The celebration of Christmas in Japan dates
back only about a century. This is not surprising, since the Christian
population is less than one percent; yet in the past thirty-five years,
the Christmas festivities have grown to enormous proportions.
The observance is mainly commercial and
closely tied to the American urban Christmas. Carols are sung in Japanese,
Christmas trees are decorated with lights, turkeys are fattened, and
mistletoe and holly are hung.
The only difference is in the gift
bringer. Instead of adopting the American Santa Claus, the Japanese looked
into their own tradition to find someone with similar characteristics.
This was Hotei or Hoteiosho, an old Japanese god. He was originally one of
the seven gods of good fortune. An amiable, serene and contented deity, he
is often represented as a Buddhist priest with large ear-lobes. His
distinguishing feature is a huge stomach believed to be a symbol of his
He is always depicted as joyously
laughing, whether alone or surrounded by children. He holds a fan in one
hand and carries on his back the linen bag (hotel) from which he derives
his name. He carries the ‘Precious Things’ in the bag, the gifts and
toys which he gives to good children. He doesn ‘t need a helper to check
on the children’s behavior because they’re told that he has eyes in
the back of his head. He has been popularized in Europe under the name of
Pusa. It’s no wonder that the children of Japan recognize in him the
same characteristics as Santa Claus.