12 Days of Christmas in Japan #9: there's something about Santa
See all posts in this series via the '12days' tag.
Do Japanese children believe in Santa Claus?
The number of Santa hats and costumes you'll see proves that adults definitely do. Hell, we just got the seasonal Pokemon GO update with Pikachu in a fetching hat. My housemates went out in the cold at 11pm the other night to catch one.
Christmas has managed to get itself a bit confused over here, and Santa's not helping.
For the grown-ups, it's a time for romance, dining, and expensive dates. For families, it's the ideal time to have a get-together at someone's house. For kids, it's all about presents and having photos taken with Santa.
Because Santa Claus most definitely exists. You might find the odd 'Saint Nicholas' name badge on some of them, but that's Santa alright.
Japan isn't primarily a Christian country, which is why Christmas isn't all that religious. Never mind that if you write 'ho ho ho' in hiragana, Instagram translates it as 'Oh my God'...
Instead, the 'seven gods' concept from the Shinto religion gets wedged in to bridge the culture gap. The Shinto giver of gifts is Hotei, the god of happiness and contentment. He far predates ol' Saint Nick, and arguably had the massive belly and pink cheeks first.
To your average kid, that's not as exciting as Santa on a sleigh.
The idea of some old guy in a red suit delivering presents with the help of flying reindeer is what's important. Santa Claus is a way to get kids invested in Christmas.
But Santa can't be everywhere at once. Hell, some Japanese scientists have claimed he'd be dead by now if he tried. As would the rest of us. The easy solution is to dress up existing characters.
Pikachu looks kinda cute in festive mode. As do these Hatsune Miku plushies I spotted in a claw machine. I watched a man put in a surprising amount of effort to win one. He failed. Merry Christmas.
Point being, you can make something - anything - Christmassy by plonking a Santa hat on it.
In that sense, Santa's right at the heart of a Japanese Christmas. You don't have to believe, as long as you play along. Start with the hat and the rest will follow. 'The rest' likely being a line of small children who want to take selfies with you.