Sunday 22 December 2019

Celebrating Christmas in Japan: Christians, Christmas Trees, and Xmas Illuminations

Tsuda Christmas tree under the Cold Moon
In the last two posts (here and here) I introduced Umeko Tsuda, a campaigner for female education in Japan who founded the women's university where I work today. Umeko was baptised as a Christian at age 7, a year after she arrived in America, and her Christian faith remains a key underlying principle at the university with compulsory classes such as "Introduction to Christianity" (キリスト教概論), a Christmas service (reihai=礼拝) every year in the chapel, and a giant Christmas tree (pictured). In fact, despite the small number of Christians in Japan - some 1.9 million or 1.5% of the population - there are a surprisingly large number of Christian schools and universities, the latter including Sophia, Rikkyo, and ICU (International Christian University), as well as Aoyama Gakuin and Doshisha (which Umeko's father, a strong proponent of the Christianisation of Japan, played a prominent role in establishing).

None of these universities insist on students being Christian, though some prefer full-time teachers to be Christian. ICU, for example, explains that it is "not a proselytising institution" and does not see nurturing Christians as its main goal though its mission is "the establishment of an academic tradition of freedom and reverence based on Christian ideals." Nevertheless, students from Christian High-Schools entering under the recommendation system (キリスト教校推薦) need to be either baptised or "seeking the way" (kyūdōsha=求道者). The relatively large number of prestigious Christian institutions of higher education has produced a significant number of Christian educators and politicians in Japan - including eight Christian prime-ministers.

Despite the low number of Christians in the general population, Japanese have firmly embraced Christmas as a secular cultural event. Almost 60% of Japanese eat something special to celebrate Christmas - chicken and sponge cake are the big-sellers as described in an earlier post - while 55% of Japanese put up a Christmas tree, Christmas wreath, or other seasonal decorations. 3.9% even illuminate their house though for most Japanese illuminations are something they go out to see at Christmas. Indeed, illuminations featuring millions of colourful LED lights are one of the standout attractions in Tokyo during the winter: Timeout lists more than 30 here with the most famous one probably being Tokyo Midtown Roppongi which boasts 100,000 lights plus bubbles! One of my favourites though is the Blue Cave Shibuya (Shibuya Ao no Dokutsu =渋谷青の洞窟) which sees an 800m stretch of Koen-Dori lined with an astonishing 600,000 lights right up to Yoyogi Park. Interestingly, Ao no Dokutsu is sponsored by the maker of a popular pasta sauce of the same name, the brand coming from the famous Blue Grotto in Southern Italy. An estimated 2.8 million visited the event last year making it the most popular spot; when I went to check it out this year it was absolutely jam-packed - especially with couples! Which only leaves me to wish all loyal readers a big merī kurisumasu (メリークリスマス) - or merikuri - to one and all! See you next year.