Christmas in the Japanese Countryside…

This is the text of a radio column broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves, on 16th December 2013


It’s well below zero out there, and thanks to the rickety charms of this house’s plywood construction it’s more or less exactly the same temperature in here.

Central heating is quite literally a foreign concept, and to get warm you have to leave your little tatami room, head across an arctic stretch of creaky, dimly-lit wooden flooring, and surrender yourself to a thirty-year old plumbing system as the shower temperature ricochets between freezing and scalding.

Strange to think that last night in Tokyo and Osaka soberly-besuited young women and men crammed into karaoke booths to sing teary-eyed tributes to little houses just like this one, and to their rural hometowns.

European Catholics preaching, before their expulsion

Most of them can’t come home for Christmas, because Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan. Back in the early 1600s Japan’s military rulers – the Tokugawa Shoguns based in Edo, modern-day Tokyo – effectively put Christmas to the sword.

European Catholic missionaries and Japanese converts had celebrated it as a religious festival. But their tendency to branch out from prayer into business and politics upset the Shoguns, who worried that the loyalties of Christian samurai might ultimately lie less with Edo than with Rome.

Clandestine worship: 'Maria Kannon'

So Christianity was banned, foreign missionaries and powerful Japanese converts were kicked out of the country, and ordinary Japanese Christians were forced to practice their religion in secret.

There, it morphed into the worship of a feminine, maternal divine, with the Virgin Mary sometimes disguised in paintings and statuettes as the female Buddhist deity, Kannon.

Only if you knew what to look for might you notice a cross camouflaged somewhere in the image, or realize the significance of the child she was holding.

The Shoguns also hit upon the idea of weakening regional rivals by forcing them to maintain ruinously expensive homes in the capital, and to make a costly journey there every year.

Boom time, then, for merchants, caterers, artisans, and owners of early modern B&Bs, both in Edo and lining the routes to the provinces.

An early modern Edo street

Japan’s commercial culture was born: rich, noisy, diverse, and pretty unashamed as Edo grew to be the Paris of East Asia.

Rivalling that great European city in creative and artistic pizazz, the shopping lanes of Edo were home to everything from fine kimono and lacquerware to regional delicacies, woodblock prints, and extraordinary accessories whose makers struggled to keep pace with ever more refined connoisseurship.

And when Christmas was re-adopted at the end of the nineteenth century, part of a fad for all things western, Japan’s merchants – now operating out of shiny new department stores – were only too happy to welcome it into an expanding cycle of commercial seasons.

Rural Japan is hardly cut off from these seasons, but vying with them all the time is a cycle of agricultural ones.

Early 19th century department store shopping

From the windows of this house distant mountains loom over expanses of rich agricultural land, capable of producing wheat, rice, onions, sweet potatoes, oranges, watermelon – the list goes on.

People around here could tell you pretty much what week of the year it is, just by what they’re eating and how ripe it tastes.

These two seasonal cultures – the rural and the commercial – will come together on our plates tonight, as we get stuck into Christmas dinner.

The vegetables grown just a few metres away, while thanks to the spin given to a well-known western fast food outlet by Japan’s modern merchant class it’s now chickens, rather than turkeys, that need to watch their backs this time of year.

And then, of course, there’s Christmas cake – with associations both romantic and tragic.

Romantic, because in Japan’s cities Christmas Eve is second only to Valentine’s Day as a time for young couples to get dressed up for a dinner out. A kind of digital grace is offered, as cake is photographed, uploaded, and commented upon before it’s touched –discussing the finer points of cake has become a standard means of filling awkward conversational lulls.

Tragic too, though, because young women for whom such dinners don’t go well may soon find themselves described as ‘Christmas cake’: past the ideal age for marriage, out of season, and left on the shelf.

Here in the breathy fog of a rural family kitchen, though, cake comes a poor second to the person my four-year old son has learned to call ‘Santa-san’.

My niece in London has a healthy fear of the idea of an unknown man stealing into her bedroom in the middle of the night. She has to be reassured that Santa will leave the presents outside the front door, and not cross the threshold.

This would be a good caution in Japan too, given that Santa-san is, as often as not, a white ex-pat male who finds himself marooned thousands of miles from home, with no family to go to and no loved one to talk about cake with.

British-stye pub, in the middle of a shopping centre

He has the option, of course, of getting horribly drunk in the peculiarly alienating surrounds of a British-style pub – Japan’s unintended indictment of the banality of certain corners of our pub culture: all Oasis music and football scarves.

But dressing up as Santa is easy money: and I get emails most years from Japanese friends asking if I can help out at their office Christmas parties.

Tonight, though, I can’t. Because beyond seasonal cultures of commerce and crop lies the perennial fact of family, the gathering of whom around a dinner table in the Japanese countryside is just as much a comfort and just as much a diplomatic challenge as back home in the UK.

In particular, there’s the large matter of a small boy, for whom location – city or countryside, UK or Japan – is as yet neither here nor there.

Christmas is Christmas, and he believes in it just as it is…


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