In the very popular and highly acclaimed Japanese anime film Your Name (2016), the main character, a highschooler named Mitsuha, works with her grandmother and younger sister to prepare for an upcoming ceremony at their local shrine. They talk about the tradition that has been passed down for generations, and Mitsuha's grandmother says that the meaning behind the tradition had been lost long ago so that only the form lives on. She tells her granddaughters that nonetheless they must preserve the tradition.
When asked what comes to mind when I think of Christmas in Japan, I think of many familiar images, such as Christmas trees, decorative lights (called illumination), holiday drinks at coffee chains (complete with Christmas-colored cups), but in all of these things, there is form without substance, festivities lacking meaning.
The forms appear but they lack hope because they do not point to the One who is the hope of the nations.
While Mitsuha's family lost the meaning behind their tradition at the shrine, forms and traditions of Christmas in Japan have been imported from America and Europe without the most important element: the birth of Christ. The forms appear but they lack hope because they do not point to the One who is the hope of the nations. So what exactly does Christmas look like in Japan?
I spent my first Christmas in Japan in 2015, in snowy Sapporo in the northernmost island of Hokkaido (where I served with ReachGlobal from 2014-2019). I remember walking around in a local mall and thinking it was surreal to see businesses operating as usual, such as the post office, banks and supermarkets. When I entered the food court, I quickly headed to the KFC to see if what I had heard about its popularity at Christmas was really true. The line stretched around the corner, outside of the food court, as people waited for their Christmas chicken.
I did not wait in line for Christmas chicken, however, because I knew that soon I’d be experiencing a much more American style Christmas. I spent the day with my teammates, and we exchanged gifts and had a full Christmas dinner (and thanks to Costco, we even had a turkey!). I had been with the Sapporo City Team for close to two years at Christmas, so it felt as if I was spending the day with family, a memory I continue to cherish.
98 percent of the Japanese population will not go to church or have any thought of Christ's birth on Christmas.
Christmas traditions in Japan are not limited to KFC. Christmas cakes are also a popular tradition here, especially with families, and it's not uncommon for families to have a Christmas party and give their young children gifts. Winter illumination (i.e. Christmas light) displays run from November well into January and sometimes even February. Christmas is also a popular time for couples, and many restaurants are full of people on dates on December 24. Some restaurants put out signs on Christmas Eve saying "no couples" to keep singles from feeling lonely or excluded.
While Christmas Eve being the most romantic day of the year is something foreign to many of us (including me, originally from Tennessee), I think the similarities here in Japan to those in America make the season bittersweet. I love seeing the Christmas trees and lights appear, and it is festive to hear Christmas music play in stores, but I also know that I will not find a single Christmas card with any reference to the birth of Christ. There will not be any nativity scenes on display.
May the shadows of Christmas traditions be replaced with the good news of great joy that is for all the people.
This season brings me face to face with the reality that 98 percent of the Japanese population will not go to church or have any thought of Christ's birth on Christmas. How could they, since most of them have never heard of Jesus? And even if they have heard Jesus' name, they have no idea who He is or what He came to earth to do. For many Japanese people, if they have heard of Jesus, it likely came through a Hollywood film where Christ's name is used as a swear word.
While Christmas is a time where we should rejoice in Christ's birth, my time in Japan has deeply instilled in me a sense of urgency for this good news of Christ's first coming to those who still dwell in deep darkness (Isaiah 9:2).
After the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, in Luke 2:15-18, we read:
"When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.' And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them."
The shepherds quickly went to see the Lord Jesus, and once they saw the good news proclaimed to them before their eyes, they went and proclaimed the good news of Jesus. The good news the angels heralded continued on as the shepherds bore witness to what they saw and heard. And more than 2,000 years later our calling is the same, to make known the excellencies of the One who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
Pray with me that the Lord would hasten the day where Christmas in Japan is known for its exaltation of the Lord Jesus. May the shadows of Christmas traditions be replaced with the good news of great joy that is for all the people—including the Japanese people—that a Savior has come who saves to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25).
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