American Holidays (and Autumn) in Japan

Elizabeth Riegler
Major: Psychology and Japanese
Doshisha University, AY 18-19

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 2 months since I arrived in Japan- sometimes it feels like it’s only been a week or so, and sometimes it feels so much longer.

I’m all set to experience a traditional Japanese autumn. Autumn is one of the most anticipated times of the year in Japan. Japanese aesthetics have traditionally emphasized things that are fleeting and short-lived as much more beautiful than the lasting and commonplace. Things like flowers, fireworks, and other seasonal sights are beautiful because they don’t last forever. This is called mono no aware, a sensitivity to the transience of life. With bright colors that give way to stark trees, autumn embodies mono no aware. Leaf-viewing parties are popular, and autumn is the busiest time of year for tourism in Kyoto.

…That is, if autumn ever comes.

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This is the view from my roof. Please note the massive amounts of green still off in the distance.

Yes, while Michigan is getting icy, Kyoto just dipped under 40 degrees this morning. Japan underwent a heatwave this summer, but I feel like this is more than a heatwave.

Either way, the calendar keeps advancing, and American holidays keep coming…

Halloween

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Halloween (which is experiencing a huge boom of popularity in Japan) was the first western holiday I got to experience Japan-style, and it was, in a word, surreal. Everything was familiar, but just different enough to be puzzling and strange.

The symbolism is all there- black cats, pumpkins, and the like- but with a cuter twist. The grotesque and creepy doesn’t factor much into Japanese Halloween. Interestingly, summer is the traditional haunted house season in Japan, which makes sense. During a hot summer night, chills of fright are a rather unconventional way of cooling off.

The focus is on crazy costumes, having fun with your friends, and cutting loose for a weekend. This might be why the holiday is gaining so much popularity among late teens and twenty-somethings- in a society that values conformity (for better or for worse), having a weekend where you stand out as much as possible is a good way to blow off steam in a socially acceptable way.

In America, Halloween celebrations are usually relegated to the 31st, but Halloween parties in Japan usually span several weekends. Imagine my surprise when, while wandering Osaka in early October, I ran into a Halloween cosplay competition, with dozens of locals dressed as anime and video game characters. The fun lasts all month, and starts much earlier than in America.

The one thing I did notice in particular about Japanese Halloween is that it’s much less of a children’s event than American Halloween. As I alluded to earlier, Halloween is growing mostly among the teens and college students of Japan, and it’s more of a “party” holiday, somewhat comparable to St. Patrick’s Day in the US. Trick-or-treating isn’t common at all; apparently some events do exist for children, but I didn’t see any while I was out and about.

My biggest disappointment was never finding a pumpkin to carve. I did find a tiny decorative pumpkin (that sat on top of my fridge for a few weeks), but I never did find the giant pumpkins I was used to.

And Onto Thanksgiving…?

I’m not sure if I’ll celebrate Thanksgiving.

While I miss the traditional dishes, the specifics of cooking in my dorm make recreating them impossible. Most Japanese homes don’t have the massive oven needed to accommodate a massive turkey. My dorm only has a stove top and a “fish grill” that I didn’t discover until weeks after I had moved in. Said fish grill can only fit two or three fillets, so forget about shoving a whole bird in there. Furthermore, Japan doesn’t have a taste for turkey- despite frequent trips to import grocery stores, I have yet to see any of it other than the rare sliced lunch meat sighting (at an exorbitant markup).

(Did you know the average American eats 265 pounds of meat a year? Japanese diners eat 120 pounds. Honestly, looking at meat prices and portion sizes, I’m not surprised.)

Furthermore, things like cranberries and stuffing are also impossible to find. Cranberries aren’t very common (it appears they enjoyed a brief stint as a health food a decade back, but those days are over), and the quintessential brown hillock of bread that we call stuffing seems to be a strictly American food (England has stuffing, but it’s not quite the same). As I mentioned earlier, Japanese pumpkins are quite different, and finding the neon orange western pumpkin is impossible.

However, one very specific American Thanksgiving tradition has made its way to Japan: Black Friday. However, rowdy crowds and lines wrapping around the block didn’t survive the transition, fortunately. Japanese Black Friday is just another week or two of completely normal sales, and only a handful of locations participate, most of them American stores. Regardless, it’s still amusing to walk into H&M on a Tuesday evening and see that the coats have been marked down 20% because of “Black Friday”.

And onwards…?

As it gets colder, Christmas approaches- I’m excited to celebrate a Japanese Christmas and New Years, and also excited to write a blog post about them! Stay tuned!

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