Monday, 23 January 2017

Romancing Christmas in Japan

The merriment of laughter, the intimacy of friendship, and the warmth of sharing gifts under the enchanting Christmas light decorations are all part of the dreamlike fantasy that sparks the young Japanese hearts for romance.

Christmas Eve in Japan has become the most romantic time of the year for singles. Although Valentine's Day is celebrated in Japan, as women give chocolates to male friends, co-workers and superiors, the amorous event is more a ritual for “giri” (a social duty or obligation) than an expression of love. As a custom, their counterparts are expected to reciprocate with candy or flowers a month later on White Day.

It is conceivable to romanticize Christmas in a country where less than one per cent of the population is Christian. Evidently, the spread of Christmas throughout Asia is attributed to the influence of Western culture and to the aggressive push of retail stores in shaping social customs. As a consumer-oriented society, Japan has naturally embraced Christmas as a mere commercial event.

Although a Jesuit missionary introduced the first Christmas in 1568, the religious  holiday didn’t become an integral part of Japanese culture until after WWII when Japan was under the control of the U.S. occupation forces. It is said that hotels decided to lure in homesick foreigners and affluent businessmen by celebrating Christmas with fancy dinners and ballroom parties, which drew in Japanese locals as well. Eventually, the Christmas event for dining in extravagant restaurants and staying in elegant hotels turned into a romantic extravaganza for lovers.

Christmas is not noted as a national or religious holiday; nevertheless, the Japanese consumers have fallen for all the trappings of Christmas — shopping, decorations, caroling, etc. Even Japanese cities try to outdo one another in their enthusiasm for the festivities with spectacular illuminations.

The timing of Christmas is perfect for the Japanese industries — most company employees receive their winter bonuses, usually worth two to three months’ salary in mid December. Furthermore, at the end of the year, the most important holiday — The New Year’s day — is observed in Japan. Hence, it’s difficult to escape the commercialization of Christmas as Japanese tend to splurge during the winter holidays.

Over the years, Japan has developed its own unique Christmas traditions: one is expected to eat a meal of fried chicken or roast teriyaki chicken and indulge on a Christmas cake (strawberry shortcake) while listening to “Daiku” — the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. 

The practice of exchanging Christmas cards with close friends is gaining popularity as more and more fancy pop ups and high-tech music cards appear on store shelves every year. Most of these cards are sold individually ranging from 500 yen to 1,200 yen.

From a Japanese perspective, the most miserable ones are those who have to spend Christmas Eve alone. Some Japanese men turn to magazines and self-help guides about special dating on Christmas night. As for many single Japanese women, they eagerly look forward to be wined and dined on the most romantic day of the year.

In keeping with the Christian tradition, the couple exchange gifts. The more intimate the two people are, the more expensive the gift. One survey conducted at a department store showed that women expect their boyfriends to spend an average of $350 on a Christmas present for them. And the women, in turn, would spend an average of $200 on presents for their boyfriends. The usual gifts for dates are articles of clothing, nice jewelry and attractive flowers. More recently, make-it-yourself gifts are fast becoming a trend among the young.

It is also the time of the year for luxury hotels to make a killing with Christmas one-night packages offering excellent dinner courses with an exquisite room starting from 50,000 yen. These exclusive hotel packages are booked up months in advance.

For the couples who couldn’t afford the extravagant cost of a hotel package or made a date at the last minute, the alternative is a Love Hotel. The odd-looking hotel with exciting theme rooms offers guests rates known as "rest" (two to four hours) or "stay" (overnight). The love hotels live up to their reputation with erotic room décor — gaudy designs, illuminated displays on the walls, ceiling mirrors, cupid paintings or Hello Kitty dolls in leather underwear and handcuffs. The bed might be a full-size 1950s Cadillac car or a revolving boat at sea. Lately, the love hotels have cleaned up their acts due to the implementation of the 'New Public Morals Act” in regulating love hotels and the sex trade. With no bookings in advance policy, love hotels usually pull in  long queues of love-struck couples standing in the cold streets on Christmas Eve.

In the last few years, romancing Christmas has found its way to China. In an atheist nation, the true spirit of Christmas is romance for the young urban couples. The Christian holiday is entertained as a carefree day to spend time with friends, to shop, and to find romance. In some stores, customers leave handwritten love notes as ornaments on a plastic pre-lit Christmas tree.

Without a doubt, the commercialization of Christmas is rapidly spreading in Asia as seen in Singapore all the way to Vietnam. However, the trend for Christmas to be celebrated as a romantic event in Asia remains to be seen.

(First published on, December 13, 2007)