Dec 19, 2008

Christmastime in Japan

I like Christmas. That might come as a surprise to some of the people who know me, as there are lots of things about it that annoy the hell out of me. For the most part, I agree with everything that noted atheist/drunkard Christopher Hitchens has to say in this rather characteristic column. It is indeed a nightmare of consumerism, stress, religiosity, and vulgarity. But, on the whole, it's worth it. It gives everyone a few days off at the end of the year, drives the economy a bit, and gives us yet another reason to consume grossly obese birds. Also, I like the Nutcracker Suite and the novelty of having an indoor tree.

Well, it's more than that. I remember when I shared an apartment with an old girlfriend and we agreed to get a tree. Neither of us believed, and neither of us cared much for the family stress that we'd have to endure come Christmas Eve and Day. But still, be got ourselves a tree and set it up in our apartment, festooning it with a few ornaments and lights. Even though our relationship didn't last, I remember looking at that tree and thinking to myself "This is real- we actually have a connection. We got ourselves a goddamn tree." I remember looking at it and thinking "this is my home now." It was a feeling that was fleeting, but wonderful, and all because of something as simple proping up an evergreen in one's living room. In other words, I know I can't escape the emotional connection that I have with this holiday- it is something that is fairly ingrained in me, and I will probably acknowledge Christmas in much the same way that I acknowledge Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Indepedence Day in my own way.

Now, as much of a distaste as I have for religion in general, I tend to prefer the religious trappings of Christmas to the secular ones. Really- I'm not being ironic here. I'd take a nativity scene over Frosty the Snowman any day, and vastly prefer O Holy Night to any such dreck as Winter Wonderland. I suppose the reason for this is that the religious stuff seems to come from a real place on the part of the creators. This is not to say that relgious stuff can't be ingenuine or kitsch (it most certainly can). What I mean is that the non-secular trappings of Christmas are generally more real, emotion-laden, and unmediated than the non-religious kinds. And, even as a devout humanist I'm capable of enjoying such things on an aesthetic level. Much in the same way that I admire Dante, I also admire Adeste Fidelis.

Which brings me to Japan...

There is Christmas in Japan. Oh my, is there ever Christmas in Japan. But, Japan is not a Christian country. Nor is it particularly Buddhist or Shinto. Based on conversations I've had here, it seems that Japan has ceremony without devotion, and secularism without abstention from ceremony. A very intelligent and articulate student of mine said to me "When we are at the temple we are Buddhist, when we are at the shrine we are Shinto, and on Christmas we are Christian." I can't say that she speaks for the entire population, to be sure, but her words stuck with me.

I think that she's wrong on the last point, though- while Christmas is most certainly in the air here, there is nothing particularly Christian about it. It's a season and time of naked consumerism, a festival of lights and shopping that culminates in the consumption of fried chicken, cake, and subsequent sexual coupling. I'm not kidding- "Christmas Cake" is a popular confection here, and students are surprised when I tell them that it's utterly absent in the U.S. Likewise, KFC has somehow gotten itself brand-identified as Christmas food in Japan. I have to applaud whatever evil marketing genius is responsible for that. And, somehow, Christmas has turned into a popular date night, where young Japanese couples spirt off to love hotels and celebrate Jesus' birthday by fucking the shit out each other. While I think Jesus, hippy-type that he was, would probably be amused by this course of action, it is a little weird. There is a Christmas-themed love hotel near my apatment that is quite the sight to behold. The whole place, year-round, is decked out with wreaths, lights, candy canes, Santa, etc. And here, all that stuff means "let's do it."

In any case, it's a curious and obnoxious sensation, seeing all of this. I was walking today in one of the Chiba suburbs where I teach, and plinky, midi-like versions of Christmas carols were being piped through the street's PA system. I wondered how many of the bent old women actually knew the lyrics of, or much cared for, the treacle that was being pumped into their public space. I noticed that all of them were generic holiday tunes only about winter, snow, jingle bells, and Rudolph. Nothing at all religious or devotional, nothing with an emotional core.

Why? Because here Christmas is even more shallow, more consumer-oriented, more superficial than in the U.S. In the U.S. Christmas is a main festival of western civilization, and here it is merely an unofficial holiday that's all about shiny things and buying stuff. And Japan is nakedly unapologetic about that. There is no patina of devotion or meaning to it, no veneer of greater significance, no pretension of importance. Only lights, gifts, and empty adornment.

I don't disapprove of this, mind you. I believe that Japan has every right to adopt our shallow gestures and use them for it's own benefit. Yet, I feel a bit of nostalgia for the emotional core of it all, of seeing my Catholic father's genuine joy at the holiday, of hearing Linus earnestly intone the Gospel of Luke at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

To be sure, the nonbeliever in me can't complain- I would gladly see the entire relgion that venerates Christmas consigned to the dustbin of history. Yet, I balk at the emptiness of yet another repitition of idiotic non-songs such as Jingle Bells. Here in Japan there is a shell and surface, but nothing behind that blinking lights.


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

somebody sounds full of hate today.


SonicLlama said...

Full of hate? Pshaw! This is me full of holiday cheer. I actually wore a Santa hat during the kids' lessons last week.

Besides, it's not like you haven't expressed the exact same feeling ;-)

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

my feeling was that I like that Japan is unabashed and unashamed about it's consumerism. because I kinda like unashamedness more than pretending to be family oriented but actually just consumer whoring.

and I like pretty lights just because they are pretty lights. they don't need to be anymore than exactly that.

SonicLlama said...

I suppose. Like I said, I don't disapprove of all this- Japan's unashamedness is indeed refreshing compared to American pretension. For me, though, Christmas actually was about family stuff and whatnot. It really was an occasion for bonding.

And I miss that. I'm seeing all of these peripherals all around, and I miss all the real stuff that goes with them. I really do miss going to Christmas parties and seeing people whom I haven't seen in ages, being back in Portland with old friends, and in general reaping the very real benefits of the season. Sure, there's lots of stress and aggravation that goes with that stuff, but the shiny lights are only shiny lights. They don't mean "gatherings" or "reunions" like they normally do. I'm very conscious that I'm missing that.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

your comment makes tons of sense and I totally understand missing loved ones and reunions

but re-read your last paragraph, your concluding argument, if you will, and tell me if it doesn't sound full of hate.


SonicLlama said...

Dissatisfaction with a lack of depth is not the same as hate. Hate is a strong, strong, thing. Hate is destruction and demolition, hate is a vile bile that clouds vision. I don't have that.

What I feel right now is a sense of unmet wants and needs, a sense that the environment offers the symbols and skin of something, but not the core of it. That isn't hate.

Christmas here is like smelling without eating, looking without touching, listening without dancing. That's not hate at all- I don't want to take away anyone's fun, or spill negativity into anyone's life. Japan, for instance, is perfectly entitled to consume as much KFC as it wants to in the coming week, and as amused and bemused as I am by that, I wish them well with the experience. What I'm experiencing dissatisfaction with my situation regarding the season, not hatred for any thing or person.