Wednesday, December 08, 2004

A Japanese Christmas


t never occurred to me how many people might really enjoy the song "Christmas Eve" by Yamashita Tatsuro. When I lived in Japan, this song played in the background all over the place, and it has become a sort of Christmas anthem in Japan.

The song is about a guy who wants to spend Christmas with a girl he likes, but ends up waiting for her all by himself. It's rather sad, so I often wondered why it was such a holiday hit. That is, until I thought that perhaps the song was a reflection of how the Japanese view and celebrate Christmas.

Past the deepening of night
The rain will surely turn to snow
Silent Night, Holy Night

The first verse is rather inocuous. As Christmas Eve deepens, the air turns cold and the rain will turn to snow. A silent night, a holy night. But then, the lyrics reveal that this is not about a peaceful Christmas Eve, but rather a sad tale, one of unrequited love.

I'm sure you won't come
A Christmas Eve spent all alone
Silent Night, Holy Night

Doesn't even seem as though
The feelings hidden deep in my heart
Can ever be fulfilled

I felt so sure that if it was tonight
I could tell you
Silent Night, Holy Night

Still lingering with hardly a trace,
my feelings for you
continue to rain into the night

The song tells us of a lonely Christmas, about feelings that will remain hidden in the heart, unfulfilled. Indeed, it will remain silent night spent alone. And Holy? Perhaps a reference to the purity of true disappointment, the tranquility of loneliness. But the last stanza--except for the repetition of the first two stanzas--reverts back to a serene, almost recognizable Christmas scene.

The Christmas tree on the street corner
The glitter of silver
Silent Night, Holy Night

The first and last stanza seem to underscore the purity of the scene, the spirit of Christmas--at least in the Japanese mind. But what is the effect of these bookend stanzas? What is between them that is so pure as the snow and the glitter of silver? Loneliness.

Japan is not a Christian culture. It is about as secular a country as there is, as I'm sure most of you know. As a result, they're version of Christmas is quite different than ours. Is it all about buying presents? Is it a Christmas focused on the materialism that is growing prevalent in the West? To an extent, but not quite.

The Japanese, it seems to me, often pursue the mood, the atmosphere. While many things in Japan are very detailed, they seem to always be selling an image, a tone. Car commercials never mention mileage or durability. Some commercials don't ebven look like car commercials. They sell a mood: how cool is the car? Even beer commercials advertise how it might taste when watching fireworks or when at the beach. How cool, how refreshing. But they never refer to its cost, its birthdate, and never its taste. Christmas is the same. Christmas is not a holiday but an event. Christams trees, presents exchanged, all in the name of this event that no one really understands. Santa Claus is seen in person maybe at day care or elementary school, or somebody's party costume.

And while, some enjoy--not celebrate--Christmas in a western way at home in Japan, the commercial Christmas is about romance. As such, Christmas is not for the family, and certainly not for the older generation. It is for the young. By October you will see ads for Christmas packages to resorts: two nights at a posh hotel, a special dinner show with a popular entertainer. This attitutde would explain the popularity of Mariah Carey's rendition of "All I Want for Christmas Is You." But strangely enough, it is Yamashita's song that gets heavy air time during Christmas, because it pushes all the right buttons: Snow, glittering silver, and loneliness--sad yet oddly pure, serene, tranquil--at a time when a young person should be with the someone he or she loves--although, admitedly, this might be overstating it. For the Japanese, romance equals sex, and love--by the strict western definition--may have less to do with it. But the feeling of loneliness is the same.

So for those of you who have the holiday blues--I count myself among them--take the path the Japanese take. Things may be sad and lonely, but loneliness has its own beauty. Accepting it may make the holidays bearable...

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