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Mari Demoto, a Japanese employee in the Religious Ministries Department at Sasebo Naval Base, said she sees the meaning of Christmas as projected by Americans she works with daily. Most Japanese, she said, do not understand the religious significance of Christmas but enjoy it as an opportunity to be with family and friends and to give gifts.

Mari Demoto, a Japanese employee in the Religious Ministries Department at Sasebo Naval Base, said she sees the meaning of Christmas as projected by Americans she works with daily. Most Japanese, she said, do not understand the religious significance of Christmas but enjoy it as an opportunity to be with family and friends and to give gifts. (Greg Tyler / S&S)

In the United States, many Christmas celebrations remain linked to the religion that gave the holiday its name. But in Japan, Christianity plays almost no role in Christmas-related activity.

And why should it? Less than 1 percent of Japan’s populace claims to practice Christianity, sociologists note.

Mari Demoto, an administrative specialist in Sasebo’s Religious Ministries Department, sees Christmas every year from both sides of the aisle.

Demoto is not Christian but reads the Bible and has a clear understanding of the faith.

While her religion is more akin to Shintoism, “we do pray to one God, and we pray to have good qualities, the qualities like Jesus Christ,” she said. The core beliefs are much the same with “just a different approach.”

Each year, Demoto, a Sasebo native, works among Americans enthralled by Christmas and sees the religious practices connected to the holiday. Yet she, her family and Japanese friends tend to observe the holiday with a much less spiritual perspective.

“But I see the warmth of the Americans this time of year when they buy gifts for children in the community children’s homes, and I see it is a genuine generosity,” Demoto said. “And for me, working in the chaplain’s office and participating, I, too, feel the warmth and openness of Christmas.

“The fact that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus Christ, to me, is not what is important,” she explained. “Recognizing what he has done for people is more important than his birthday. But most Japanese do not know the story.”

Missionaries introduced Christmas to Japan in the 19th century as a religious holiday. It remained a religious holiday until the early 20th century. As the economy grew in 1930s, Christmas became commercialized, promoted by department stores with Christmas sales. The idea of giving presents took hold.

After World War II, Christmas became widely celebrated in hostess bars in areas like downtown Tokyo. Hostesses would give customers party hats and cakes to take home to families as gifts in return for staying out late drinking. Gradually, Christmas became even more popular, celebrated by families during the period of economic expansion.

However, Christmas celebrations and partying have calmed compared to during the boom economy of the 1980s and early 1990s. “I will be working. I have no special plans,” said Hiroshi Amagai, a hairdresser. “It is only an event.”

According to the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, the number of people celebrating Christmas in Japan declined in the past decade.

In a 1992 survey, 80 percent of women in their 20s said they celebrated Christmas the previous year compared to 69 percent in the 2002 survey. Among those 20-69, 58 percent celebrated in 1992 but just 53 percent in 2002. Among men in their 20s, 57 percent celebrated in 1992; 52 percent in 2002.

Japanese social critic Yukio Akatsuka said Christmas has different meanings among generations but it is a festive time. However, he said, many Japanese will celebrate Christmas without becoming Christians.

This is because they follow the teachings of Japanese chivalry, Akatsuka said, which says if you put in an effort earnestly, you will be rewarded, and do not have to follow any religion.

People go to temples on New Year’s Eve to ring the bells and go to shrine on New Year’s Day. Also, many Japanese believe in the existence of more than one god, and therefore combine them, he added.

Yuko Stewart, a Japanese national married to USS Kitty Hawk Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Stewart, remembers growing up with no Christmas celebrations.

“My family is somewhat old-fashioned, so perhaps we would give each other a small gift each year. The big celebration was always New Year’s,” she said.

She was raised Shinto and remains in that tradition. “Our children will choose what they want for religion,” she said.

She also noted that in her experience, most Japanese overlook the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday. But if she and Scott have children, Yuko said, she would like them to go all-out celebrating Christmas.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.
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