economy-building.

This led to Valentine’s Day, introduced to Japan in the 1950’s by a Japanese chocolate company. The postwar government has always maintained close ties to businesses, and the holiday was promoted throughout Japan to spur economic growth. A translation error lead everyone to believe that only women gave Valentine’s Day chocolates, but that only opened the door for White Day in the 70’s. On White Day men repay women for the chocolates they received–at at least a 200% return rate. The Japanese government knows there’s no better way to stimulate the economy than a good holiday.

Christmas Is A Western Holiday

Accepting Christmas is a result of Japan’s relationship with western nations. The Meiji Restoration kicked off Japan’s “civilization and enlightenment” campaign to gain equal status with Western countries. Modernization was manyfold, but included improving Japan’s clout in diplomatic negotiations by imitating western customs. There were manuals, including “Western Food, Clothing, and Homes,” which detailed western customs and lifestyles–even proper western urination–that were required reading for Japan’s upper class. One Meiji era scholar even suggested accepting Christianity as Japan’s national religion in order to improve its western image.

Since then, Japan’s attitude towards the West has fluctuated, but it’s always strived to take the best of western culture and improve it. In contrast, the effort has made Japanese very aware of their own culture, spawning a literary genre called “Nihonjinron” that struggles to identify what it means to be Japanese.

It’s Small

Keeping a Christmas tree is a large investment of limited space resources. Japan is roughly the size of California, but its mountains leave only around 10% habitable. With a population close to 130 million, three and a half times California’s, housing space is limited and expensive. Since living areas are usually quite small, decorations can’t take up much room.

Japanese men especially, don’t usually decorate their apartments. Many Japanese husbands and fathers live separately from their wives due to business transfers. And while businesses transfer employees almost haphazardly, there isn’t a culture of whole families packing up and moving there together. Japanese businessmen can live in a company dorm for years, only occasionally visiting their families. When housing is so temporary, there’s just not much sense in putting anything up.

A Japanese Christmas Tree

That’s what you can learn about Japanese culture from a Japanese Christmas tree. There’s a lot hiding in the little things. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

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8 Comments on “What A Japanese Christmas Tree Teaches You About Japan”

  1. Alex
    February 1, 2014 at 7:31 am #

    I don’t think I’ve commented much (ever?) but I wanted to let you know that I find this and your other articles to be very interesting insights into Japanese culture 🙂

  2. Artemis
    February 1, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Most of my co-workers, both male and female, didn’t put up any Christmas decorations at all last year. When I asked, a lot of people said they had miniature Christmas trees and such in storage but were often too busy to put them up. I guess despite the gross commercialisation of Christmas in Japan, New Year’s will always take precedence – but perhaps especially in very rural areas like mine, where there’s only so much commerialisation that can go on because there’s only so many places to shop in the first place.

    • introvertnathan
      February 1, 2014 at 9:11 am #

      My father never had much interest in putting up a tree, but it was a matter of life or death for my mother. She’d spend hours on it every winter.
      Since New Year’s takes priority in Japan, I guess there’s no urgency to decorate for a holiday without much depth.

      • Artemis
        February 1, 2014 at 9:32 am #

        I used to love Christmas trees myself, and in many ways still do. While I no longer have any particular religious affiliations, I love the smell of fresh pine and think Christmas trees can be really pretty.

  3. annamibananas
    February 3, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Its kind of sad that fathers are separated from their families

  4. i*Kan
    February 7, 2014 at 1:13 am #

    Interesting to learn how they have adapted buddhism and shinto. And hilarious what a translation error can do! Great post.

  5. Inez Deborah E Altar (@inezaltar2)
    December 27, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    But what about Catholic Japan have they survived?

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