Like so many elements of life in Japan, Christmas celebrations are unique. These celebrations certainly incorporate elements of the Western tradition, but anyone who has spent Christmas in Japan will tell you that the experience is extremely different from Christmas anywhere else in the world.
While less than 1% of the Japanese population identifies as Christian, Christmas is still a widely celebrated holiday within Japan. If you are a Westerner experiencing Christmas in Japan for the first time, you will likely find elements of the festivities familiar. However, the overarching perception of Christmas in Japan is extremely different, and this hugely influences how the holiday season plays out for Japanese people. Rather than being a time of family relaxation and togetherness, Christmas in Japan is a time for friends to get together and party!
If you’re planning to be in Japan at Christmas time, you’re in for a holiday season that you’ll never forget. Let’s talk about what you might expect, and how to celebrate Christmas like a Japanese local.
History of Christmas in Japan
The earliest recorded Christmas celebrated in Japan took place in 1552, and citizens were encouraged to mark the season by giving charitable donations to farmers in poverty. The Tokuwaga Shonugate era saw Christianity being pushed underground, and as such, Christmas was no longer celebrated.
Following the Meiji Restoration, Christianity became acceptable again and Christmas was once again celebrated from 1873 onwards. It was generally marked with lavish parties for visiting foreigners of a Christian faith, as not many Japanese people identified as Christians.
It was not until the early 20th century that Christmas in Japan became a commercial event, with department stores putting up Christmas decorations and a push for a “Christmas shopping” season. The influx of foreign soldiers during both World Wars brought with it Western Christmas traditions, which became incorporated into Japanese celebrations.
A combination of an economic boom in the 1980s and increased influence from American films saw Christmas becoming widely celebrated in Japan. The holiday as it now stands displays pieces of its history in how it is celebrated. It is not viewed as a religious holiday, but as a chance to be charitable – just like the donations to farmers in the first celebration. It is not viewed as family time, but a chance to enjoy lavish parties – as it was in the Meiji Restoration era.
Christmas Traditions In Japan
If you’re living and working in Japan, you might be surprised to learn that you are not automatically entitled to take Christmas day as a holiday! It is not a national holiday in Japan, and you will likely have to arrange vacation time in advance with your employer if you can’t stomach the idea of spending Christmas in your office cubicle. Lifehack: December 23rd is a national holiday as it is the Emperor’s birthday – if you’re stuck for annual leave you could always celebrate a couple of days early.
One interesting Christmas tradition in Japan is the celebration of Christmas Eve. In many Western families, Christmas Eve is spent much like the rest of the holiday seasons – horizontal on a couch wearing an ugly sweater, while tucking into the fancy boxes of chocolates. Not so in Japan. In Japan, Christmas Eve is often a bigger celebration than Christmas day itself – particularly for couples. Christmas Eve is a very romantic and formal day in Japan and is essentially the Japanese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Couples tend to spend it together, and will generally dress up and go for a glamorous meal (reserve in advance if you’re following this tradition – restaurants are extremely busy!). There is often a gift exchange between couples on Christmas Eve – wider gift-giving is not observed in Japan at Christmas time in the way it would be in the West.
Christmas cake is widely consumed in Japan, but not the traditional form that we might see in the West. Japanese Christmas cake is strawberry shortcake, made with fresh fruit and cream. Interestingly, this is traditionally seen as a symbol of opulence – the ingredients for such a cake were only accessible for average families after the economic revival following World War II. Eating Christmas cake as a family is, therefore, a chance to reflect on and show gratitude for the wealth and blessings the family has. Wagashi sweets cut into traditional Christmas shapes (such as trees or Santas) are extremely popular treats in Japan at this time of the year.
Christmas songs are also popular – though again, slightly different from what we might expect to hear in the West. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was thought to be introduced to Japan as a Christmas song by German prisoners during the First World War, and it remains the country’s most popular festive anthem.
If you’re traveling with children, the Western Santa is a custom known to Japanese people and celebrated by some families. If you want to give your little ones a unique cultural experience, why not invite a visit from Hotei-osho instead? Hotei-osho is a Buddhist monk, who gives gifts in the night time just like Santa Claus.
If you’re disappointed that your Japanese Christmas experience wasn’t more like the family hang-out you’re used to at home, never fear – the Japanese celebration of New Year’s is much more similar to the way you might imagine Christmas.
Where to Spend Christmas in Japan
The question of where to spend Christmas in Japan largely depends on what type of Christmas you want to have.
Tokyo is famous for its stunning winter illuminations at Christmas time, and even boasts a full “German village” of Christmas lights just outside the city. This is an excellent choice if you thrive on the hustle and bustle of Christmas – think crowds gathering to watch Christmas parades and enjoy markets. There are excellent Christmas shopping options in Tokyo if you want to bring home beautiful Japanese Christmas decorations to remember your experience by. There’s also the option of visiting Disneyland here.
Nagoya is also a city that does Christmas very well. Their world-famous lighting displays take over 4 months to set up and are an unforgettable sight. Christmas cruises are a popular activity in Nagoya, and serve the traditional Western fare of turkey – if you’re likely to get homesick, this might be a good option.
If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, head north. This is the busiest time for ski resorts, and prices reflect this demand – but if you don’t mind paying a premium you’re in for a magical experience. A glass of sake in a toasty onsen after a day on the slopes? Sign me up!
Japanese Christmas Decorations
Christmas decorations are extremely popular in Japan. Expect elaborate lighting displays that would put Western Christmas decorations to shame. The Christmas tree is a tradition that has made its way to Japan since as early as 1910, and trees are decorated similarly to their Western counterparts.
Despite very few households identifying as Christian, it is common to see nativity scenes are decorations in Japanese homes at this time of year. Bonsai trees are also a popular decoration, and one that incorporates Japan’s culture into the beautiful Christmas scenes across the country.
Things to do in Japan at Christmas
A visit to Disneyland Tokyo is an extremely popular Christmas activity amongst locals in Japan. The park is illuminated with Christmas lights and hosts festive parades.
For your Christmas dinner, KFC might seem like an odd choice – but the American fried chicken restaurant is the preferred place to dine on December 25th. A wildly successful 1970s marketing campaign promoted the idea of “Kentucky for Christmas” amongst Japanese consumers, and the idea stuck. Don’t just turn up, though – reservations for KFC book out months in advance. Yes, you read that right.
Christmas markets are extremely popular across Japan. Expect stalls, light displays, mulled wine, and plenty of crowds – albeit very polite and well-organized ones.
As Christmas in Japan is viewed as a day to spread happiness, many Japanese people choose to do something kind or charitable to mark the day. Visiting sick people in hospitals or volunteering with charities are popular activities for Christmas day in Japan.
How to Say Merry Christmas in Japanese
Greet your Japanese pals with the phrase “Meri Kurisumasu” over the holiday season. This has to be one of the easiest Japanese phrases to remember, as it is phonetically extremely close to the English version.
Wherever and however you end up spending Christmas in Japan, a very Meri Kurisumasu to you and yours!