Culture : Japanese Parade for St. Patrick, Whoever He Was : Western holidays are all the rage. But a poor understanding of their meanings leads to faux pas, such as Santa on a crucifix.
The bagpipes were there. So were the Celtic dancers. The Irish wolfhounds, all four of them, showed up too. Along with shamrock signs, a Jameson Irish whiskey car and the Irish ambassador in a green tie, they all helped kick off the second annual St. Patrick’s Day parade Sunday along Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando Boulevard.
So what if most Japanese who watched the spectacle hadn’t the slightest clue about who St. Patrick was or why all the green?
“This is very rare, so I’m trying to watch and understand,” said Akira Ueda, 41, an architect, as he peered at the Irish flags and signs. “But I really don’t know anything about it.”
Over at the Hard Rock Cafe in the capital’s Roppongi district, the Japanese staff good-naturedly served up green beer, corned beef and cabbage and Irish club sandwiches during a weeklong promotion for St. Patrick’s Day. Never mind that the holiday’s meaning got lost somewhere in translation.
“St. Patrick? He was like a small kind of devil,” explained cafe employee Hiroko Shiraiwa, perhaps confusing Ireland’s patron saint with its legendary leprechauns.
But it’s all good fun in Tokyo, where Western holidays are enthusiastically embraced and, in inimitable Japanese style, given a local flavor all their own. St. Patrick’s Day may be just getting started here, but Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas are already making their marks.
And even if this Buddhist nation does not quite connect with the Christian roots of St. Patrick and St. Valentine, All Saints and All Souls days or the birth of Jesus, not to worry. Japan’s energetic retail industry has capitalized on the nation’s elaborate gift-giving customs--and its sense of duty and obligation--to make Western holidays the latest opportunities to buy and sell.
“In Japan, these events have no religious meaning at all,” said Mari Sone, a clerk at the Seibu Department Store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “We just take the form and use it to sell. Japanese people love forms. Especially, young people worship Western forms as cool.”
To serve their markets, however, Japanese retailers have been quick to alter those forms, sometimes in ways unrecognizable to Americans.
On which holiday, for instance, is the de rigueur meal takeout fried chicken? Is the traditional food biscuits? Do the gals give the guys presents? Answers: Christmas Eve, Halloween and Valentine’s Day--or so various retailers would have you believe.
Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd. has tried to make Christmas synonymous with takeout chicken through promotional giveaways and specially packaged and priced Christmas barrels. A smash hit, the campaign boosts sales during Dec. 23-25 to five times that of an average three-day period, spokeswoman Hiroko Ito said. Last year, the company pulled in $37.6 million during the three-day Christmas promotion.
Kunio Hara of Mary Chocolate Co. in Tokyo is credited with introducing Valentine’s Day to Japan in 1958. Shrewdly calculating that women do the shopping in Japan, however, he declared that gals should give to guys.
His first effort resulted in total sales of three chocolate hearts and $1.45 in revenue. Today, however, Valentine’s Day accounts for more than 12% of the chocolate industry’s annual sales, grossing $495 million last year.
The strong performance is helped by the myriad categories in which chocolates are given here. There are the traditional gifts from girlfriend to boyfriend. But there is also a “ giri choco,” and “ gimu choco,” both categories that involve various degrees of obligation. The first has a measure of “human relationship,” and the second is merely a cut-and-dried duty, such as giving to a detested client, according to one explanation.
But not all brainstorms are winners. Take Halloween, for instance. Although the holiday is slowly catching on here, it still suffers from an identity problem. That was all the better for the Japan Biscuit Assn., which promptly moved to define the holiday to its advantage by trying to convince Japanese people that Americans celebrate it by eating biscuits.
The association flew in a Midwest beauty queen as Miss Halloween. Then promoters trotted her out to interviews with Japanese journalists, who had all been duly briefed about the American biscuit habits.
“The journalists all asked, ‘How did the tradition of eating biscuits at Halloween start?’ ” recalled Mary Corbett, a marketing specialist in Tokyo who was involved in the promotion. “She kind of said, ‘Ah, oh, we eat lots of things on Halloween.’ ”
The idea didn’t exactly capture the public imagination. The biscuit makers gave up, and so now Halloween is slowly emerging mostly as a day for friends to give each other candy and cakes decorated with orange.
The granddaddy of cultural faux pas here occurred just after World War II, when a Ginza department store rolled out its elaborate Christmas promotion: a smiling Santa nailed to a crucifix.
Another loser was Seibu’s effort to promote St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago. It unilaterally renamed it “Green Day” and put out several green goods for sale. Stripped of all meaning, the idea bombed, and the store hasn’t tried again.
Indeed, Seibu, like virtually every other store in Tokyo, sees March as the month of white, not green. March 14 was White Day in Tokyo, a holiday invented by the retail industry to get the guys who receive chocolates on Valentine’s Day to reciprocate. Anything goes here--even white panties, as was the rage a few years ago--but Seibu’s Sone said handkerchiefs were the top seller this year.
While Seibu was promoting White Day in its Shibuya store, its sister company, Wave Records, was promoting St. Patrick’s Day in Roppongi district. The store featured a first-floor display of greenery, Irish musicians such as Phil Coulter and miniature samples of Bailey’s Irish Cream.
The store began the Irish promotion this year in cooperation with the Irish Embassy, whose ambassador, James Sharkey, has been a tireless pitchman for his country. Last week, the embassy helped sponsor the first annual Emerald Ball, featuring a performance by Coulter and attended by the likes of the crown prince’s younger brother and wife.
Coulter said there seemed to be a definite identity problem for the Irish in Japan.
“People know about Ireland because of the headlines about guerrilla activities,” he said, “but it produces more than gunmen.” His goal, along with Sharkey, is to use St. Patrick’s Day as a chance to promote awareness of Ireland as a land of unspoiled natural beauty, of artists and writers, poets and playwrights--Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.
To Japanese retailers, however, the biggest problem with promoting St. Patrick’s Day is neither gunmen nor the color green.
“It’s not a holiday geared for gift-giving,” Sone of Seibu said. “So in Japan it probably won’t take off.”
Megumi Shimizu, Times researcher in the Tokyo bureau, contributed to this article.
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