So, this is Christmas…in Japan pt.1

I work at two Junior High Schools, alternating every two weeks. And since each school has 3 grades and ideally 1 Japanese English teacher per grade, I work with no less than 4 and no more than 6 Japanese English teachers each year. Some years (like this one) one of my school’s  incoming first year classes has fewer students than usual and so the school uses two English teachers instead of three, and the two of them have to take a grade each while splitting up the teaching duties of the remaining grade. At the other school there are 3 Japanese English teachers.

Throughout the year most of the teachers have incorporated English language songs into the learning experience. At the beginning of each class an English song is played on a boom box and the students, with the lyrics in English and Japanese on a paper before them, sing these songs, or at least attempt to. These songs are, without fail, songs they are already familiar with either through their use in popular Japanese films, TV shows and commercials, or because the singer has garnered international appeal that has somehow managed to reach the relatively tiny demographic of early teens living in Yokohama, Japan. This song changes once a month and by the month’s end the students either know it or they”ll never know it.

Where am I going with this?

Well, come Christmas time I find myself annually imploring 4-6 Japanese English teachers to please Please Please diversify the Christmas song selection.

The staples / standards at the school, and indeed anywhere you go in Yokohama / Tokyo, are as follows:

A- Wham’s Last Christmas

B- Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is you.

C- Tatsuro Yamashita’s Christmas Eve

D- John Lennon’s So this is Christmas (War is over)

When you go to department stores, office buildings, ride in elevators, walk through some train stations, eat at fast food or slow food restaurants…almost anywhere, you can hear instrumental versions, covers or the originals of one of these four tunes whispering softly in your ears like some kind of musical stalker…like Big Brother Christmas.

Throughout the year I wage vigorous campaigns to alter the other staples- a seemingly random selection of songs, some Beatles songs, an Aerosmith song here, a Queen song there, and throw in We are the World and a few others, but I noticed during my second year that these songs were being used again and again. They were not random at all.  I also noticed there was a resistance to my suggestions of alternatives. Pretty soon I gave up. Resistance was indeed futile.

But, come Christmas, I have to amp it up a bit because while the annual selection of staples is broad (by comparison) the Christmas selection has been relegated to the above four tunes…

This year, I decided it was Do-or-Die. I was going to get them to switch or die trying (figuratively speaking.) I started planning my incursion just before Halloween. I sat down and looked over the two previous year’s failed attempts, asking myself the question: why did I fail.

I hadn’t noticed the redundancy until my second Christmas at the schools. Standing before a class, trying to fend off the urge to sob I feel every time I hear that chorus of kids singing war is over in John Lennon’s anti-war Christmas message (While you celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, your turkeys and X-Mas trees, please remember the world is a fucked up place where innocent babies are being napalm’d.) Sometimes I even tear up and the kids wonder what’s up with Loco-sensei. Listen to that song long enough and it’ll make you wanna take a stand for all the children of the world and go to Afghanistan and stand in front of a tank. Looking out at my students I could tell that they were not experiencing anything vaguely similar. In peace-loving Japan, Lennon’s message of peace on earth is essentially preaching to the choir, an overstatement of the obvious, clearly aimed at thick-headed westerners, Chinese and North Koreans. So, here, it’s become more of a cute commercial jingle.

At that time I had no idea how fixed the teachers were into these selections. I mean, sometimes they’d even come to me for recommendations, so why wouldn’t I think change was possible? I remember Kawaguchi-sensei specifically getting at me because she too had felt that here was a great opportunity to introduce the kids to songs popular with kids in Loco-Sensei’s corner of the world.

But, I’d fucked it up…being the cultural chauvinist I used to and continue to be at times.

I mean, I haven’t celebrated Christmas in the traditional sense since I was about 7 years old. That would be the year my mother, in her infinite wisdom, introduced Kwanzaa to us. We never looked back. Well, that’s not true…We looked back, that is my siblings and I, but  my family as a unit never went back. We missed the toys and trees and lights and anticipation of Christmas morning, because my mother didn’t ween us off of the yuletide crack pipe, she ended the tradition Cold Turkey, dragging us away kicking and screaming. One year there was a Christmas tree, with lights and a star atop and presents stacked beneath it, and the following year there were 7 candles each representing some principle in an African language, a basket of fruit and a bunch of crazy songs sung by a bunch of miserable kids who longed for Kris Kringle and the joy the day would bring…the reflection in the mirror revealed that these miserable kids were me and my sibs.

“Loco-sensei, can you recommend a Christmas song that we can use for the class?” Kawaguchi-Sensei had asked me that day.

I racked my brain for 30 seconds or so, thinking of a simple song the kids might get into. “How about The little drummer boy? Do you know that one?”

“A little…what’s it about?”

“It’s about…um…it’s about a…well…a little boy who plays a drum…um…for Jesus. Yeah, on the day Jesus is born he plays the drum.”


“Jesus Christ…you know, the reason for the season…” I’d remembered that line from some gospel song or other.


“Well, there are two Christmases you know…there’s the Santa Claus Christmas and the Jesus Christ Christmas, and they both have their own songs…” I swore at the time I was teaching her something, but actually all I was doing was telling her that it’s simpler just to go with the safe staples like George Micheal, John Lennon and company, and avoid all this Western religious foolishness. “Like for instance, you know “Silent Night” right?”


“That’s another song about Jesus…” I said, starting to feel a little uncomfortable with all this religious talk. I usually avoid it but for some reason I felt it was important to point out to Kawaguchi-sensei the significance of the music. “Now, songs like Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman…these would be songs just about Santa Claus and enjoying this time of year. Nothing about Jesus.”

“Uh huh…”

“So, do you prefer secular…er…un-Christian songs or Christian songs?” I asked. “I like both kinds, personally…but I recommend the secular ones for the students.”

“Really, why?”

“Because they probably aren’t going to understand the Christian ones very well unless they understand Christianity and I’d wager most of them aren’t Christians, right?”

“No, they aren’t.” If regret could be personified it would look like her at that moment.

“And I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a missionary…”

“A what? listen, Loco-Sensei, I think we’re going to just stick with….”

Yes, my attempts to change the music selection that year were a total failure.


to be continued…


10 Responses to “So, this is Christmas…in Japan pt.1”

  1. 1 WC
    December 22, 2009 at 1:32 am

    I’m trying to imagine singing Christmas songs and not including Jingle Bells and Rudolph… Or at least ‘White Christmas’. Hamasaki Ayumi even covered White Christmas!

    Good story so far. I have a feeling I’d have fallen into exactly the same trap, too.

  2. 2 Rune
    December 22, 2009 at 7:04 am

    people working in retail or supermarkets and other such venues should get hazard pay during november/december. I worked in a supermarket for some years and was driven mad each christmas season because of the same crimpy songs playing on repeat day in and day out.

  3. December 22, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Try “the Pogue’s” (Fairytale of New York)

    Really catchy but the lyrics

    give it a few seconds to get started. After the first verse it really starts jumpin’

    “The boys of the NYPD choir
    Were singing “Galway Bay”
    And the bells were ringing out
    For Christmas day

    You’re a bum
    You’re a punk
    You’re an old slut on junk
    Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
    You scumbag, you maggot
    You cheap lousy faggot
    Happy Christmas your arse
    I pray God it’s our last

    I could have been someone
    Well so could anyone
    You took my dreams from me
    When I first found you
    I kept them with me babe
    I put them with my own
    Can’t make it all alone
    I’ve built my dreams around you”

    Merry Christmas 🙂

    • December 22, 2009 at 10:42 am

      One of my faves! I was just writing about this just now…damn we’re on the same page bruh!!!
      Right back at you, Happy holidays!!!

  4. 5 Cedric Domani
    December 22, 2009 at 11:34 am

    The Pogues are the bomb.

  5. December 22, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Great stuff! Yeah, this is Japan – if doing something new presents the slightest bit of difficulty then, uhhh, let’s just revert to doing the same old thing. Now THAT’s tradition!

  6. 7 apple407
    December 23, 2009 at 6:05 am

    I completely understand your predicament. Japan is not going to change overnight or two. But, let me just say that what comes over clearly to me from your writing is your “I’m going to teach these people and straighten them out!” attitude.
    Now you may not be aware of it consciously, but this is what I sense. While this is a worthy cause to challenge yourself, but your spirit may not be translating in a way that helps your cause. Perhaps, your youth and energy both works for and against your efforts.
    You might try relaxing a little and enjoy this opportunity, and see what it is that you can learn from your situation.

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