Dec
22
2011

Christmas in Japan: How do Japanese People Celebrate it?

It happens every year. Sometimes it comes so sudden that we aren’t even properly prepared.
While not being celebrated everywhere, Christmas is known worldwide – of course in Japan as well.

Actually I used to live in the prefecture that first celebrated Christmas in Japan.
So, I want to take this opportunity to explain a bit about Christmas celebrations in Japan.

How come Japan celebrates Christmas?

Christmas in Japan

A Christmas market in Sakuragicho (Yokohama) – clearly inspired by German Christmas markets.

Christmas does exist in Japan, but it has no religious background.
Just like other Western holidays it has been adopted and modified! As it has neither a religious nor a cultural background, it’s not a national holiday in Japan.
Almost everybody (including me emoticon) has to work on Christmas!
However, December 23rd is a national holiday. This has nothing to do with Christmas, though. It just happens to be the birthday of the current “Tennou” (天皇, emperor)! emoticon

 

What do Japanese do on Christmas?

This certainly depends on the individual, but a lot of people go on a date with their partner or hang out with friends on Christmas Eve.
It’s also very common to eat a Christmas cake, often decorated with a cute Santa Claus figure.

Christmas in Japan, Japanese Christmas cake Christmas in Japan, Japanese Christmas cake

I have no clue where this is coming from. Apparently Fujiya first started selling Christmas cakes in Ginza during a time when the Westernization of Japan was at its peak. Just like other Western customs (e.g. Valentine’s Day), Christmas has turned into a huge commercial event in Japan.

Christmas dinner is fried chicken. And not just any chicken, but it has to be KFC.
Now, this sounds probably really weird – and it is.
This goes back to a pretty smart marketing campaign in 1974. When some Western residents couldn’t find turkey for their Christmas dinner. KFC used this opportunity to promote their fried chicken as THE x-mas dinner. And there you go.

The commercialization machinery works. A lot of Japanese people (at least the ones I’ve asked) seem to think that’s the way American people celebrate Christmas.

 

Christmas in Japan vs. Germany

In Japan Santa Claus will bring the presents. However, he’s not coming through the chimney (after all 99% of all Japanese houses don’t have any). He’ll sneak into the bedroom of the kids and put the presents next to them while they’re sleeping. At least that’s how people do it where I used to live. There might be regional differences.

I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of an old geezer coming into your house while you’re sleeping quite disturbing. In Germany we also have Santa Claus, but he’s usually coming on December 6th. There’s also Black Santa.
In my part of Germany (there are regional differences) a young angel-like girl (with long blonde curly hair) is coming on Christmas Eve (usually while the family is eating their x-mas dinner). The living room (or wherever you’ve put up your tree) is locked so that the shy girl called “Christkind” (“Christ child”) won’t be scared and runs away without leaving any presents if somebody suddenly enters. Isn’t that cute? emoticon
Japanese people quite like that idea whenever I tell them about it.

 

Let’s Celebrate the Birthday of …. Santa Claus?!

When you ask Japanese people what is being celebrated on Christmas, a lot of them will say “the birthday of Santa Claus” ….

Christmas in Japan isn’t really something where you sit together with your family and spend some calm and relaxing days.
That’s actually something Japanese people will do instead on “Omisoka” (大晦日, Japanese New Year’s Eve) and “Shougatsu” (お正月, Japanese New Year’s Day).
That’s when everybody comes together, eats a feast, goes to “church” (aka visiting a shrine).

 

Commercialization and Illumination

With only 1-2% Christians living in Japan, it’s not surprising that Christmas is mainly a commercial event.
Especially in recent years, Japan has discovered even more things to do (and sell) for Christmas (e.g. “advent calendar”). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Most Japanese houses are too small, so you won’t find any elaborate outer decoration or huge trees.  If people set up a Christmas tree, it’s usually a small plastic one.

As it’s a commercial event, you won’t struggle to find Christmas decoration. Even the 100 yen stores have a nice selection. That’s also where I used to get my x-mas decoration from.

One great thing about Christmas time are all the stunning illuminations all over the country.

Christmas in Japan illumination

Kobe is probably the best place to go if you want to enjoy awesome Christmas illumination. The yearly Luminarie is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Christmas in Japan illumination Christmas in Japan

Christmas trees in Kobe and Osaka.

Christmas in Japan illumination

Christmas illumination around Tokyo Dome.

To me Japanese Christmas illuminations seem a bit kitschy and amusement park-like.
They’re still quite lovely. Pretty much every big city has some kind of illumination going on, so you’ll be able to enjoy them if you come in winter. They’re usually around way beyond Christmas.

 

Be aware that most parts of Japan don’t get white Christmas. Hokkaido, some parts in Tohoku and the Chubu area usually do. Also, places that are in the mountains.

Hida Takayama in Chubu Japan

Takayama (early January 2010)

 

So, you do notice that it’s Christmas because of the
a) illuminations
b) x-mas songs and decorations in the department stores
c) all the Christmas cakes and KFC fried chicken Christmas dinner commercials
d) all the lovey-dovey couples on Christmas Eve

You won’t notice it’s Christmas because:
a) there is no “Advent” countdown whatsoever
b) most of the time you’ll have to work during the most precious Christmas time
c) no “real” Christmas atmosphere (with or without snow)

Christmas in Japan

Do you celebrate Christmas?
Have you been in Japan during Christmas time? How did you feel about it?
Let me know in the comments below. I’m always curious to hear about other people’s life and experiences.

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