How Christmas is Celebrated in Japan

Konnichiwa! My name is Kanako Morishita, and I will be working as a Japan Outreach Initiative (JOI) Coordinator for JCMU in Michigan until 2019.

The sun is shining, landscapes are painted white with snow, and radio stations everywhere are playing classic festive tunes. This is my first time celebrating the Christmas season in the States, and it’s been a blast!

Did you know that Christmas is celebrated in Japan, too?

Although it is not a Japanese national holiday, Christmas is celebrated as a non-religious day of festivities that people of all ages celebrate. Shops will be decorated to fit the Christmas mood, Santas will be around, and more – just like in the U.S. Plus, since our emperor’s birthday (which is a national holiday) is December 23rd, many workers take an extra couple of days off of work to celebrate the special day as well.

Celebrating the Emperor’s Birthday at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (photo by Nesnad)

Christmas is one of the first modern examples of American celebrations influencing Japanese culture. Many of us, particularly younger people, love modifying Western holidays to fit our society. This includes removing most religious aspects of the traditionally Christian day, as Christianity isn’t as widely practiced by Japanese people.

Since Christmas is generally secular in Japan, how is it celebrated? The answer: it depends based on a person’s status and own personal circumstances. Of course, this could be said of any holiday anywhere – how one family celebrates in the U.S. may differ wildly from another family in the same city, even. However, there are some general trends and traditions that are associated with Christmas in Japan:

Point 1: ♡♡ Christmas is for couples ♡♡

Yup, Christmas is for loving partners, not families, in Japan. If you are walking through town on the 25th, you will undoubtedly witness many happy couples enjoying their time together while walking under the city’s Christmas lights.

The day is so synonymous with romantic love, in fact, that there’s actually a decent amount of societal pressure pushing you to have your own date for the day. So, if you are single in Japan, you may be feeling the same stress that I often felt to find your own partner by Christmas Eve…

When did Christmas become more like Valentine’s Day in Japan?

Couples weren’t always the main focus of Christmas! In fact, in the early 1980s, Christmas was about spending time with friends. However, when the Japanese bubble boom came in 1986, TV romantic dramas featuring young adults became hugely popular among audiences of the same age as the characters. Their budding romances often reached a peak on Christmas day, when the couples would come together for the holiday after being separated before.

The Japan Railways (JR) released a series of commercials called the “Christmas Express” that took advantage of this trend. In them, young adult characters in love meet up for Christmas after being separated for a period of time. You can view some of them in the video below:

Thanks to this trend, Japanese pop singers started singing about lovers on Christmas. Even today, Christmas songs from this time period such as 『恋人がサンタクロース』(“Koibito ga Santa Kuroosu“) by Yumi Matsutoya and『クリスマス・イブ』(“Kurisumasu Ibu“) by Tatsuro Yamashita remain top festive hits.

Thanks to the media’s influence, having a date on Christmas became fashionable, gradually becoming a full-on tradition by the 2000s.

Where do couples go on Christmas Eve?

For them, Christmas Eve is more important day than Christmas itself. On the 24th, many couples not only walk around town, but also go to theme parks like a Tokyo Disney land, stay at fancy hotels, have dinner at nice restaurants, or even stay cozy at home together.

If you are planning to do something outside, do not forget to book two seats in advance!!

Christmas lights in Tokyo

Point 2: KFC on Christmas???

You might not believe this, but a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) feast is perhaps the most famous tradition associated with Christmas in Japan. If you are in Japan, you might see long lines of people waiting to buy their own holiday fried chicken. No joke! It’s so well-known that KFC’s TV commercials from November through December run with the slogan “Kentucky Christmas” and feature a famous Japanese singer performing Christmas music. I see it every year I’m in Japan during this time of the year.

According to KFC Japan’s website, a Japanese kindergarten reached out to a KFC staff member and said “we want to hold a Christmas party, so could you please come to the party with a Santa costume?” The store manager did just that, donning a Santa costume during his visit. Nothing could have prepared him for how incredibly excited and happy the children were to see Santa, carrying KFC for them.

This rumor of a KFC Santa rapidly spread through local communities. Shortly after, KFC Japan received dozens of inquiries from several schools in an effort to bring the jolly fried chicken Saint Nick. With this in their mind, KFC’s sales managers came together and attempted to reach nationwide appeal using the “Kentucky Christmas” slogan.

Who would’ve known that it would blow up into such a big tradition! Now more than ever, Japanese people still love to have KFC on Christmas to get into the festive holiday mood.

They even dress the Colonel up in Santa gear! (photo by David Kawabata)

Point 3: Don’t forget Christmas cake~

Across the world, different countries and cultures have their own sweets to eat on Christmas. In the U.S., fruitcake is common (putting aside its somewhat infamous reputation). As for Japan, we eat something aptly called “Christmas cake” as a part of our holiday celebration!

While it contains fruit, Christmas cake is more akin to shortcake rather than American fruitcake. Just like with KFC, you will probably watch a lot of Christmas cake TV commercials if you’re in Japan.

There are many shops that sell their own original Christmas cake, too. Not only local bakeries, pastry chefs, hotels, and even convenience stores promote their own holiday shortcake every year. The Christmas cake market is very competitive, making it hard to choose just one!

After making our selection, we bring it home and put candles on it like a birthday cake. We don’t have a specific Christmas song to sing before blowing the candles out, but I still think it’s a lot of fun!

Christmas cakes are often elaborate – and so, so cute! (photo by alphalead)

Point 4: Christmas is a countdown to New Year

Although we like Christmas, the days immediately after are actually more important to Japanese people as we begin to welcome the New Year. Many businesses close up shop after December 29th, and most people usually clean their homes (and workplace) during this time.

In both Japan and the U.S., December is both the busiest and most wonderful time of the year – in my opinion, at least! No matter how or where you celebrate the holidays, I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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