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The following articles were originally published in The Shelbyville News in the column “Letters Home:  A Hoosier in Japan.”



Send questions and comments to me at toddjayleonard@yahoo.com.

Book Description

Letters Home

What types of holidays do Japanese people celebrate? What is the educational system like in Japan? What are Japanese festivals like? What are some of the customs and traditions of the Japanese people? Professor Todd Jay Leonard, writing from the perspective of living and working in Japan, provides in this fascinating book the answers to these and many other questions.
Letters Home: Musings of an American Expatriate Living in Japan delivers a firsthand account of daily Japanese life through the eyes and personal experiences of Professor Leonard who has enjoyed an ongoing relationship with Japan and the Japanese people for nearly twenty-five years. 

This anecdotal book of essays, written in the style of personal letters, offers commentary on a wide range of topics and issues including culture, history, education, language, society, and religion of modern Japan from the point-of-view of an American expatriate who has made Japan his home. 

The author’s friendly, down-to-earth, yet authoritative, style of writing will transport you to modern Japan, where you will learn about the customs and traditions of this most fascinating country. This book can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in learning about Japan and its people.http://www.amazon.com/Letters-Home-Musings-American-Expatriate/dp/0595283098/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299907225&sr=1-2

Sending mixed messages Christmas in Japan


Celebrating Christmas in Japan is, at best, surreal for an outsider coming into the culture. Please don’t misunderstand me — it is quite festive and contains all the affectations, embellishments and gewgaws we have back home.

But behind all of the glitz and glitter of the holiday, the actual reason for celebrating the season is noticeably absent here. For the most part, Christmas in Japan is strictly a secular, commercial enterprise nurtured by department stores and shops to increase sales during the winter season.

The notion of “Christmas” in Japan, however, is not a new concept but has a long history dating back to the mid-16th century when Spanish and Portuguese traders and missionaries first introduced the holiday.

Once Japan opened up to the West during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Christmas was more widely celebrated but largely only among the small percentage of converted Christians from the churches and schools that were founded by Christian missionaries.

In the 1930s, department stores began to promote Christmas actively by having big sales; fortunately, the holiday coincided with the Japanese custom of doling out “yearend bonuses,” giving consumers great purchasing power. Also, the Japanese custom of “seibo” (yearend presents) made the timing perfect to further exploit the commercial aspect of the season.

The difference between the celebrations held here and those held in other parts of the world have to do with the religious meaning and symbolism of the holiday. Since Japan is an overwhelmingly Shinto and Buddhist country, with only a very small minority of its citizens being practicing Christians, the celebration is less focused on the birth of Jesus and more centered on Santa Claus, Christmas trees and the gift-exchange aspect of the holiday.

Once I saw a rather curious representation of Christmas that could even be interpreted as disturbing — innocently done, I am convinced, but it illustrated to me just how unaware and confused some Japanese are regarding the origins of this adopted holiday.

A store in Tokyo had gone to great lengths to decorate for the Christmas holiday and as a centerpiece for the display, the designer had placed a huge lighted cross. Upon closer inspection, though, I was shocked to see a bearded Santa in the typical red suit … hanging on the cross (a la Jesus in the Crucifixion).

I am sure that the creator of this display wanted to incorporate an element of Christianity into the overall design but didn’t have enough knowledge or experience with Christmas to know what was appropriate.

Likely, the person remembered that the holiday had something to do with Jesus, and had perhaps seen a cross with an individual hanging on it but somehow confused the symbols for Easter with Christmas, mistakenly switching Jesus, a religious figure, with Santa, a pop-culture icon. A huge gaffe, for sure, but probably not maliciously done as a statement against Christianity — it was just a collision of pop culture and religious symbols.

Of course in the United States, riots and protests would have ensued, with shoppers picketing and boycotting the store. In Japan — minus the Christian tradition, background and influence — people hardly paid it any attention at all, other than to admire it as just another decorated Christmas display.

Many Japanese families celebrate Christmas by eating a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve. Somehow, this tradition got started when KFC first came to Japan. People order their buckets of chicken in advance and on Christmas Eve line up all over the country to pick up their family-sized buckets of fried chicken. KFC advertises heavily during this season, perpetuating this tradition by reminding the masses not to forget to make KFC a part of their Christmas celebrations.

After gorging themselves on the Colonel’s secret recipe, another widely practiced Japanese Christmas custom is the tradition of eating “Christmas Cake” on Christmas Eve. Again, people order their cakes weeks in advance of the day, and at great expense. The average cake costs between $25 and $40 and is adorned with Christmas-related figurines and candles.

The most popular cake ordered each year is a strawberry-flavored sponge cake with thick, creamy vanilla icing. It best resembles an American birthday cake but is much smaller, usually the circumference of a normal-sized salad plate.

My students are always surprised to learn that this custom is 100 percent Japanese. They can’t believe that I grew up without ritualistically eating Christmas cake each year on Christmas Eve. This is definitely a kid’s tradition here and could be loosely compared to the custom in America of adults eating fruitcake during the holiday season.

I don’t know of any American kid, though, that would choose to eat “fruit” cake over “birthday” cake. Japanese kids love their Christmas cake, and I think American kids would love it, also.

When I first arrived in Japan back in the late 1980s, there was a rather derogatory term used toward unmarried women that is related to the custom of eating Christmas cake.

Women who were still unmarried at the age of 26 were referred to as being “Christmas cake.” The idea was that no man would want to marry a woman who had passed her “25th” birthday, referencing Dec. 25 — meaning no one wants to eat “Christmas cake” after the 25th day of December.

Thankfully, I haven’t heard anyone use this unflattering term for quite some time. Today, it is common practice for women to marry later than their mothers and grandmothers did (in their late 20s, early 30s or even older). The modern Japanese woman has become much more independent and self-sufficient, having many more options in her career and single life than her mother or grandmother ever had.

As suspected, there is no corresponding term in Japanese for men who aren’t married by the age of 26. Japanese women, however, are getting the last laugh, because by choosing careers over marriage, they are basically telling society (and men) they don’t mind being “Christmas cake.” I say, “You go, girl! Let them all eat (Christmas) cake!”



Monday, December 19, 2005

Life-size plastic statues of Colonel Sanders always greet customers as they enter KFC franchises all over Japan. Around the Christmas holiday, however, the Colonel dons a red Santa suit and hat to remind customers that Christmas Eve is fast approaching. The popular American treat has become a traditional Christmas meal in Japan.