Life in Japan

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.

21 Comments

  • The birthday of Santa Claus…Lol.

    Well, of course, strictly speaking, a “white” Christmas is a north European and north east US idea. In the real Bethlehem, there is no snow in December.

    Here in the US one sees even kitschier decorations than in Japan…The way some people decorate the outside of their house is really flashy, in every sense of the term. As for instance, reindeer and sleigh with Santa on the roof, no less, lights all over the place, etc. I actually rather like a lot of the Tokyo displays.

    No Advent here. And you progressively get to dislike Christmas because you hear the same carols and Xmas songs repeated over and over everywhere, even the supermarket. Not to speak of seeing Xmas sweaters, Xmas scarves, Xmas everything. No matter whether you might be Buddhist, Shinto or Moslem, you can’t escape it!

    Do you detect a certain Christmas fatigue here? I will have to cook Christmas dinner, …and cakes and pies…

    • Uh, sounds busy!
      I guess many people are stressed out a lot during the Christmas time, but I certainly miss that “Christmas holiday” feeling and everything. Not so much the stress and all, of course :mukatsuku:
      When I went to the supermarket, there were so many Christmas cakes today, but I never feel like eating CAKE on Christmas Eve. I doubt I ever will. :hihi:

  • LOL, Christmas being the birthday of Santa Claus sounds like a child’s response. :hihi: And really lovely illuminations! :D

    It’s kinda lonely working on Christmas day, isn’t it? :stressed: My country celebrates perhaps the loooongest Christmas season ever. Even if December just arrived, you can already see Christmas trees and Christmas lights all over. :shock: Students get to have a two weeks long Christmas vacation too, and although working people only have the main holiday on the 25th, it’s customary to celebrate the “Christmas Eve” together with families. The Christmas Eve matters more to me than the Christmas day itself though, so the idea of working on the Christmas Eve really hurts! :teary:

    There are still a lot more of customs observed during Christmas season here, and it would take almost a day to list it all. XD

    • Same in Germany!! Actually you’ll finde Christmas related things even in November or earlier!
      I think in America, too, as soon as Halloween is over! XD
      Usually the Christmas season is over on January 6th in Germany. That’s when you should put away all of your decorations and toss the tree (^-^”) …

      In Germany students also have 1 or 2 weeks of winter vacation.

      Yes, Christmas Eve is the real Christmas for Germans, too! It’s when you spend the day or at least the evening with your family, when you get your presents, when you sing x-mas carols in front of the tree etc.

  • I love the “Santa Claus’s birthday” idea. And funny, I too always used to think that the “christ child” was a girl. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I realized that it was in fact baby Jesus. So weird.

    I love those Christmas cakes! I should make one myself next year and give it to my friend who has lived in Japan; she would love that!

    I can actually imagine that it’s easier to get into a Christmas mood in Japan than it is in Australia, where I live (I’m originally German). 30 degree weather? OK, that’s Christmas ruined. ;)

    • I think baking a Christmas cake for your friend would be a great idea! :D

      *LOL* I see, but at least once I’d love to spend a Christmas like that … let’s say a tropical Christmas?! :hihi:

  • wow, I so loved those illuminations- it’s sparkling all over! :kyah:
    and…Christmas is Santa’s birthday?! sounds like any child would answer. :hihi:

    • Those photos are actually quite old (and so was the camera), so they’re not really good.
      I wish I could post some really awesome illumination photos, but I’m usually too busy in December to travel around. Glad you like them nevertheless! :D

      Yes, such a cute idea! :hihi:

  • Cool site layout!

    I’m from Canada, but my family is mostly German, so I experienced some apparently German customs as a kid: the Christmas Angel was the one who stood out to me. She came with presents before Christmas. I wonder if this is a real German custom or something that was changed a bit since coming to Canada?

    But I agree – – there’s no lead up to Christmas here in Japan. No advent or otherwise. So even when I get’s to being Christmas, I still don’t really feel any different like I would back home.

    Nice first entry to the J-festa blog! :)

    • Hm. I think it’s not too strange to get presents before Christmas but usually you would just put them under the tree and open them on Christmas Eve. It’s also not uncommon to get presents after Christmas from relatives that couldn’t make it during the holidays for whatever reason.

      Thanks a lot, also for your comment!! :D

  • thank you for participating in j-festa. great post and cool site.

    > So, you do notice that it’s Christmas because of the
    b) x-mas songs and decorations in the department stores

  • I’m so impressed with all the gorgeous photos you have taken! I am so excited for my first Christmas in Japan… years away, but still, so stoked!! Haha! :heart:

  • Hey … I really like your blog.
    I learned about it from your associate, Patrick Nolan, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
    I am very interested in your commentary on GERMANY as my relatives are from Baden Baden and Schwabing.

    I have always wanted to visit the Christmas Markets — any and all as I have never been to Germany.

    I like Japan. I have only been there once and it was coming through Tokyo on a connecting flight to Singapore.

    The people were SUPER nice. I bought some green tea carmels. The females DID NOT look real.

    Their papers, art, just their way of being is delightful.

    Loved your Christmas deocrations from the 100 yen store …. ha ha … our USA version of the dollar store.

    Want to read more of your blog.

    Again, thank you.

  • Times have certainly changed in Japan from my days in the early 60’s…Back then, you would not see any thing about Christmas..But the Japanese people are still the friendliest people in the world..Back then and present days..I know, I married one…53 years now..Love your blog and FB posts…Thanks and keep it up…

    Merry Christmas!!!

    • So glad to hear that John! :)

      In fact, Japan has changed a lot more within the past few years.
      When I first moved there, nobody knew what an “advent calendar” is. In recent years, you can find them in most department stores.
      Japan is always quick to implement those things. ^_____^

      Thanks for always reading and commenting on Facebook!! :3