A few nights ago while watching an old VHS copy of Santa Claus is Coming to Town I began to wonder about this whole Christmas thing. The legend of Santa Claus, according to this stop-action, puppet laden, mind-bending slice of classic holiday TV programming, is a bit dodgy in parts and down-right unsettling as a whole (and hilarious when paired with the right kind of holiday spirits). How on earth did a story like this, the story of Santa Claus, ever so increase in popularity as to reach the mutated, lofty, legendary status it entertains today? It boggles the mind! But then Christmas is just plain weird and, ultimately, up for interpretation and reinterpretation given the varied spiritual, social, economic, geographic and educational contexts that embrace it. That said, I'd like to explore Christmas the way the Japanese do it, as I believe it is a phenomenon that most Americans know little of unless you've had the pleasure of spending Christmas (or the New Year's festivities for the matter) in the biggest little archipelago on the Pacific Rim.
Recently I asked one of my good buddies, an ex-pat who lives and works in Japan, if he'd be coming back to the good ol' U. S. of A. come Christmas. Sadly he won't be, but he assured me that his absence wouldn't hinder his warm wishes and memories of spending the holidays stateside with friends (and family too I suppose). One thing that he disclosed that has been sticking in my head is, "I have to fend off the almost daily, 'What's Christmas really like in the States?' question." What I'd give to know how he chooses to answer this question; "Oh it's like a weeks-long shopping fiasco that claims the sanity and lives of the over-worked and underpaid temporary workers of my country," I imagine him explaining to a wide eyed and wistful looking クリスマス enthusiast before losing their interest by then expounding upon the glory of salt-cured ham, home-made egg nog and football. I know my friends in Japan are missing out on some of the traditions and seasonal cheer they enjoyed growing up with, but if you ask me, they've got plenty to be merry about being so far away for the holidays.
I wonder what the Japanese would really think about our way of doing things, however which way we do them, considering what seems to be typical Christmas doings and goings-on in their neck of the woods: mainly dinner at KFC (most families order their Christmas Party Barrels way ahead of time), followed by some delicious Christmas cake usually made of vanilla sponge cake, fresh cream, strawberries and a bit of chocolate. Maybe then you'd get out to take in a glittering electric display of Christmas lights somewhere local while J pop Christmas jams, old and new, fill the airwaves. Now, I'm not altogether sure why Colonel Sanders and Co. have flopped into the Christmas fold Far East-wise, but many seem to think it has to do with his being an old fart sporting a white, though tiny, beard. You gotta admit he looks rather dashing in a Santa suit. About the Christmas cake all I can think of to say is, "yes please." I'd like to think that Japanese Christmas cake is a spin on those yule log cakes we see here in specialty bakeries being that they're both aesthetically and tastefully holiday specific. And so very yummy without being too sweet (Icing in Japan is never of the butter creme variety, which cuts down on the holiday sugar overload). Plus, here is a not-so-fun fact about Christmas cake: it is also used a slang term for unmarried women over the age of twenty-five as Christmas cakes are always thrown out after December 25th as they are, ahem, past their prime. Christmas light displays in Japan are as over the top and Griswold family lampoon-ish as they can be here in the states, with most cities and regions having at least one really decked out landmark. I've heard that houses there aren't as illuminated as they are stateside, which is surprising to me because the Japanese seem to have adopted almost everything about celebrating Christmas minus the religious aspects, much to the relief of bakeries, KFC, department stores, and apparently Christmas tree dealers. Lastly, when it comes to Christmas music in Japan it is important to consider the flip-side of the Christmas coin, after all, there are two ways to translate the phrase "spending time with loved ones."
In Japan Christmas can actually be described as "sexy," as most of those Christmas pop songs are about meeting up with, spending time with, hurrying to get with, wondering if you'll be with, waiting for, thinking about and finally getting it on with or being forgotten or heart-broken by your very special loved one, your lover. For the Japanese Christmas eve and Christmas day are serious baby making times with October birthdays in abundance and the concurrent hearts and love notion decorations that mingle freely around and within the Christmas holiday decorations. I have seen these things with my own two eyes and still I find it a little bit freaky and more than a little bit fun. Freaky because I am of a culture that equates Christmas fun times with the power of children and their ability to believe in Christmas TV specials like Santa Claus is Coming to Town and all that it represents; here, it's a kid thing. For a nation famed both for its sense of shame as well as for its openness to (what seems like) every manner of sexual enterprise, it's funny to me that of all the nights in the year Christmas eve is singled out as the night when romantic love reigns supreme and sex is definitely a given. It's like prom night with all its expectations, dinner reservations, far-in-advance booked overnight accommodations and all. There is even a Christmas "Love Hotel" called Santa's Chapel (pictured right) located somewhere in Osaka. You might be asking yourself, "why would anyone over ten years of age want to check out (or check in to, for that matter) a place that looks like a huge, technicolor toy land of a building called Santa's Chapel?" Well, imagine having a romantic night at home with your very special lady or fella along in close proximity to the whole family. Love Hotels are certainly practical in Japan and no one thinks much of them other than they should be clean, neat, nice and, in some cases, themed places to escape to for love and privacy by the hour or by the night. Don't get me wrong, I think Santa's Chapel is bizarre, but it serves its purpose (all the year round apparently). I also think Love Hotels are still a thing to be gawked at, especially the ones with the head-turning decor and the names, names, oh so ridiculous names. But I digress...
Oh yes, music. Japanese pop super (read: cute boy) ensemble Exile has a new Christmas single out this year. Well, actually it's just a Japanized version of (another cute boy ensemble) Wham's "Last Christmas." Here it is in both forms (for the purpose of twisting your mind), Wham's classic holiday video with Exile's Japanese vocal version played over it:
I have a few personal favorite J pop holiday tunes though they're a bit dated. Actually all my favorite Christmas songs are dated, but I suppose that's the nature of Christmas tunes whether they transport you back to a simpler time or, unfortunately for the Scrooge McBurgermeisters out there, annoy the shit out of you. In the spirit of spreading more Christmas cheer here is a really great holiday song by Tatsurou Yamashita titled "Christmas Eve" (the English version -- the original Japanese version is great too) played over the world's most uncool (and possibly Russian) Christmas-y looking dance video:
What about a real J pop Christmas video? Well, check out this cute-as-shiz Christmas single and video clip from the dressed-as-twin-dancing-Christmas-trees J pop duo Halcali singing "Strawberry Chips" (I think Double DIPtheoreya might be ripping this off for next year's Christmas is the Best show!):
How about a truly dated live performance of a truly crazy sounding Christmas J pop jam -- "Pink Christmas" by the all dancing and sometime singing girl trio Mi-Ke? You got it! In all its over staged, vocally strained, pink stained glory:
Now, how about something scary like a giant girl group of J pop super stardom doing a medley of Supremes covers for a nationally televised Japanese Christmas special brought to you by Ed Sullivan and a guy named Sanma who is as famous for his teeth as he is for his laugh. I give you the very tip top of excess in Japanese Idol Pop contrivance: Morning Musume -- Christmas 2003. I dare you to watch it all:
If that didn't put you off your sugar cookies then I'm sure you can stomach the hard-rockin' nightmare of an over-the-top Japanese Christmas presented in this next video by lady-boy comedian Yakkun Sakurazuka titled, "ChristMaster" -- this is for her:
Lastly, here is a typical Japanese KFC Christmas commercial followed by my favorite J pop band (Unicorn) doing my favorite J pop holiday song, "雪が降る町:"
Merry Christmas ya'll, wherever you are!