Q. When did Japan start celebrating Christmas?
A. The first Christmas in Japan on record took place right here in Yamaguchi, in 1552, celebrated with a private mass held by the Jesuit missionaries for Japanese converts in the town of Suo. It is believed that small Christmas celebrations were held in previous years as well, starting in 1549 when Saint Francis Xavier landed in Japan. This tradition may have continued for a few decades until the wave of anti-Christian reform during the late 16th and early 17th century, when first Christian missionaries were expelled from Japan in 1587 and later, between the years 1612 and 1614, strict Anti-Christian edicts banning Christianity spread throughout Japan. During the Edo period (1603~1868), known for its policy of National Seclusion, many Japanese Christians were persecuted, tortured, and deported in an effort to drive out the religion. However, a small group of Japanese as well as Dutch living in Nagasaki continued to practice Christianity underground during the more than 250 years of Tokugawa rule.
These “hidden Christians,” or Kakure Kirishitan, re-surfaced during the Meiji period (1868~1912) when Japan ended their policy of seclusion, opened up to the outside world, and relaxed the laws against Christianity. The Christianity the Kakure practiced had, however, evolved from the original religion and developed over the years into a form of ancestor worship. They practiced with what little remained of the original scriptures their ancestors had learned from the Jesuits, passed down orally over the centuries and containing many Latin, Portuguese and Spanish words that had evolved from their original meanings and pronunciations. To protect themselves from discovery and persecution when the anti-Christian edicts first appeared, the Kakure adapted their prayers to sound like Buddhist or Shinto prayers, and hid the figure of the secret god they worshipped by wrapping it with cloth and keeping it inside Buddhist alters in secret rooms inside the home—practices which became fundamental aspects of the religion. When Christianity resurfaced in the late 19th century, with Christians coming into Japan from outside as well, Japanese Christianity split into two main factions: those who rejoined the Roman Catholic church re-introduced by Western missionaries, and those who continued to practice in the tradition of the Kakure, who thereafter came to be known as Hanare Kirishitan (“separated Christians”). It is debated whether or not descendents of these Japanese Christians still practice the Kakure religion, as extreme secrecy—developed from necessity into one of the fundamental aspects of the religion that remained even after the bans against Christianity were lifted—keeps the religion out of reach from the public eye.
With the re-opening of Japan to the outside world and the reacceptance of Christianity came the return of Christmas in Japan. During the “Cultural Enlightenment” period of the early Meiji years, Christmas was considered fashionable along with the popularity of other Western imports, and people took to celebrating with Christmas parties. At the turn of the century, department stores along the Ginza in Tokyo began what would become the widespread commercialization of Christmas in Japan. By 1910, Christmas trees, decorations, and Christmas cakes (sponge cakes with white whipped cream frosting and strawberries, available at Western bakeries of the time and still popular today) were commonplace seasonal fixtures in stores. By 1920, Christmas ornaments and toys produced in Japan for export became very popular abroad. During the mid-1950s, Christmas came to be seen by many as a time to celebrate in the home with family, and has since the late 20th century been popular among couples as an evening to spend on a date with a lover.
Today, Christmas is a popular annual event in Japan, but not a national holiday, and is practiced secularly by the vast majority of Japanese—a mere 1% of whom are Christian. Like Christmas in many countries, Christmas in Japan is largely commercial, and decorations, sales, and Christmas trees start going up as early as November. Japanese Christmas celebrations cease once December 25th is over, as people busy themselves with year end activities and prepare for the New Years festivities. New Years, rather than Christmas, is the time when most Japanese families gather to celebrate together as they welcome in the first few days of the year.
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