Christmas in Japan: today and through history

Christmas in Japan is a mirror image of the Christmas known in the English-speaking world. Things look very similar, but everything is back-to-front.

The most fundamental difference is that Christmas is about couples in Japan, and about families in the West. Then, while the West is busy partying it up on New Year’s Eve, Japan is quietly going to the Shinto shrine with their family. It all feels a bit topsy-turvy if you’re a westerner in Japan for the season to be jolly.

So perhaps Japan isn’t so much a mirror image, as a parallel Yuletide universe.

The other crude equivalent here is between the Japanese Christmas and the Western Valentine’s Day. Or, to be precise, Japan’s Christmas Eve and Western Valentine’s Day. It’s more table for two with wine than table for 8 with eggnog. Indeed, if Japanese people had to choose a night they were most afraid to be alone, it would be Christmas over Valentines.

Obviously, something was lost, or at least changed, in translation. 

It’s not hard to see where the confusion could begin. Look at all the Christmas movies that come out of the West each year. As many of them focus on romantic love between couples as on whole families. It’s easier to make a story that focuses on two people than between four, five, of six. 

Japan just took the movie-makers at their word.

At this point, it is worth taking a look at how Christmas in Japan developed over the years.

The History of Japanese Christmas

The first thing to note about Christmas in Japan is that it’s actually got a history that stretches back nearly half a Millenium.

The oldest Christmas celebration to be held in Japan is believed to have been held by Jesuit missionary, Cosme de Trace, who preached in Japan with legendary Christian proselytizer Francis Xavier. Cosme held a celebration in what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture as far back as 1552.

Around 1560, 100 newly minted Japanese Christians gathered in Kyoto to celebrate 降誕祭, which is a word meaning “festival of the birth of a great saint” and is an early Japanese word to refer to Christmas. 

Intriguingly, from 1568, there exists a note by Jesuit Luis Frois that reads “Nobunaga Oda and Hisahide Matsunaga held a ceasefire for Christmas.” Many historians take this as an indication that there were Christmas celebrations being held all around the place in Japan at the time.

Whether they ate turkey, pork or sushi rolls dipped in cranberry sauce is not recorded.

Unfortunately, Cosme and his Christian crew were unable to effectively fight for their right to party (it isn’t recorded, either, whether Cosme was a Beastie Boys fan or not) with Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa banning Christianity, on pain of death, in 1612. 

Talk about your Grinch that stole Christmas.

Tokugawa didn’t manage to wholly eradicate the Christian faith though, with a group of Christians in Amakusa and other places, quite literally “keeping the faith” (ok, we’re going to see how many music references we can squeeze in here) across several centuries. They are known in Japan as the “kakure kurisuchan”, the “Christians-in-Hiding”.

But, not surprisingly, it is not recorded whether Christmas was celebrated during this time whatsoever, let alone what was on the dinner menu if it was.

This period also became the time where Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world. Allowing no foreigners in, and no Japanese out, it was the time of the “sakoku” or “locked nation”.

They did allow a couple of small trading outposts at the more far-flung extremes, such as Dejima in Nagasaki. It is reported that the foreign barbarians who congregated in this area celebrated some kind of “winter solstice festival”. 

Bearing in mind that December 25 is actually based on Romanic and later Germanic winter solstice festivals of “yule ”, it sounds like the out-of-towners non-Japanese were hosting Christmas bashes on the sly.

Fast forward to the Meiji era, the period after Admiral Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, stood next to a smoking cannon, and politely asked the Japanese to open up their country to trade with his friendly, and powerful, nation of America. 

You could all but hear the jingle bells faintly ringing across the pacific.

1907 advertisement for a Meijiya/Kirin Beer Christmas event

In 1873, the decree outlawing the practice of the Christian religion was lifted, and the Christians-In-Hiding of Japan breathed a sigh of relief two and a half centuries coming.

The iconic Meiji-ya foreign import goods store, which opened in 1885 in Ginza, began selling Christmas paraphernalia. Christmas started to catch on with the common people, or at least those curious about all things barbarian.

But it is believed that Christmas cheer did not really spread in earnest until the Showa era.

Up until WWII, there were national holidays for both the emperor’s birthday and the death of the past emperor. When Emperor Taisho passed away on December 25, 1926, the date became a national holiday. 

December 25 remained a holiday until the passing of a broader law on national holidays came into effect in 1948. This meant that Japan had, by coincidence, a holiday for Christmas for a couple of decades in the early 20th century without really even knowing it. 

By this time. though, special Christmas menu items were beginning to be offered at cafes and coffee shops in Tokyo. Shop staff began donning various pieces of Christmas clothing, starting them down the slippery slope to that low point of collective human culture; the synthetic deer antler headdress.

A Christmas advertisement from 1912 for a Daimaru event

When Japan entered WWII, it became not so cool to celebrate all things Western. 

Not-so-cool as in the use of English was banned. Western-style festivals were roundly discouraged. Interestingly, there do exist pictures of Christmas trees, and some Christmas items in Japan during this time. It seems that Christmas even found a way to live in wartime Japan (and if there’s not a movie in that, I’ll go hai-ya!). 

If nothing else, this would suggest that certain Christmas traditions had become pretty well ingrained by this time.

Japanese Christmas Eve & Christmas Day.

Showing some similarities with how Christmas is celebrated in many European countries, Christmas Eve is the main event in Japan.

But, in contrast to European Christmas Eves, Japanese traditions for Christmas Eve are closer to a Valentine’s Day style events, with people seeing it as a time for couples to make romance.

This idea of Christmas being something that couples celebrate more than families can be seen, and may have been strengthened by, the 1982 hit song “koijin ga Santa Claus” which somewhat disturbingly translates as “Santa Claus Is My Lover“. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so taken aback by this brazen lust expressed for the man-in-red when we consider songs in the American oeuvre including “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” (although surely the implication here is that the Father Christmas in question is actually the normally rotund father of the household).

Japanese Christmas Food

Strawberry Shortcake

In stark contrast to the heavy, fruity dense mass of dried fruits that is a Christmas Cake in many Western countries, the Japanese “Christmas Cake” for the winter season is an altogether lighter affair.

Strawberry shortcake is the order of the day. This is of little surprise as Japanese go made for a little shortcake most of the year round.

The more intriguing story of Japanese strawberry Christmas shortcake goes suggests there is a nationalistic element to the popularity of the dish. The colors of the cake, white and red, represent Japan’s two national colors, as is seen in the country’s flag. 

In this way, the cakes became a potent symbol of Japan’s rejuvenation after the deprivations of the 2nd World War. 

Of course, it also helps that red and white are good ol’ Christmassy colors too!

In addition to Strawberries, look for a variety of fruits like kiwi, pineapple, or even watermelon on these creamy delights. The cake itself is made out of sponge cake, which has been soaked in milk to create a soft texture. It’s then topped with whipped cream and fruit. What’s not to be cheerful about?

Kentucky for Christmas!

Kentucky is pretty good at coming up with innovative marketing campaigns to get people to scoff more poultry. Somehow, in the space of half a century, they seem to have convinced the Japanese people that eating Southern deep-fried chicken is akin to an age-old Western religious tradition.

American fast-food companies are pretty good at adapting their wares to the Asian market, witness this “samurai-burger from Macdonalds in Japan, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

Greater even than convincing thousands of people in the antipodes to don their generally grease-drenched buckets on their heads at sporting events, this has to be one of the Kentucky Worldwide Marketing Teams’ greatest promotional coups.

The Japanese Kentucky Eating tradition (shall we say conspiracy?) even has its own quasi-religious mythological story that goes with it. In this origin story, the character most closely resembling baby-Jesus is one Takeshi Okawara. Apparently, the idea of the “Christmas Party Bucket” materialized to him in a dream. The concept had been bubbling in his subconscious since hearing a couple of foreigners in Japan pining for their beloved Christmas turkey.

Whether it was the Buddha or Yahweh himself who appeared to Takeshi in 1970 in his nocturnal vision and whispered in his ear the good news revelation of the Fried chicken, is not known. 

What is known is that by 1974 KFC Japan was launching massive marketing campaigns that seemed to strangely, perhaps divinely, strike a chord in the Japanese national psyche. It was as if a huge latent desire for crispy tori had been awakened within them. 

Today, this slumbering desire has been fully sated with Japanese queuing up outside the fast-food chain’s many establishments in the festive season. Or booking the culinary orgy months in advance to avoid disappointment. 

And while KFCs in North America are quietly adjusting their rosters so that they have the least manpower required to service the minimal demand for battered wings in the festive season, Japanese Kentuckys are jacking up their prices and doling out the Christmas buckets by the millions.  Indeed, the company claims that more than half of the country’s population eats there once a month during the holidays.

The KFC Christmas menu typically includes fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce, and chocolate chip cookies.

 How much love is contained in the pack is questionable.

Christmas Festivities

Christmas “Illuminations”

Japan loves a good “illumination”. By illumination, think flood lights lighting up the trees around historic sites, colored lighting bedazzling major buildings all the way through to elaborate digital projection mapping projects that transform everyday facades into intricately animated illustrations. In fact, this explosion of illumination is one of the great things that sets the Japanese Christmas period apart.

You don’t have to go far to experience winter illuminations in Japan’s major cities. Just about every major shopping center, such as Tokyo Midtown, will attempt something.  Parks and Japanese gardens will often take the opportunity to literally, and metaphorically, shine a light on their own wondrous patch. 

Take a walk, for example, along Roppongi Sakurazaka, and you are bound to come to various installations, if you can jostle your way through all the couples out for a romantic stroll.

Castle cities such as Himeji, Matsumoto, and Nagoya often hold huge Christmas lighting ceremonies each year, where thousands of people gather to watch the annual display of illuminated buildings. Events generally take place on December 23rd and 24th and last until the start of January.

Tokyo Disneyland Christmas

The Disney parade has carved out a solid place for itself in the Christmas landscape of Japan. With Mickey Mouse leading the way, Santa Claus riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and a cast of beloved characters dressed up in their best red and white outfits, it’s hard to resist getting into the spirit of the season. Often it’s just as much fun to see how all the people attending the theme park are dressed up for the event. Tokyo Disneyland is home to the annual event, held every year on December 1st.

Holiday Shopping

Shop at Japanese Night Markets

The night market scene in Tokyo is unlike anything else in the world. As the sun sets on Tokyo, the neon lights of Shinjuku’s skyscrapers turn off and the excitement of Shibuya’s fashion district starts to dwindle. But by now, everyone has had enough for one day. It’s time to find something new.

Japanese Christmas Markets

All across the nation, Japanese Christmas markets begin to heat up as the weather gets cold and don’t let up till around the end of Winter. The Japanese know a commercial opportunity when they see one.

Hibiya Christmas Market

One of the more well-known ones is the Tokyo Christmas Market, which happens in the iconic Hibiya park in the two weeks leading up to Christmas day from late morning till around 11 pm.

It takes its inspiration from the Christmas market in Dresden, Germany, which is said to be the oldest in the world. As such the market includes traditional German sausages, numerous stores selling Santa-themed wood crafts.

Intriguingly, the world’s largest Christmas pyramid, which the market has taken as their symbol, is also set up in the center of the venue.

The market happens in the 2-3 weeks leading up to Christmas in  Hibiya Park Fountain Square and has a small cover charge to enter. 

Roppongi Christmas Market

Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, holds a market that aims to reproduce a similar Christmas market in Stuttgart, Germany. Expect food and drinks, German-style beef stew Goulash, sausages, and beer. They also have decorations such as spice wreaths and glasswork.

The market happens late November to Christmas at Roppongi Hills Oro Plaza.

Tokyo Isetan Christmas Market

The Isetan Shinjuku department store is transformed into a Christmas market with hand-painted decorations, mini Christmas trees, candles, snow globes, etc.,

Once again, the markets have a strong German influence which can be seen in the goods they sell. The market starts early, around the start of November, and is usually finished by early December at Isetan Shinjuku Main Building.

Shop For Ornaments and Christmas Decorations

Japanese Christmas ornaments have evolved into something truly spectacular. Traditionally made out of wood, there’s a whole new generation of craftsmanship involved in making Japanese Christmas decorations.

Traditional wooden ornaments are hand-carved, but today you’ll just as often find items created using 3D printers. This means that they’re not only cheaper but also lighter. They’re also a lot easier to make because they require no carving at all.

3D printing technology has become increasingly popular over the years, and it’s often used to create everything from toys to jewelry. Now, it’s being used to create some truly unique Christmas decorations.

In Conclusion

Christmas in Japan is not so much a Christian holiday, or about time with family, as a romantic holiday. It’s about a box of chicken, a trip to the cake shop or a stroll through a German market smelling of spices and sausage.

Whatever religious significance the event may have once held is long gone. But what remains is, well, actually a whole lot of fun.

We’ve also got posts on Japanese gifts, Japanese gifts for him and for her. We’ve even got a post about gifts for your sushi lover if that’s your thing…