Tokyo: What is Christmas like where there isn’t ‘Christmas’?

Barhopping in Shibuya: Not quite the Christmas turkey, but still the dish to reunite with friends over.
Barhopping in Shibuya: Not quite the Christmas turkey, but still the dish to reunite with friends over.

Christmas season is, indeed, the silly season, but among the hype there is still some intelligent humour out there having a go at all the festivities.  Most recently I read a joke doing the rounds online, starting with an analysis of all the kids who celebrate Christmas.  It began by narrowing down the number of kids celebrating Christmas to “Christians (excluding Japan)”.

Excluding Japan.  Cue the nostalgia.

Japan has its own unique fanaticism over Christmas.  And, just like anything Japanese, it may leave the inexperienced traveller scratching their head.  But there are at least 3 highlights we could all gel with.

  1. The Japanese are truer to the Christmas message than many Westerners.

Ironically, despite the fact that Japan is only about 1% Christian, Japan celebrates Christmas virtually religiously – and yet, they don’t embrace that other ‘god’ that actual Christian nations embraced.  OK, there is some consumerism, and you’ll see décor and promotions set up ain shopping malls across Tokyo, but the notion of asking things from Santa Claus takes a back seat – yet, it’s still an excuse to meet some long-lost friends.  And with all the establishments open, there is no shortage of places to do that – a bar and nightclub wedged into an underpass next to Tokyo’s most famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya?  Perfect for a few reunion shots and a ten minute rave before rushing to make the last train home.

  1. Christmas comes at New Year, and New Year comes at Christmas.

In the West, Christmas is a time for family, and New Year is seen as a couples’ occasion.  Yet this tradition is the other way around in Japan, where the shops, most prominently the 109 department store (among the most famous landmarks in Tokyo overlooking the Shibuya crossing) which – in 2012, 2013 and 2014, ran its “XMAS LOVE” promotion.  And there’s more – the camp of keen fashionistas is already setting up camp outside the 109 on the night of January 1.  It may not be a Boxing Day sale by name, but it sure is by nature.  What to do when single?  If it isn’t boyfriends and girlfriends, it’s best friends.

  1. It’s ‘spiritual but not religious’.

For those more into the traditional, original meaning of Christmas, a global city like Tokyo has its own cathedral in Yotsuya – and Japanese and foreigners alike celebrate a multilingual Christmas Mass here, in Japanese, English and … Spanish and Tagalog.  Makes sense coming from the closest Catholic countries.

But, observing the crowd there on the bright Christmas morning, much of the local crowd queue up for Holy Communion crossing their arms over their chests – the protocol for non-Catholics seeking blessings.  And it was a similar scene among locals when I returned to Mass at the same cathedral two weeks later.  Indeed, it’s only a 1% Christian country, but, even among the devout Shinto/Buddhism spirituality in the rest of the locals, Church tradition certainly has its place among the interested and seeking.


Oh, and what was the joke?  Better not ruin Christmas for … oh, what the heck.


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