Dec 31, 2013


Dec 25, 2013

Christmas in Japan

Borrowed cultures in Japan are mostly commercial events. Christmas day may not be a national holiday, but it is celebrated throughout Japan in quite an elaborate manner! With less than 1% of Japanese being Christians, it is indeed surprising to see the extent of Christmas fever, nationwide. Christmas Eve which is thought to be exclusively for romantic couples, is the most important day followed by Christmas Day,  where families and friends enjoy a Christmas dinner, which always includes chicken and the Japanized version of the Christmas cake, covered with whipped cream and topped with mouthwatering, red strawberries. Since artificial food colors are strictly avoided by the Japanese, Christmas cookies or Christmas cakes decorated with fancy colors are rarely seen, except maybe in Western homes. There is also no egg nog, ginger bread, pies or figgy-pudding. 

My homemade Christmas Cake

Homemade Christmas Tree Salad

Comercial Cakes
Commercial Cakes
Chicken is substituted for the traditional “Turkey” in Japan simply because Turkey’s are not readily available in Japanese supermarkets and the Japanese are not quite fond of the “smell”. This is where the commercial aspect overtakes tradition, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Japan leaves no stones unturned to deliver special Christmas, fried chicken with additional menus, and make huge profits along the way! Most people make reservations at KFC ahead of time, so as not to miss out on the new, Christmas Menu.
Christmas songs most popularly sung or played during the Christmas season include Jingle Bells, We wish you a Merry Christmas and Silent Night, which are often sung in Japanese, and the most frequently heard BGM around town would be “Last Christmas” by Wham and Mariah Carrey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.”
Christmas trees are never live trees, but artificial ones in different sizes, beautifully decorated and lighted up, adorning almost every home, school, office and shop.
Christmas presents are usually exchanged between romantic couples and friends, and the price of the gift is usually determined by depth of the relationship between the couple or frineds. Parents and grandparents buy children Christmas presents but when the children stop believing in Santa, the presents also stop coming! The variety of presents include flowers, jewelry, small trinkets, stuffed teddy bears and toys.
Christmas parties are arranged mainly by families with small children or young adults. The elderly who wish to join the Christmas celebrations buy expensive tickets to Christmas dinner shows hosted by famous celebrities at big hotels or famous restaurants. Christmas lighting or illuminations are displayed all over town soon after Halloween and usually last until New Year’s Eve.
Around Okayama Station
Okayama City Illumination
No matter what the form, the Japanese embrace the Christmas celebrations joyfully!
Merry Christmas!

Dec 16, 2013

Japanese New Year Cards

The custom of sending New Year greetings cards or Nengajo in Japan, started a thousand years ago in the Heian period and peaked during the Meiji era. In the early years, cards were personally delivered and stuffed into mail boxes on January 1st, but from 1899 they were collected in December and delivered on January 1st. New Year greeting cards in Japan are very unique for the following reasons:
1.      They are postcards.
2.      They are never delivered before January 1st. 
3.      They need to be posted on a certain date in December to be delivered on January 1st. (usually by December 25th).
4.      They contain no Christmas greetings, rather a simple congratulatory message as Happy New Year with an advanced thank you message for favors to be taken in the coming year.
5.      They feature one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs , where there is one sign for each year and the cycle is repeated after every 12 years. All 2014 cards will have pictures of the wood horse.
6.      They contain a lottery number and a chance for the recipient to win a prize following a lottery draw in mid-January by the Japan postal service.
7.      They are either made at home using high tech printing devices, latest computer software or ordered in bulk with printing companies for a price averaging 110 yen/card.

In 1949, the lottery ticket post card was introduced by the Japan postal service, where lottery prizes ranging from cash prizes of 10, 000 yen to towels and commemorative stamps are awarded.

 A typical Nengajo may be a simple, blank, white postcard where one writes or draws a new year greeting using a calligraphy brush, or rubber stamps containing conventional messages, or it may also have a recent photo of the sender and the specific zodiac sign of the coming year, in addition to a personal message.
However, people who lose a family member to death in the past year do not send new year cards as they are in mourning, and instead send an advanced (in mourning) postcard by early December, reporting their loss, requesting people not to expect or send them new year cards for that particular year.
Having been in Japan for over 22 years, I usually send out about a 100 cards to my superiors, friends and colleagues whom I rarely meet now and look forward to receiving their cards to update myself about them. In the digital era, increasing numbers of people are opting for  digital versions of New Year greeting cards, and sadly as with many other fading, traditional Japanese customs, there seems to be a decline in the enthusiasm and excitement of wirting, sending and recieving personalized, handwritten new year cards! I still look forward to writing mine, as with every individual message I write, there is joy and nostalgia intertwined with fond memories. I look forward to posting my New Year card on this blog on January 1st. 2014. Happy Holidays!!

Dec 9, 2013

December: Japan’s busiest month

“Tis’ the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la!!

While December sees Japan elaborately decorated for Christmas, December 25th still remains a working day in Japan! However, the Japanese are no less busy! They may not exactly be Christmas shopping, but rather occupied elsewhere, attending year ending parties, sending year ending gifts, cleaning their offices and homes, writing new year cards and many other things. All this is in preparation for the New Year which happens to be the most important time of the year for every Japanese person. I feel the Japanese new year is somewhat a belated thanksgiving, where the whole focus is on family and home.

BONENKAI: (Year-ending parties)

Literally bonenkai means “forget-the-year-party”, where office colleagues, friends or groups get together at Japanese pubs (Izakaya), restaurants, or even banquet halls in hotels to eat, drink, make merry and forget the unpleasant memories of the passing year!

Illust taken from the internet
 Most companies hold at least one bonenkai and people socializing with different groups attend consecutive parties throughout December. In most bonenkai’s, one gets to see otherwise calm, sober, people, let down their guards and show their wild sides, specially when they are very drunk. The party begins on a milder note, with the chief or head making a small speech, followed by another raising a toast. From then onwards, drinks and laughter flow alternately and the real party begins! Though a variety of food is served, it seems alcohol is what occupies the limelight!

Sometimes stage performances by professional artists or amateur performances by junior colleagues entertain one and all. Bingo games and Karaoke add further delight.
Though costumes are rare, some people dress up as Santa or wear Santa hats. Usually, the bonenkai ends for most around 10 pm, but it is often followed by a second or even a third party, which can last all through the night. For those who pass out drunk, are taken home by their friends or colleagues or picked up by family members. I think the Bonenkai is a great way the Japanese unwind and move on to the New Year with a fresh perspective.

O-SEIBO: (Year ending gifts)

It is a custom in Japan where people send a year ending gift of gratitude or appreciation (o-seibo) to people who have extended a special service or helped them in someway. Traditionally the custom began by making offerings to the graves of the deceased ancestors and is now given to teachers, company superiors, doctors or customers. A similar custom when done in mid-summer is called (o-chugen). The gifts are usually sent in the first two weeks of December, preferably by December 20th. The type of gift usually varies depending on the relationship with the recipient. Gifts range from detergents, coffee, tea, cooking oil, beer, canned food, ham, sausages, fruits, desserts, gift certificates, etc.

They are usually home delivered either by the department stores or personally. The price range averages between 3000 yen to 5000 yen. Though it is a very old, traditional custom, recently, many companies discourage such gifts and think it is rather an obligation or burden than an offering, and the custom is gradually fading among the new generation.

OSOJI: (General cleaning)

Similar to spring cleaning in the west which symbolizes a new start, the Japanese choose December as the month to clean up their houses, offices, schools to get rid of all the unwanted dust, de-clutter and begin the New Year in a clean environment.


Most Japanese clean out not only the inside and outside of their houses but almost everything that they use in their daily lives, such as cars, bikes, bicycles, machinery, etc. This custom is based on the belief that everything has a soul and needs periodic cleansing. Extensive cleaning is carried out in most homes, schools and offices before the year ending holidays begin from December 29th to January 3rd. This year, the annual bonus will come not only in cash but in holidays too, begining a day ahead on December 28th(saturday) and ending two days later on January 5th (sunday)! Which adds upto 9 days......Yippee!!!!

Putting things in their place and cleaning up the environment at the end of the year seems therapeutic for the Japanese. How about you?