Hannah Walker graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with an English major and a Japanese minor. Originally from Montclair, New Jersey, she spent the 2010/2011 academic year in Tokyo, Japan, where she participated in the Junior Year Abroad Network.
December 9, 2010
The Shibuya train station in Tokyo is host to eleven different train lines, as well as five lines of the Tokyo Metro. Just outside the Hachiko entrance of the station is Shibuya Crossing, a five-way intersection that is flooded with pedestrians at every hour of the day and night. And this Christmas season, displayed in giant illuminated script from the side of the station facing this tableau of incessant activity is a sign that reads "2010 Christmas." Raised as I was to wish others "Happy Holidays" rather than refer to any particular religion, seeing this direct reference to Christmas was almost shocking. A Christmas sign? On a public building? In the biggest city in the world, and in one of the most visited and populated areas within that city? In America, decorations in a secular space that are explicitly religious can incite serious controversy, and I've seen signs on church yards that wished passers-by a neutral "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings." Conversely, such inclusive language can draw fire for caving to political correctness, and removing religion from religious holidays. However in Japan, displaying Christmas decorations on a secular building has none of the associated conflict that it has in America, because both religion in general and Christmas more specifically function very differently.
It would be a mistake to equate Japanese and American attitudes towards religion, and one cannot expect issues of political correctness in this area to even occur to most Japanese people. The religions most commonly practiced within Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism, but the Japanese model of religious practice is more fluid than the Western model. Japanese people commonly visit both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, observe the holidays of both faiths, and use different ceremonies from each: most funerals in Japan are Buddhist, and traditional Japanese weddings are drawn from Shintoism. Christianity was a more recent addition to the religions of Japan, but aspects of the religion have been generally accepted in a similar spirit of flexibility. For example, many couples chose to have both a Christian church wedding and a Shinto temple wedding, regardless of their spiritual affiliations or beliefs.
Christmas has also been eagerly adopted in Japan. Without Thanksgiving to mark the acceptable beginning of the Christmas season as the middle of November, I began to hear Christmas carols the day after Halloween. Christmas in Japan shares some common practices and themes with Christmas as it is generally understood in America: presents are exchanged, decorations and trees appear everywhere, and it is very much a time of family togetherness. There are of course some aspects of the holiday that are more uniquely Japanese. Christmas dinner is often KFC chicken (Col. Sanders being to Japan's Santa what Christmas Coca-Cola ads have been to America's Santa since the 1930's); Christmas Eve is perhaps more important and celebrated than Christmas day, especially as a major date night for couples; and Christmas movies have very little cultural presence. The biggest difference between Christmases is that Christmas in Japan is almost completely unconnected to the Christian story of Jesus' birth. I've been surrounded by general Christmas cheer for months, but the only religious decoration I've seen was a nativity on the campus of Sophia University, a Jesuit school with a strong international influence.
Linus' plea from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to remember the reason for the season would probably have very little applicability in Japan, and the conflicts over seasonal expressions of cheer likewise have no equivalent in Japanese culture. For the Japanese, religion has never been the reason to celebrate Christmas anyway. The holiday is for people of every faith, and Santa visits Japanese children even if they've never set foot in a church. The cultural and religous backgrounds of Japan and America are so different that no statement can or should be made favoring one Christmas over the other. However, it is nice to look up at the bright sign above Shibuya Crossing and to know that its Christmas message is meant for all who pass under it, regardless of their faith.
August 22, 2011
I wasn’t in Tokyo when the earthquake happened. I was at home, taking a break from a wild spring break of couch-surfing across Europe. I knew nothing about the earthquake until I came down for breakfast the morning of March ninth, and my mom told me that she had been answering worried phone calls from relatives all morning. I spent most of the day sitting on the couch, keeping one eye on CNN and the other on Facebook.
It still amazes me that half a world away, even as trains came to a halt and people had to spend the night in elementary schools and subway stations, my friends in Japan were able to reassure everyone elsewhere that they were fine. And all of this via Facebook, which is where I generally go to look at embarrassing pictures of people I don’t like and link humor sites or movie trailers to people I do. Never had I used any social website to make sure that no one I cared about had been hurt in anything like a massive earthquake. But by the end of the day I was reassured that all of my friends in Tokyo were shaken, but safe. It was only later that I realized that there was still one piece of my life in Tokyo missing.
On New Year’s Eve, a group of friends and I went to Zojoji Temple in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, right by Tokyo Tower. The temple was packed with people, and in the crowd we befriended a group of other short-term Japan inhabitants, visiting Tokyo for the holiday. They English teachers with the JET Programs, and they came from all over the world, places like Trinidad, Australia, and Ohio. Our groups came together in the way you do on nights out where details like names are an unimportant and quickly forgotten. We spent the whole night drinking and singing karaoke until it was after six in the morning, then we all got on our trains and went home. I was content to have the fantastic memory of the night, and was happy to have met them, but never expected see them again. How could I even contact them, without remembering their names or phone numbers?
The only thing I remember about them with much clarity is that they were teaching in Sendai. It’s a city to the north of Tokyo, and it was also the city closest to the earthquake’s off-shore epicenter. Sendai was one of the areas ravaged by a devastating tsunami, resulting in incredible devastation and huge loss of life. All of my friends and the people I knew in Tokyo were safe and sound after the earthquake. It’s only a small group of strangers I met one night that are unaccounted for. I don’t remember their names; I can’t even remember how many of them I met. I have no way of finding out what happened to them. Facebook here doesn’t help me at all. I am so connected, able to access people in every part of the world, but there are some questions even an internet connection can never answer.