Japan from the inside out

Nippon noel: Christmas trees in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 27, 2007

THE START OF CHRISTMAS SEASON means that children everywhere begin dreaming about the present they will receive under the small artificial tree on the 25th and the treat of Christmas cake that awaits them. Young singles look forward with excited anticipation to (or obsess about their prospects for) the traditional heavy date with their significant other on Eve.

Meanwhile, adults get in the spirit by making the rounds of the “forget-the-year” parties held throughout the month. Others with a more sober disposition, particularly women and the elderly, enthusiastically support the combined amateur/professional productions of Beethoven’s Ninth throughout the country with their attendance or active participation.

And everyone looks forward to a finger-lickin’ good fried chicken dinner with their friends or family.


Yes, that’s what Christmas means in Japan. Not everyone stuffs themselves with turkey, hangs stockings by the chimney, or sings about Mommy kissing Santa Claus.

After all, they’ll be eating rice porridge and dried fruit soup in Finland, cabbage, sausage, and brown peas in Latvia, dried salted codfish in Portugal, and fried carp, potato salad, and fish soup in the Czech Republic.

Hungarian children will receive presents in shoes they’ve placed outside the door or window. In some places the Baby Jesus brings the presents, while in Russia the goodies are delivered by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who employs his granddaughter the Snow Maiden as his helper rather than elves and reindeer. Mexican children have to wait until 6 January for their presents, while those in Russia hold out until the 7th. And in Australia and Brazil people are more likely to go to the beach than go dashing through the woods in a one-horse open sleigh.

Some might wonder why Japan, with a Christian population estimated at 1%, would celebrate Christmas. The answer is that the Japanese love a festival better than anyone, and more than a millennium of experience with secular celebrations based on religious ceremonies gives them a head start.

Let’s be honest—while there are many Christians who focus on the religious aspects of the holiday, millions of people throughout the world celebrate the day and the season as a grand Winter Festival. What could be more natural than for the Japanese to do the same?

Christmas Trees in Japan

The most visible aspect of Christmas in Japan is the public display of Christmas trees. In addition to knowing all about festivals, the Japanese are past masters at borrowing elements from another culture and adding some flair of their own to create something distinctive. The design of public Christmas trees is just another example.

Most of these trees, of course, are erected at department stores, shopping malls, or in commercial districts. One of the first to go up was the Fantasy Tree, shown in the first photo, which was lighted for display on the 23rd at Tokyo’s Yurakucho Seibu Department Store.

Seven meters tall, the Fantasy Tree has 8,000 blue bulbs and is trimmed with a motif of white angel wings. It will be lighted every night through Christmas night.

Visitors who came to see the lighting ceremony were treated to a live concert with several performers, including Korean singer Len (Lee Gi-chan), who performed duets with the Japanese singer Lio from their recent CD LxL.

It might be ungenerous to suggest that blue is an unsuitable color for the season, by the way. In the American city where I grew up, one family in an upscale mid-town residential district on a busy road decorated their house and the hedge surrounding their large yard entirely in blue bulbs. Everyone loved it, and folks still recall it fondly three decades later.


Representing a more religious approach to the holidays is the tree unveiled on the night of the 24th at the Megumi Chalet Karuizawa , a Christian conference center in Karuizawa-cho, Nagano Prefecture. This is also a seven-meter high tree, but it’s trimmed with human beings instead of electric lights. About 80 members of the local Ueda Church clad in red robes arranged themselves in the wooden structure to represent Christmas decorations. They sang Kiyoshi Kono Yoru (Silent Night), Morobito Kozori (Joy to the World), and five other hymns. (Second photo)

The wooden tree—well, that’s what they call it–has seven platforms ringed by green walls decorated with lights. Since this is a Christian facility, the tree is topped with a cross. The human tree was just part of the Christmas decorations and lighting that were unveiled on the same night, which was a chilly 1.1 C—perfect Christmas weather for northern Europeans and North Americans.

The decorations will stay up until the 25th of December, with performances every weekend until then.

The facility says it’s the first outdoor installation of its kind in Japan, but the idea originated in the United States. In fact, they paid two million yen (about US$ 18,500) to have the tree platform shipped from the United States.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to get the Americans to send a diagram and hire local carpenters to build one themselves? Ah, but in the spirit of the season let’s let that slide? Besides, it’s their money!

For a more artistic expression in holiday trees, the Verde Mall shopping district at the JR Kakogawa Station in Kakokawa, Hyogo Prefecture, held a ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on the 22nd to present the Kakogawa River Fantasy, which includes not only an illuminated tree but an entire illuminated shopping district. A crowd of about 1,000 turned out on the first night to see the display, which uses 45,000 light bulbs, 5,000 more than last year. (Third photo)


Yes, there was music underneath the tree in Kakogawa, too, as six groups selected through a preliminary competition performed songs with a winter, rather than a Christmas, theme. The popular female duo Kiroro appeared and sang Fuyu no Uta (Winter Song) among other numbers.

The lights will be lit every night from 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. until January 14. That’s even later than Russian Christmas!

Some people in this country—the usual suspects—find Christmas in Japan incongruous. But why should anyone begrudge the Japanese a good time, especially at this time of year, or snicker behind their backs because of the local Christmas customs? There’s a word for folks like that.


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