WORTHINGTON, Ohio — When Honda opened its U.S.-based car manufacturing plant in 1979, some Japanese employees were in for a surprise--Christmas in the United States.
"Not all Japanese are Christians," said Koichiro Shinagawa, director of the Honda of America Family Center, which helps Japanese auto workers and their families ease into American life.
However, many Japanese were already aware of Christmas customs, learned years ago from Western missionaries, he said.
One of Shinagawa's assistants, Keiko Hammond, is a good example.
"The Christians spent the day in church," said Hammond, recalling her youth in Japan. "I spent lots of Christmases in church. It was the biggest celebration, the whole school prepared for it."
Hammond, who came to the United States 16 years ago, now spends her holiday season decorating a Christmas tree and buying presents for her 15-year-old daughter.
She said she and her family do not go to church now but she still likes to go to holiday parties, which she also attended in Japan.
Shinagawa, who arrived in America in May, 1985, said Christmas today in Japan is more commercial than religious.
"Children know about Santa Claus and he brings gifts on Christmas Eve," he said. "Stores decorate and have special Christmas sales. There's not that much religion, just pleasure. It's a good opportunity for stores to expand business.
"It's also a good opportunity to travel," Shinagawa said, who explained that New Year's is the big celebration time in Japan. Nearly everyone is off for an eight-day winter holiday that begins shortly after Christmas, he said.
During that time, he said, many people return to their home town to be with family.
Even today, some Japanese living in the United States use the holidays to travel. Shinagawa said he likes to head for warmer climes and some sunshine.
Shinagawa said he had heard about how Christmas is celebrated in the West and how the Japanese were beginning to follow suit, but said he still was amazed at one thing--the vast outdoor decorations for the holidays.
But as more Japanese become aware of Christmas and all that it implies, some find a way to combine their Asian traditions with an American flavor.
Hammond spoke in Japanese to two women at the center, who described some of their celebrations at home.
They make okagami , two round rice cakes with oranges to top, Hammond translated, along with having a tree or wreath on the door, and cook "a more gorgeous meal than every day."
They also exchange gifts, she said, and, in what is possibly their most American of indoctrinations, give their children toys. What kind?
"Whatever is on TV advertisements," Hammond said.