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Dec 2003 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Christmas in Pottersville
By Matt Shea

When Christmas rolls around, Tokyo feels like George Bailey was never born.

You know, that dramatic scene in the holiday classic "It's A Wonderful Life," when Jimmy Stewart as George sprints desperately through the streets of his hometown, Bedford Falls, and because an angel has wiped clean his life's contributions, the once pristine little burg has become a seething den of debauchery and smoke-filled bars.

George Bailey puts his fist down That scene is inevitably recreated each Christmas I spend in Japan, with me dashing through the streets of Tokyo frantically searching, like George and his beloved Bedford Falls, the holiday St. Louis of my memory.

It's not as if the Japanese can really be blamed for missing the Yule-boat, Christians being as rare here as Buicks. And as a result most elements related to the holidays are embraced not for their spiritual significance as much as for their secular and commercial appeal. At Christmas, as they are at nearly every other time of year, the locals are all business.

Of course I'm not naïve enough or gone so long from the USA that I don't recognize some of that same make-a-buck motivation during the season goes on back home. Americans are likely just as guilty on that front. But those seasonal stimuli, both secular and sacred, that I came to depend on during the holidays in St. Louis are here, in Pottersville, so distorted and alien-looking as to make one wish he had an angel like Clarence to call on to make it all go away.

Where St. Louis has the Tree of Lights and that red and green holiday bow wrapped around the Planetarium in Forest Park, Tokyo sports neon and aluminum versions of Christmas trees throughout the shopping centers and business districts. Substitute the fresh scent of pine needles with the acrid reek of electrical discharge.

Buying a tree for the home is not a local custom. Most Japanese, if they take to the tradition, opt for plastic pines, pre-decorated and barely thigh-high — which makes competition stiff for the rare real trees, usually ailing, offered at some of the local nurseries. And the customer (most often the homesick and desperate American, Brit or Canadian) has no choice but to pay tens of thousands of yen, hundreds of dollars, just to haul the sick boy home; a tree only Charlie Brown could love.

Where grocery stores in St. Louis offer discounted turkeys, fat hams and holiday beef roasts often larger than the guests that eat them, Tokyoites stream to KFC for their roast chicken. The origin of the phenomenon is unclear but the success of the franchise's Christmas poultry push is obvious to anyone who walks past a Japanese KFC outlet on Christmas Eve. The Santa-suited Colonel Sanders mannequins that greet customers at the door are a welcome amusement to those in line during the long wait.

The Christmas carols are the same. The bells jingle all the way in Tokyo, too. But so does George Michael with his "Last Christmas," a mysterious omnipresence by the former Wham headliner on the mall loudspeakers of the capital, followed closely in airtime frequency by Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas." Year after year Nat King Cole and his chestnuts are left sadly unroasted.

The holiday TV fare I remember and instinctively anticipate airing on my Tokyo television in December never appears. No Grinch. No Rudolph. No Charlie Brown. No Waltons. No Osmonds. (OK, maybe that one's not such a downer.)

Instead the local networks lean heavily toward recent Hollywood box-office smashes, particularly if Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Schwa-chan," as he's affectionately called) is prominently featured. The Schwa-chan idolatry, however, is not confined to goodies like "Jingle All The Way," but includes frequent holiday broadcasts of Christmas-cheer gems like "The Running Man" and "Predator." The blood is clearly red but beyond that the connection to the season seems pretty dodgy.

Santa Sanders Decorations, lights, ornaments, tinsel and the like are in no short supply on the streets of Tokyo during the holidays. This is at least one area where the city does the season justice, notably in the district of Omote-Sando, where the main street is annually decked out in some of the most impressive holiday finery west of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. The overwhelming purity of Christmas spirit provided by the lights on that Omote-Sando avenue is, however, slightly diminished when passersby reach the end of the street and the display where the Condomania shop is located.

This dichotomy of sentiment may be partly explained by Japan's interpretation of Christmas as a night of romance rather than a family affair. Christmas Eve for the young and unmarried Japanese is viewed as the date night of all date nights, Valentine's and senior prom wrapped into one. Extreme pressure is levied on the boy to lavish his date with an expensive dinner, a costly gift and a night at a luxury hotel where, presumably, they spend a not-so-silent night.

Not that my St. Louis pals were averse to merrymaking during the season, as evidenced by the drinking-beer-in-front-of-the-church-before-midnight-mass incident, which attracted the attentions of two 7th District policemen. In reply to the officer's question, "Do your parents let you drink?" my older brother spoke succinctly for all of us and to the satisfaction of the cops.

"Only during the holidays, sir."

That line could really sum up my homesick-for-St.-Louis pangs. For most of the year Tokyo feels like the comfortable, friendly and highly motivated city that it is. But when Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween or St. Patrick's Day pass without the appropriate recognition, that's when the gap between what I knew and what I know is most striking.

There have been exceptions. Times when Tokyo has delivered the holiday goods as promptly as any I remember being dropped off at my front door on Kingsbury Avenue by the UPS man.

On one past Christmas Eve as I came out of my local train station I heard faintly but recognizably above the bustling commuter crowd the welcome lilt of a Christmas carol. There in a small circle between a Pachinko parlor and a supermarket was a group of Japanese kids singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," led by a determined woman with a baton.

I watched and listened as the carolers went through their set, picked up shop and disappeared never to be seen or heard again in that train station or elsewhere on any ensuing Christmas Eve. As I walked off toward home to my overpriced tree and yet another scantily feted holiday, the sky let loose with a sprinkling of snow flakes, rare as hell for Tokyo in December. Just as rare as carol-singing kids at a Japanese train station.

For that moment, at least, Tokyo felt less like Pottersville and more like Christmases I remembered in St. Louis. And I reckoned that somewhere, maybe even here, George Bailey had just gotten his wish.

Matt Shea is a freelance writer based in Japan, and a contributor to the Zeit-Gist column in the country's largest English-language daily, The Japan Times.

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