Holidays and Japan

The holiday season has come and gone, both in America and in Japan. Talking about the differences between western and Japanese holidays is always interesting, since Japan does recognize a lot of western holidays, but usually they’ve changed them so much that they might as well be a completely different holiday. Christmas, for example, has gotten a bit of an overhaul there. They’ve got the whole Santa/presents/Christmas lights/insane sales thing down(AKA, all the superficiality of Christmas). A very small percent of people in Japan are Christian, so almost all the Christian imagery has been nixed. On a personal note, I’m not very religious at all, but I always loved Christmas for that special “family-togetherness” feeling. However, in Japan, Christmas is regarded as more of a commercial holiday, kind of like Valentine’s Day. Whereas I usually spend Christmas with my family in front of the fireplace, full from Christmas dinner and watching my nephews play with their new toys while chestnuts roast on an open fire while Jack Frost nips at my nose, or whatever, my Japanese friends tell me they spend their Christmases drunk, or with their girlfriends/boyfriends, or drunk with their drunken girlfriends/boyfriends.
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Apparently Christmas in Japan is more of a ‘couple’s holiday’. Also they eat Christmas cake, which I’ve never eaten before and I have not heard stellar reviews for, and …Kentucky Fried Chicken. I don’t know why KFC is ‘thing’ to ‘eat’ on Christmas in Japan, but it is. When I told my Japanese junior high school students that Americans don’t eat KFC on Christmas, they were genuinely shocked. I try to explain that this would be like eating KFC on New Year’s, to which the room full of 13 year old kids said that that sounds like a really awesome idea, and I knew I lost the argument.

Meanwhile, New Year’s is a very important holiday there. It’s a day that is spent with family and loved ones, eating traditional New Year’s food and drinking sake, gathering at the local shrine to pray and sending traditional New Year’s cards and gifts to family and friends. Children receive New Year’s money from the grandparents and watch annual New Year’s TV specials. Meanwhile, in America, we spend the New Year’s drunk, with our girlfriends/boyfriends, or drunk with our drunken girlfriends/boyfriends.
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Then there’s Valentine’s Day, where, in Japan, the girl is supposed to buy a box of chocolates for the guy. The chocolates are fancy and super expensive. If you really like the guy, you’re supposed to make the chocolates yourself. Come March 14th, AKA “White Day”, the guy is supposed to return the favor and get something of equal value to what the girl got him a month earlier. This all sounds way too complicated for me, and I sometimes just want to resort to buying the guy a box of KFC, the nectar of the Gods to the Japanese.
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I sometimes taught an eikaiwa(English conversation) class for adults. My students were made up mostly of retired men and women who had nothing better to do with their free time, so they decided to learn another language. Oh, and take week long trips to Europe and East Asia. Classes usually consisted of one student showing the rest of the class pictures of their trip to Greece and asking me if I’ve ever been. I usually responded by saying there are days where I feel like the Greeks did during the Trojan War, if the Trojans were a bunch of Japanese kids who just won’t shut up, sit down and listen, goddamnit.

Other times, we had an actual class where I taught actual things that are English-related. During one class, we were talking about holidays, which eventually lead into a discussion about the weird things that Japanese and Western people believe. I was told that, in Japan, when a child looses a bottom tooth, they throw it over the house so that the new tooth will grow upwards. If it’s a top tooth, they throw it under the house so that the new tooth will grow down. This sounds strange to me, but not as strange as explaining that Americans put the tooth under our pillow, and a magical fairy-lady takes the tooth while we’re sleeping, leaving us money. My students laughed at the absurdity of this, but as absurd as it is, by the next morning the American kid is a few quarters, maybe even a dollar, richer.

The one holiday that completely baffled them was Easter. Now, once again, I’m not religious, but it wasn’t my explanation of the Christian origin that confused them. Telling them how Christ was killed but then came back from the dead a few days later only invoked a “Huh. OK,” response. This all was fine. It was my explanation about the Easter Bunny that completely blew their minds.

“A rabbit delivers eggs?” one of the older men asked me.
I explained about the symbolism of the rabbit and the eggs, and what this all had to do with spring. He said he understood this, but there was one thing that he couldn’t wrap his mind around.
“How is the rabbit carrying the eggs?” he asked.
“In a basket,” I told him.
“A basket?” he pressed, looking at me like I sat on a throne of lies.
“Right. An Easter basket. It’s a big basket, full of eggs and chocolate and jelly beans and sometimes toys!”
“…Is this a real rabbit?”
“Well…he’s not REAL real, and he doesn’t have a set image, like Santa, but yes. He looks like a rabbit.”
“So it’s not a man in a rabbit suit?”
“No…?”
“And this rabbit carries a big basket of eggs and candy, and hides the eggs?”
“Yes?”
“…With his little rabbit paws?!”
“Uh…I…I guess…”
“How is he able to carry the basket and pick up eggs with his little rabbit paws?!
“I…um…because Jesus died for your sins…?”
And that is how I learned that, in Japan, with all its weird and wackiness, the idea that a rabbit it able to carry a basket and pick up eggs with its little bunny paws is completely and utterly absurd.
easterblog05And now that I think about it, yeah, that is kinda odd. How does he DO that?
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6 thoughts on “Holidays and Japan

  1. hahahahaha! This was too funny! I really feel for you! I teach English As A Second Language in Mexico, and sometimes it’s difficult to explain American customs to Mexican students, and I’ve also had the trouble of explaining Mexican customs to American students. But we’re talking about two neighboring Christian nations. I can’t even imagine the trouble when you have to explain everything about a completely alien culture! Hats off to you.

    • Teaching English in Mexico must be interesting! I’ve always wanted to go to Mexico, I bet you have a lot of interesting stories.
      It’s always fun to hear what about American culture Japanese people find strange, it differently brings some interesting insight to my own culture.

  2. I always love what turns out to be a deal-breaker in Japan. Kids touching your bum? A-ok. You wearing a shirt that shows collar bones? Bzzzzt. I can imagine them not liking the Easter bunny. Japan does tend to be a bit literal.

    • It is strange. Most of my Japanese younger students think the Easter bunny is cute, but why he delivers eggs, how he manages to deliver them to everyone in time and how he carries them all is always brought into question. Magic, I guess…?

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