Japan and the Christian Cafe

Nice Chandelier!

So it’s 2010. Time to put those new year resolutions into practice and get myself organised and in this futuristic decade what better place to start than my hi-tech internet blog. Granted it is now almost a week since New Years day but since I am technically still ‘on holiday’ in Japan I think getting the blog back in order at this early stage of the year can almost pass for an achievement!

Being in Japan at the moment I can’t help but feel like I am missing out on the predictable collapse of society that occurs in the UK following any unexpected weather. However, I can at least console myself by enjoying the sites of Tokyo and visiting the various bizarre cafes and bars that are littered across the city. This post is about one such venue called the ‘Christon Café’ which aside from being a nice place to eat also provides a pretty good illustration of the paradoxical attitude towards religion found throughout Japan of widespread indifference alongside a fascination with religious iconography and aesthetic.

The ‘Christon Café’ I visited was located in the trendy Shinjuku area (there are another 7 across Japan) and as the name suggests it is a café/restaurant that is decorated with a ‘Christian’ theme. This means that there are large murals of Jesus, Mary and other Christian figures on many of the walls, a plethora of crosses and statues everywhere you look and perhaps most impressively a large stained glass window overshadowing the entrance. The few bits of décor which lack a Christian motif are distinctly gothic and this generally serves to enhance the ‘Christian theme’, or at least it does if you are from an Irish Catholic background and have a long standing familiarity with stone floored churches and semi-gothic architecture.

The café is in actual fact more like a restaurant but it is also a place that groups come to eat and have a few drinks. Drinking while surrounding by the overpowering Christian iconography gave me the odd sensation of having sneaked into a church to drink some beers but the weirdness is what makes it fun and this I suspect is also what attracts the Japanese customers. That and the fact that Japan seems to have a love of ‘themed’ locations and from bars to restaurants to hotels it’s possible to find practically any theme imaginable if you look hard enough. And while it is true that themed locations exist in the UK we really do not put as much effort into it as the Japanese do (see the pictures below for evidence).

Stained Glass Entrance

In the UK and across Europe you will certainly find things like nightclubs called ‘the Buddha bar’, a Walkabout chain bar in a converted Church and rock bars with some gothic religious iconography but what you are very unlikely to find is bars or cafes that have gone so far as to install an authentic Buddhist altar, decorate their bar with pages from the Lotus sutra and place mini stupas across the wall. That is the level of effort on show in the ‘Christon Café’ locations.

Passing Mary statue on the way to the bar...

The reason that the bar exists is certainly partly down to a general fascination with Western culture in Japan and the fact that Christianity is a distinctly minority religion undoubtedly robs the religious imagery of most of its typical associations however I cannot help but feel that due to the somewhat less severe way that religion is approached in Japan by most people a similarly themed Buddhist café would face little opposition if someone felt it would prove popular. This is also reflected in the popular culture which often includes references to religious imagery without incurring any protest.

This more permissive attitude surrounding religion and religious locations was also on display all throughout the New Year period as many temples and shrines play host to not only hundreds and thousands of people seeking a New Year blessing but also a variety of food vendors and small entertainment and goods stalls. There are certainly those in Japan that take religion very seriously and who may well have an issue with the Christon Café but such people are in a distinct minority.

Eneru a villain with Buddhist motifs from the popular manga 'One Piece'

Personally, I don’t have any issue with the café except for the fact that the food wasn’t that great and it’s semi-over priced but still it was an interesting dining and drinking experience and I’m generally in favour of anything that makes things more interesting especially when it helps to take away some of the mysticism and seriousness surrounding religions.

I also think that the drab church affiliated cafés that I occasionally come across in Oxford could attract a lot more people if they took a page out of the Christon Cafés book. Not likely maybe but who knows in 50 years? After all the mega churches in America are already providing a more over the top caricature of Christianity than any themed Japanese café ever could!

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7 comments

  1. I don’t think that your assessment of the American church is very fair. It seems that the church in America is damned if they do, and damned if they don’t, to coin the phrase. No one is going to a place that has wooden pews and a organ for more than a hour, so a certain progression has to occur.

    Unfortunately, in many cases, the mega-church has been ridiculed because of impropriety, but that has to be taken in context. There is just as much wrong with a small church than a large church. The large church’s faults are amplified more because of their size and stature.

    As for Japan itself, one can’t comment on their use of such imagery without understanding the secular nature of the culture. Jesus is pretty much like a can of Coke to them, it has no meaning. http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070620094646AA5VuBa So unless you understand that, one shouldn’t be moved by this usage of christian imagery in any case.

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