The Warped Versions of Western Holidays in Japan
Halloween 2021 came and went; if you're someone who's living in a Western, mainly-English-speaking country, what kinds of festive traditions did you see? Since I hail from the United States, I expect to see pumpkins, jack-o'-lanterns and other spooky decorations, people dressed up in costumes, and — of course — trick-or-treaters. While Halloween is now mostly a commercial holiday in the U.S. and some other Western countries, it did have a deeper meaning to Christians once upon a time, originally as a period to remember the dead.
Halloween is short for All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints' Day, a Catholic celebration commemorating saints and martyrs. All Souls Day, honoring all the Christian departed, follows on Nov. 2. Taken together, the three events are sometimes referred to as Allhallowtide and all of them are part of the Day of the Dead celebrations.
Source: USA Today
One could argue that because the original meaning of Halloween is all but lost thanks to commercialization, our new, commercialized version of Halloween has found ground in the past few decades in some unexpected places, one of which being Japan. Since we're experts in Japanese culture, I'm going to focus on Japan in this blog, but, as is usually the case, this phenomenon also likely occurs in other non-Christian countries, especially in East Asia since many Asian countries tend to follow Japan's bastardized versions of Western holidays.
(I've covered the funky commercialization of Christmas in Japan and whatever marketing campaign transformed Valentine's Day into an even more financially exploitative holiday than what we know in the West, so go back and read those if you're curious.)
Japan has a long-running trend of borrowing things from the West and running with them, and this is especially true of things with an economic benefit, such as commercialized Western holidays. Western holidays are easy for Japan to commercialize since it only needs to mimic what it sees being done in North America and Western Europe nowadays, and most Japanese people have no emotional or cultural attachment to Christian holidays. Less than 2% of the Japanese population is Christian, a number that has been dropping in recent decades as Christianity has never achieved a strong foothold in Japan due to their persecution in the 16th century, and it's been followed by a very small minority of the population ever since.
But wait, you may say. Are Japanese holidays commercialized? The biggest Japanese holidays are New Year's in January, O-bon in July/August, and Golden Week.
New Year's in Japan is symbolic of new beginnings, just like springtime, which is also why Japanese school years typically end in February and start in April. New Year's is actually a spiritual holiday in Japan where people typically ring in the new year quietly with family, usually in their hometowns, and there are no wild parties and fireworks. They'll eat traditional Japanese New Year's food, called o-sechi (お節), and many Japanese people will go to a temple or shrine for their first visit of the year, called hatsumōde (初詣), to pray for good health and luck, and then they go home.
O-bon is a spiritual period in July and August (it differs depending on the region) with roots in Japanese Buddhism and Confucianism. If you're in Japan during these holidays, you won't find any frivolous decorations or "Our biggest sale of the year! It's the O-bon sale!" at local retailers. That's reserved for Christian-based Western holidays, in which Japan reaps the economic benefits without being religiously invested.
Golden Week is a week at the end of April and the beginning of May when many national holidays have been strategically placed to give the Japanese people a nice mid-spring respite. Golden Week includes Showa Day, a day that commemorates Emperor Showa (also known as Emperor Hirohito).
Many people in the West have accepted some commercialized aspects of Christmas because they're now part of the excitement of the season and put people in the holiday spirit, but the heart of Christmas remains with volunteering, charities, and the general kindness that we show to our fellow brothers and sisters.
With Easter, it's been commercialized to a degree to go hand-in-hand with the nice spring weather, but it's not that big of a holiday for some Christian denominations as it is for Orthodox Christians. The minimal commercialization of Easter is understandable, in my opinion, because there aren't many people who want to see cute decorations of a crucified Jesus on their front lawns. In fact, most Japanese people have no idea what Easter actually represents and that Jesus was not only crucified, but resurrected. And yet, they have taken the pastel-colored decorations, Easter eggs, and cute Easter bunnies and sell them in stores with no explanation in their marketing. In the past few years, a national Japanese supermarket chain started marketing Easter parties with a famous Japanese singer using her song and a male voiceover saying "Let's start Easter party!" in a creepy tone. Easter is a very sacred holiday to Christians — akin to O-bon, you could say — but Japan is turning it into something unrecognizable.
Japanese people are really protective of their holidays and culture (remember when Kim Kardashian tried to use the word "kimono" in the branding of her shapewear?), so it stands to reason that they would not like it if Western countries started commercializing Showa Day or O-bon to use them for economic gain. What if an American subsidiary of a Japanese company started selling little bobblehead dolls of Emperor Hirohito in the West with some Western accessories, like pink hats and red-white-and-blue glasses, and used them in a marketing scheme to get Westerners to eat Yoshinoya on Showa Day*? During New Year's in Japan, Japanese people leave a pine and bamboo adornment on their doorstep called a kadomatsu (門松) to welcome the gods of fortune and ward off bad luck, so what if Western countries started marketing those bamboo decorations as a new way to throw confetti at the stroke of midnight? "Put the confetti in the bamboo, and bang! Happy New Year!" Japanese people would be upset, but this is the reverse equivalent of what they do to religious Western holidays.
* Note: The tradition of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas in Japan came about due to a clever marketing campaign by KFC Japan and was not randomly decided by the people of Japan.
Understanding the background of a nation's or religion's holidays and what they mean to people would go a long way towards avoiding cultural appropriation (like what Kim Kardashian tried to do with her brand), ignorance, and discrimination everywhere. What you should take away from this blog is that respecting other people's cultures and religions is the most important thing individuals can do to promote peace, love, and understanding in the world. Again, Japan is not the only culprit in the world, but I wanted to highlight some cases from Japan to showcase key examples of ignorance and discrimination, because Japanese people as a whole aren't accepting of the minority Christian population that they do have.
Being critical and observant of all cultures is part of my job and background, but all I ask is for everyone who reads this blog to take a little time to think about all that people have in common, rather than our differences, and be a little nicer to one another as we wrap up 2021.