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Tue, Dec 23, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Christmas business steams ahead in Japan

SEASONAL CHEER Although this non-Christian nation does not celebrate the western religious holiday, shopping for decorations, light displays and festive fare is booming

REUTERS , TOKYO

There are no chestnuts roasting by open fires in Japan at Christmas and chimneys to hang stockings by are few and far between.

It isn't even a holiday in this non-Christian nation and schoolchildren, at least in Tokyo, will be trudging off to get their report cards.

But Christmas lights and decorations on private homes are going strong -- perhaps an effort to chase away the shadows of economic gloom that have hovered over the nation for a decade.

Twinkling lights on trees, lights in the shape of reindeer and blinking lights nestled in artificial pine boughs are gracing ordinary Japanese homes in growing numbers.

"Back during the economic boom years, people would go out to a hotel to celebrate and spend lots of money on Christmas," said Tomoki Sakaino, a manager at Internet research firm infoPLANT.

"But people celebrate at home now, and lights and decorations are cheap. It's a good way to have fun."

According to a survey conducted by infoPLANT last year, 47 percent of people planned to put up lights for Christmas, up from 43 percent the year before. Other informal surveys suggest the practice has become much more common in recent years.

"Our sales have really shot up," said Wataru Matsuyama, who runs a home centre specializing in Christmas lights in Yamanashi, some 109km west of Tokyo. "At least 20 percent higher than last year."

Unlike venerable Japanese traditions such as the tea ceremony, there is no prescribed way to put up Christmas lights, which is a big part of their appeal.

Businesses are also finding that elaborate Christmas displays bring seasonal cheer, as people flock to admire -- and spend.

"A lot of chambers of commerce are getting into this, using lights to decorate their local shopping areas," said Matsuyama.

"It brings people in and makes things more lively."

Japan also has a few home-grown Christmas traditions.

It has long been seen as an occasion for couples rather than families, with romantic dinners for two -- preferably at a Western restaurant -- the celebration of choice, along with an exchange of gifts.

Like most of Japan's other Christmas rituals, this takes place on Christmas Eve rather than the day itself.

Since turkey is hard to come by and won't fit into the tiny oven in most Japanese homes, Christmas Eve dinner often features chicken, roasted or fried.

Kentucky Fried Chicken does a booming business and many stores have sales four or five times higher than usual.

"Around 1971, managers noticed that foreigners who couldn't find turkey were coming in to buy chicken for their Christmas meal and they suggested we promote this," said a spokeswoman at Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan. "It's now the best season for us."

Meals end with Christmas cake, traditionally a concoction of white sponge cake, strawberries and sweet whipped cream.

It's useless after the 25th, which gave rise at one point to the saying that women "were like Christmas cake" -- they ought to be married by 25.

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