Photo:Ruth Hartnup on Flickr

Just Another Day at Work: Working Through Christmas in Japan

I guess I’ve been relatively lucky so far during my time here in Japan. Despite the fact that December 25th is not considered a national holiday here, and also the fact that religious observances, rightly in my opinion, always take secondary consideration behind actual work commitments, there is no guarantee that one can enjoy a day off on Christmas Day here in Japan. After all, Japan has never been a Christian country, and it has always enjoyed a largely secular government.

So, as a result Christmas is, for all intents and purposes, just another regular working day here in Japan. That’s not to say that Japanese people don’t get a winter vacation. In almost all cases, they do. However, typically, the winter and New Year vacation time in Japan ordinarily doesn’t begin until December 27th or 28th and then typically runs until about January 5th.

However, by setting aside annual leave entitlements, shift-swapping and calling in a few favours from time to time, I have never yet worked on Christmas Day during the 8 Christmases I have spent here thus far.

This year – in the absence of a significant other at this time – what I will actually do on Christmas Day remains undecided thus far. So how do my Japanese friends deal with the imposition of having to work on Christmas Day? In all honesty, they aren’t really that bothered by it.

Photo by ChampagneFight on Wikimedia Commons

I guess from the European point of view, where certain national holidays are legally mandated, we tend to regard spending Christmas at home as a legal entitlement of sorts. However, Japan has no such entitlement, though they do get a day off on December 23rd for the Emperor’s birthday. To that end, I tend to find a lot of Christmas parties that my friends and co-workers schedule usually take place either on the evening of the 22nd of December or on the 23rd.

However, much the same as in Scotland, The US and other such countries, New Year remains a very significant and indeed compulsory holiday here in Japan. However, the social dynamics around Christmas and New Year here in Japan are quite different from other countries.

Christmas cake in Japan. Photo by kota on Flickr

Firstly, in terms of Christmas, it is Christmas Eve, and not Christmas Day itself that holds the greater significance for most Japanese. Although, like Christmas Day it is not an officially designated national holiday, Christmas Eve is the time of year when you will, as an observer, feel the most “Christmassy” as it were.

You will notice, especially on the evening of Christmas Eve, a sharp increase in the numbers of young couples in frequenting restaurants. Christmas Eve is the most important dating night of the year, perhaps even surpassing Valentine’s Day in this regard. There is also a somewhat bizarre fixation on eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve, with many of the fast food chain’s outlets needing advance reservations or queuing for several hours to get a table on Christmas Eve.

So, what about the big day itself? What can you do to get through it and endure a Christmas Day at work in Japan. My Japanese friend, who has always worked on Christmas Day has an interesting perspective on why working on December 25th doesn’t really bother her.

“Think of it like this,” she said. “We tend to get depressed or upset when something we want, or believe is rightfully ours is taken away from us, but if it’s something that we have never had, then how can we be sad and lament the fact that it isn’t there?

“A child, living amongst an isolated tribe in a rainforest somewhere doesn’t get upset because he doesn’t have that Playstation or Nintendo video game that most kids his age want for Christmas. He’s probably never even seen a video game. You can’t miss something you’ve never had. So by the same token, Christmas Day has never been a recognized holiday in Japan, so we Japanese can’t really feel sad about missing something that we have never had.”

Photo by Kizkyran on Wikimedia Commons

That’s not to say that you can’t get into the spirit of things at Christmas time in the workplace though. Many of the places where I have worked still exchange small gifts at Christmas, and you may even hear a CD of Christmas songs being played in the background while you work.

From a teacher’s perspective, the students love having Christmas related lessons too. So if you are working on the big day, try not to get too down about it. Instead, embrace it and see it for what it is, an opportunity to explore a distinctively different side to Christmas, from an entirely original perspective.

Photo by vegafish, vegafish in zh-wikipedia on Wikimedia Commons

Something to bear in mind, especially if you are in rural Japan is that from about December 27th onwards, all of Japan goes into full-on holiday mode. To that end, shops, banks, restaurants, even some bus and train services will go into a state of greatly reduced or possibly totally shut down service. It's less of an issue these days since most convenience stores now have ATMs, but if you are looking to change foreign currency while you are visiting Japan over the holiday period, or if you have a Japanese bank account with a lesser known bank or something like the Post Office, I would recommend making sure that you withdraw enough funds on December 26th to last you for the next 10 days or so, just to be on the safe side.

Thankfully the days of all Japanese ATMs shutting down for a week or so are largely behind us today, but it still pays to take precautions, as service frequency is greatly reduced during the New Year holidays and one should always take steps to prepare for any unforeseen eventualities.

Wherever you are and whatever you decide to do with your Christmas and New Year in Japan, working or not, I hope you have a good one!

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