J@pan Inc Magazine Presents:
JAPAN INC NEWSLETTER
Commentary on Japan's culture, economy and society
Issue No. 398
Saturday December 21, 2006 TOKYO
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@@ VIEWPOINT: Japan's Year-End Blue Lights
Over the past several years more and more Japanese have been
lighting up their homes at the end of the year. In my Yokohama
neighborhood stars twinkle in windows, glowing Santa Clauses
climb rope ladders up the sides of houses, snowmen illuminate
paths to homes.
I'm no stranger to year-end illumination. When I was a boy in
New Jersey nearly everyone strung lights on houses and
on trees and shrubbery in gardens. People who didn't were
invariably Jewish. But it was also the season of Hanukkah, and
in their windows the menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum,
glowed orange in celebration of that holiday. So December
illumination was religious in intention.
The Christmas colors of my boyhood were red, green, and
white. The prevalence of blue lights illuminating homes in
Japan in December suggests decoration unrelated to Christmas,
or at least its spiritual essence.
Families who light up their homes at the year-end usually have
children. So these lights can be thought of as the December
equivalent of "koi nobori,"the colorful carp banners flown in
spring by families with sons.
"Illumination of homes in December was perhaps started by
rich families in the suburbs," an acquaintance told me. That
reminded me of the "udatsu."
The udatsu was a wall built by Kansai merchants in the Edo
Period (1603 - 1868) originally to prevent fire from
spreading from a neighboring house. Since the udatsu was
expensive to construct, it came to be an emblem of
Japan has a rich lighting culture. Bonfires illuminate Noh
performances, votive lanterns sail waterways, giant Chinese
characters flare up on mountains surrounding Kyoto, glowing
Nebuta floats parade down streets in cities in the
Northeast, large red paper lanterns beckon drinkers to pubs
along warrens in cities. Shinjuku and other flesh pots rival
Hong Kong in garish neon. It's no wonder a people with such
a tradition would introduce from abroad the custom of
December illumination in Japan seems to reflect little of
the spirit of Christmas as the anniversary of the birth of
Jesus. Yet it does share with the Christian holiday the
embodiment of hope.
One December day the next-door neighbor, as he strung lights
on a tree in his garden, said to me, "I'm not Christian. I
just want to make the world brighter."
-- Burritt Sabin
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