TOKYO -- Japan has come a long way toward the Christmas spirit since the days after World War II.
"The first year or two, the shops at Ginza tried to attract Christmas-shopping American occupation troops with figures of an old man with a beard in a red suit -- nailed to a cross," Robert Orr, director of the Stanford Center in Kyoto, said recently. "I assumed the story was apocryphal until I met one old GI who had kept one."
Since then, Japanese merchants have had 46 years to work on the art of using Christmas to hype the national mania for year-end "gratitude" gifts.
Slow economies overseas mean the Japanese exported fewer gadgets this Christmas, but they will still give each other more and more expensive gifts than most Christian countries.
Hitachi Ltd. set the year's cautious tone early in the season, pushing low price and compactness to promote its new video-display telephone, which shows moving color images of the caller, similar to television, on a 5-inch liquid-crystal screen.
The set sells for a mere $7,500, which Hitachi proudly declared to be the least expensive moving-image entry yet in a field still limited by high prices.
In a society that prides itself on owning whatever is best, whatever the cost, Hitachi's decision to make price a sales pitch contrasted sharply with past holiday seasons. But it was consistent with the rest of the country's pre-Christmas economic news, specifically including retail sales.
Department stores reported a 1.3 percent drop in October sales compared with the same month of 1990, the first such decline since 1983.
Yet, in a country where scarcely 1 percent of the population is Christian, Christmas is still the rage.
"I came back to Japan to get away from all the Christmas commercialism in Germany," said Ritsuko Kojima, who created a sensation at exhibitions on the Continent last year by painting lavish Japanese textile patterns onto European-style lacquered Easter eggs.
"But there's more Christmas here now, and more commercial, than in Europe," she said.
Well before Halloween -- a Western holiday that is only beginning to attract a following here -- retail chains wrap not only their merchandise but also whole department store exteriors as Christmas packages, most prominently the Ginza Mitsukoshi, which occupies one corner of the world's highest-priced intersection.
Hotel managers have spent more than a decade infusing the holiday with a romantic aura that has made Christmas Eve the one night of the year when a suitor doesn't dare fail to take his sweetheart out.
In contrast to the custom in most Christian countries of spending Christmas Eve at home with the family, the Japanese custom is a "Christmas cabaret" dinner with champagne in a hotel ballroom at a cost of several hundred dollars a couple.
In this atmosphere of jingle bells and candlelight, the young man is expected to hand over a gift worth at least an additional several hundred dollars.
At Tokyo's and Osaka's most expensive hotels, Christmas Eve reservations -- for the dinner concert and for a room overnight -- usually are sold out a year or more in advance.
As the Christmas season approaches, young men spend weeks telephoning and scanning advertisements to determine which stores plan to stock the gifts their girlfriends have suggested.
In a fad-mad society where everybody wants the same trinket the same year, men often start lining up as early as 5 a.m. outside stores where a coveted item is about to go on sale.
Tiffany's, whose New York customers tend to be mostly middle-aged and often women, usually has scores of young men poring over the offerings at its Ginza store for weeks each fall, and it usually has trouble keeping its best-sellers in stock.
Limousine companies are always fully booked for Christmas Eve, charging "special service" rates for the popular hours.
If Christmas morning in America means a child who runs downstairs hoping for something by Nintendo under the tree, in Japan it means a young man who wakes up knowing the night before cost him $1,000 to $2,000, not counting a gift.
The end of the year has always been a gift-giving and partying season for the Japanese. But, even though Santa Claus has been brought down from the cross and put in his more familiar sleigh and fireside settings, he still didn't pack the sales punch merchandisers wanted.
So they aped the romantically suggestive themes the hotels pioneered, and Santa now gets second billing to slinky women in bare-shouldered, miniskirted party dresses and shimmering thigh-high boots.
Merchandisers have steadily added Christmas themes to year-end promotions, to the point that it has become hard to know just what occasion is being celebrated.
A typical bonenkai -- literally, a lavish "forget-the-year party" sponsored by a company for its employees and best customers -- is now awash in poinsettias, reindeer and ersatz Elvises doing songs such as "Jingle Bell Rock."