Field notes

To many in Japan, Christmas is about KFC and romance

Crowds at a Shinto shrine on New Year's Day this year. Many Japanese head to popular shrines as the old year ends and the new one starts to pray for blessings for family and friends. They also visit Buddhist temples for the same reason. Pre-orders fo
Crowds at a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day this year. Many Japanese head to popular shrines as the old year ends and the new one starts to pray for blessings for family and friends. They also visit Buddhist temples for the same reason. PHOTO: TOR CHING LI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Crowds at a Shinto shrine on New Year's Day this year. Many Japanese head to popular shrines as the old year ends and the new one starts to pray for blessings for family and friends. They also visit Buddhist temples for the same reason. Pre-orders fo
Pre-orders for KFC deliveries at Christmas start a month in advance. In Japan, fried chicken has long been touted as a fast, cheap and tasty alternative to turkey. PHOTO: TOR CHING LI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Crowds at a Shinto shrine on New Year's Day this year. Many Japanese head to popular shrines as the old year ends and the new one starts to pray for blessings for family and friends. They also visit Buddhist temples for the same reason. Pre-orders fo
Mr Suzuki, a retired government official, and his family celebrating Christmas with friends. Their Christmas meal features Western-style dishes, a Christmas cake and champagne. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AKIRA SUZUKI
Crowds at a Shinto shrine on New Year's Day this year. Many Japanese head to popular shrines as the old year ends and the new one starts to pray for blessings for family and friends. They also visit Buddhist temples for the same reason. Pre-orders fo
New Year dishes prepared by Ms Sogo, a magazine editor. Auspicious treats that are a staple for the occasion include pink or red fishcake as the colours are thought to herald good fortune. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AYAKO SOGO

Xmas dates and New Year visits to temples and shrines reflect mishmash of religions

Christmas and the New Year come early in Japan, but for very different reasons than the nation's famous penchant for punctuality.

First, for Noel, everybody celebrates Christmas Eve but ignores Christmas Day itself. Not only does Dec 24 come right after the Emperor's birthday on Dec 23, which is a public holiday, but it also marks the end of the academic year and the start of winter holidays.

Just a few days later, on Dec 29, is when the New Year holidays start, as factories and offices usually close on Dec 28 for a week-long break.

The Japanese, most of whom are on a rare break from work, visit a Buddhist temple on New Year's Eve and head to a Shinto shrine on New Year's Day to pray for blessings.

At no other time of the year is the fine mishmash of cultures and religions in Japan so colourfully on show, honed to a ritual that spans both Oriental and Western traditions some 140 years after it threw its doors open to the world.

"Christmas, which is strictly speaking Christmas Eve in Japan, has become a synonym for a romantic date or party time. It has lost its original meaning, much in the same way that Japanese society swallows many foreign cultures and digests them to become a part of our own," said Ms Ayako Sogo, a magazine editor in her 40s.

IN VOGUE

It wasn't so trendy in the 1960s because Japan was still a poor country. Mass media and businesses helped to kick-start this trend, and young people started to celebrate it as a fashionable and cool event.

MR AKIRA SUZUKI, a retired government official in his 60s on how commercialisation has helped turn Christmas into a major festivity in Japan.

"Some young people don't even know Christmas is a Christian festival!" she noted of a country where only 1 per cent of the population is Christian.

Indeed, many Japanese grow up associating the day with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and strawberry shortcake. Snaking queues at KFC are a common sight on Christmas Eve, as are salarymen carrying cake boxes home after work.

This unique tradition reportedly stems from a successful "Kentucky for Christmas" marketing campaign around 40 years ago that promoted fried chicken as a fast, cheap and tasty alternative to turkey.

For adults, the routine includes a romantic night out strolling arm-in-arm with one's date while gazing at street illuminations, topped off with champagne and an exchange of gifts with the almost token "Meri Kurisumasu!"

The romantic connotation makes the occasion a loathed one for singletons - and has spawned a quirky service: boyfriends and girlfriends for rent.

Such services are in high demand during the Christmas season. Bookings for rental "partners" usually stipulate a minimum of two hours per session. Prices, which start from an average of 6,000 yen (S$75) per hour, vary according to ranking and experience.

Becoming a rental partner provides good pocket money for young students or models, whose job is to meet a client and provide good, clean companionship and conversation.

At RentaKano Kansai, a rental girlfriend service with branches throughout Japan, monthly bookings double to 600 sessions in December, even with the rate seeing a seasonal hike of over 30 per cent to around 8,000 yen per hour.

Chief executive Hitoshi Tamura, 40, told The Straits Times: "Christmas became a 'date night' in Japan with the influence of television and commercials, where lovers would stroll and look at street illuminations."

In the earlier days before the power of mass media came into play, Christmas was not such a big affair.

Mr Akira Suzuki, a retired government official in his 60s, said: "It wasn't so trendy in the 1960s because Japan was still a poor country. Mass media and businesses helped to kick-start this trend, and young people started to celebrate it as a fashionable and cool event."

Mr Suzuki's wife, who is Catholic, prepares a festive meal with dishes such as roast chicken. They also order a Christmas cake, and they gave their daughter presents when she was younger.

Now, said Mr Suzuki, "department stores and other businesses see Christmas as a golden opportunity to make money".

Mr Tsunehiro Uno, a pop culture writer and a regular commentator on local television, said the popularity of Christmas stems from Japanese adoration of Western culture.

The celebration of Christmas in the early years of modernisation during the late 1920s was taken as a sign of wealth and prosperity, he said, and that impression has held ever since.

Ms Setsuko Takahashi, a human resources manager in her 40s, makes it a point to celebrate Christmas with her husband by making Western-style dishes such as fried chicken, a soup and a terrine, accompanied by champagne and a Christmas cake.

"Christmas is an enjoyable event. Japanese don't care about religion, but we do enjoy events and eating delicious food," she said.

Mr Suzuki, who is not Catholic, said he stays at home when his wife and daughter go to church for Christmas service. His wife, in turn, refrains from going to church during the New Year celebrations in Japan, when most Japanese visit temples or shrines to pray for a blessed year ahead.

The New Year - together with the rest of the Gregorian calendar - was adopted by Japan in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration. It is one of the few times in Japan when almost all workers in the country get a break and all the factories close. Work usually stops on Dec 28 and restarts after Jan 3.

It is common for Japanese to go to a temple on New Year's Eve and head to a shrine on New Year's Day to pray for new year blessings.

At Buddhist temples, bells are chimed 108 times to ring in the new year. This ritual is called joyanokane, literally meaning "the bell that gets rid of the night", with each chime representing one of the 108 earthly temptations that humans face and must overcome in order to reach nirvana.

Meanwhile, Shinto shrines are crowded on New Year's Day as people rush to make their first prayer of the year, writing their wishes on wooden prayer tablets and hanging the tablets on designated frames.

Amulets are also bought for the new year, as each is believed to be "valid" for a year.

"I usually go to a temple for New Year, but if there was a shrine near my house, I would go there instead," said Ms Takahashi, the human resources manager.

She cited a long history of coexistence between Buddhism and Shintoism as a reason for this lack of distinction.

Along the same lines, Ms Sogo, the magazine editor, said: "Many Japanese would say their religion is Shinto or Buddhism or even both. The idea of Shinto or Buddhism is more customary than religious.

"For example, the old shophouse in Kushiro in Hokkaido where I grew up had a Buddhist altar to pray for ancestors and a Shinto altar to pray for prosperity as my late grandparents owned a kimono tailoring business. My mother still offers flowers and water at both altars every day. So I grew up with the notion that the two exist in parallel and in natural harmony."

The fact that both religions are polytheist - Shinto recognises eight million gods, including a toilet deity - means that temple, shrine and church can exist side by side, as long as they do not invade one another's territory.

Mr Uno, the television commentator, said: "Young people bother even less about whether they celebrate their life's milestones at a temple or shrine... some might not know the difference between a temple or a shrine."

What the two religions do have in common is a declining number of believers.  

"In the past, religious rituals played a very important role in Japanese daily life but today their importance has diminished considerably. They are important only for the New Year, births, weddings and funerals," said Mr Suzuki, the retired government official. 

"Most temples and shrines have serious financial difficulties because the number of believers is falling sharply. As a result, we see religious institutions also getting more and more commercialised."

Or, as the jingle goes, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

•The writer is a Singaporean TV producer and freelance journalist based in Tokyo.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'To many in Japan, Christmas is about KFC and romance '. Print Edition | Subscribe