Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas in Japan

Colin Joyce:

Get yourself a wonderful boyfriend by Christmas; Best Christmas date spots; Christmas for lovers – the magazine headlines tell the story: all a Japanese girl wants for Christmas is the perfect date.

In a country where less than one per cent of the population is Christian, Christmas has been reinvented as the most romantic time of the year.

For many Japanese women being taken to an expensive restaurant on Christmas Eve is a crucial indicator of success, while having to go shopping with female friends marks one as a "loser dog", the Japanese equivalent of a Bridget Jones singleton.

The popularity of Christmas has grown uninterrupted since the end of the Second World War when the tradition, only partially understood, was imported to Japan. One Tokyo department store reputedly included a Father Christmas nailed to a cross among its decorations.

But today Japanese are eager consumers of all the trappings of Christmas and many Japanese cities outdo their British counterparts in their enthusiasm for the festivities.

Hymns and Christmas classics are played everywhere from gymnasiums to neighbourhood shopping streets.

Overtly Christian imagery is widespread and people greet each other with "Merry Christmas" rather than the more politically correct "season's greetings".

Districts vie with each other to produce this year's most spectacular illuminations.

Even as the city suffered a long recession, Kobe, in western Japan, became famous for the cost of its extravagant Luminaria, which featured cathedrals constructed from lights.

This year, the Roppongi area of Tokyo is proving the most popular with its soft LED illuminations which, when draped across trees, give the impression of snow on a moonlit night.

The growing competition has meant that it is safe for Omotesando, Tokyo's premier shopping street, to resurrect its hugely popular illuminations several years after the public called for them to be cancelled.

"The Japanese love events and they see Christmas as the perfect event," says Naomi Saeki, a Japanese journalist. "It's a chance for people to splash out a little bit which is why we see luxury Christmas cakes selling for £50."

The timing of Christmas is perfect. Most Japanese company workers receive bonuses worth two to three months' salary in mid December.

New Year is traditionally spent with family and is bound up with various obligatory rituals, including extensive house cleaning and time-consuming preparations of rice cakes and special foods eaten only once a year.

Christmas, by contrast, is a chance to be spoiled by one's romantic interest with meals in nice restaurants, a night in a smart hotel and plenty of cake. Nor does Christmas have any rival for the title of most romantic time of year — on Valentine's Day Japanese women give chocolates to brothers, male co-workers or teachers in a platonic gesture of friendship.

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