Getting Over Christmas (in Japan)

  15 Dec '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Iain Maloney moved to Japan in 2005. This year, we published his memoir The Only Gaijin in the Village, the story of moving out of the city to the village where his wife Minori’s parents live. It offers a fascinating insight into Japan beyond the cherry blossom and the city lights. The extract below takes us back to his first Christmas there: it’s a hilarious story of homesickness and marketing mishaps.

Photo by Tycho Atsma on Unsplash

NB – Contains explicit language

An Extract from The Only Gaijin in the Village: A Year in Rural Japan

by Iain Maloney

When I first moved to Japan Christmas was the hardest time of the year. My family have never been the close, clingy kind – we are geographically spread out and early on in my life independence and a love of travel were held up as aspirational traits – but Christmas was special. After my parents divorced it became even more so – two Christmases! Twice the turkey! Two whole days where alcohol at breakfast is not only acceptable but positively encouraged! Double the effort from Santa!

Christmas in Japan is a weird thing. When I first came here, it pretty much didn’t exist. A few of the shops acknowledged it by advertising half-hearted sales (HEARTS 50% OFF!) vaguely linked to the titular mythical birth of the Christ and there were illuminations around train stations and the odd hotel. Come stay at the Odd Hotel! Elevators stop on every second floor and rooms are uneven. Due to the power of marketing, over the last decade it has morphed into something of a romantic event. For Japanese families, New Year is the big thing and Christmas has become a time when the young of Japan go on dates, exchange presents with their significant others or, in the case of many of my students, spend the fortnight before feeling increasingly miserable and alone, and desperate to hook up with someone. It’s like Valentine’s Day times a billion. Yay, capitalism.

My first year in Japan, 2005, I worked Christmas Day and it was the only time I remember being actively homesick. The students didn’t help, wanting to know all the details about a traditional Christmas. It was exasperating repeatedly telling them that we don’t eat cake or go to KFC on Christmas Day. I explained how most people have turkey but not everyone. One of my friends has a family tradition where they try to never repeat an animal for Christmas lunch. Duck one year, goose the next, wild boar and so on. Thinking about all that roasting meat made me miss home even more.

Yes, KFC. This is a thing. On Christmas Day in Japan, people stand in long lines to collect pre-ordered chicken buckets. The Colonel is dressed up like a cross between Bad Santa and a child’s fever-dream of a paedophile – seriously, passing a KFC late at night in December can be a terrifying experience. This is all done on the assumption that KFC is a Christmas tradition overseas. No amount of laughter or denial from us gaijin can convince otherwise. It all started in 1970 in Osaka with Takeshi Okawara, who managed Japan’s first KFC and filled a gap in the market with lies and crap chicken.

This is not my favourite Osaka-based Christmas thing though. In 2012 an Osaka department store won the prize for ‘best misuse of English ever’ by advertising a ‘FUCKING SALE!’ Using English in marketing has long been fashionable, but an unwillingness to hire native English speakers as proofreaders or a stubborn trust in Google Translate means these kinds of mistakes keep cropping up. Tokyo famously ran a Shine Tokyo! campaign, completely failing to spot that while ‘shine’ in English was innocuous, it could be read as shi-ne in Japanese. Shi-ne just happens to be the worst swear word in Japanese, one which literally means ‘go and die’. It was the real-life equivalent of Will Ferrell’s anchorman telling San Diego to go fuck itself.

To avoid KFC-related nonsense, the following year I flew back to Scotland just before Christmas. I had really bad jet lag all through the festivities and got stuck in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport for ten hours on the return leg thanks to a blizzard. After that I decided to grow up. Really, Christmas is for children. I am not a child and we are child-free, so Christmas is little more than a chance to torture myself with nostalgia. And as an atheist, the supposed ‘meaning’ of Christmas is just ancient cultural appropriation.

Japan, having been forever free of Victorians and Christians, rightly views Christmas as a shopping extravaganza, a quaint festival not to be taken seriously by any but the retail sector. New Year, however, that’s the thing. Companies close from around 29 December to 4 January and everyone heads home. If Chris Rea were Japanese he’d have delayed his song by a week.

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And, if you’d like to listen to Iain talking with the Deep in Japan podcast, their latest episode is here:

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