Why You’ll Love Christmas in Japan
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to celebrate Christmas in Japan? Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? The answer is yes and it’s probably a bit different than what you would expect. We have Caleb from Kids Travel Japan sharing the history and traditions of Christmas in Japan. I was definitely surprised by some of the Japanese Christmas traditions and I’m guessing you might be too.
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With the exception of New Year, Christmas is perhaps the most celebrated holiday on earth. The Western world has truly spread this December holiday to the ends of the earth and Japan is no exception.
However, because Japan doesn’t have a thick and deep history of Christianity, making Christmas in Japan quite different than other countries.
Is there Christmas in Japan?
Less than 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. So why do Japanese, who are predominantly Shintoists and Buddhists, celebrate this Christian holiday? Despite Japan’s extensive history with Shinto and Buddhism, most Japanese aren’t active practitioners of these religions and religious topics are hardly ever brought up.
Christianity was introduced to Japan in the 1500s, but it didn’t gain traction until after World War II.
Embracing Christianity was a way for Japan to Westernize itself after having brought its economy to ruins post war. During the occupation of U.S. soldiers in Japan, the Japanese admired American wealth and they eagerly embraced the American Dream. The goal of revitalized economic prosperity emboldened them to adopt Christmas.
How Japanese celebrate Christmas
One step into suburban Japanese cities and you will be overwhelmed with Christmas lights and decorations, Santa Claus, Christmas colors of red, white and green, and reindeer.
However, above everything else, Japanese view Christmas as a holiday of romance. In fact, Westerners may even associate what Japanese do on Christmas Eve with Valentine’s Day celebrated in the U.S. and the U.K.
On Christmas Eve, couples dress up and flock to high class restaurants to enjoy a romantic dinner together during which luxury gifts such as jewelry, watches, and designer accessories are exchanged.
Reserving a table well in advance is a must as most restaurants considered romantic become fully booked ahead of Christmas Eve. Before or after dinner, couples around the country head out to seasonal Christmas light displays held in parks, gardens, and department stores.
Neither Christmas Eve nor Christmas Day are national holidays so if either fall on a weekday, Japanese couples get back to the daily grind after a dazzling and romantic night out.
Japanese traditions at Christmas
In contrast, Japanese nuclear families with small children enjoy Christmas more akin to what Westerners would visualize. On Christmas Eve, mothers often either cook or buy what is considered staple food during the Christmas season in Japan, fried chicken and Christmas Cake.
Japanese even associate these two foods with Christmas Eve so much that they become astonished when they find out Westerners don’t always serve these dishes during the Christmas holidays.
Christmas Cake in Japan is a sponge cake decorated with whipped cream, edible Christmas decorations, and strawberries either on top or inside.
Christmas Cake became synonymous with Celebrating Christmas in Japan after World War II. Food commodities such as sugar, butter, and milk were reserved for only the elite and rich during post-war Japan.
However, once the small island nation became an economic global powerhouse, these luxuries became available to the common man and the Japanese viewed Christmas Cake, a dessert which requires the aforementioned three ingredients, as a sign of rags to riches for all Japan.
Coincidentally, Christmas colors in Western countries include white and red, the very same colors of the Japanese flag. Thus, adopting Christmas Cake as a symbol of economic and national prosperity was a no-brainer.
You won’t believe this popular Christmas meal in Japan
As I mentioned Christmas in Japan is all about the fried chicken. If it is store bought, it’s almost always purchased at KFC. This global fast food corporation has done a swell job of commercializing Christmas here and it’s become engrained into the Japanese diet in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
This KFC craze came about from a successful marketing campaign in 1974 and KFC enjoys its lion’s share of profits in Japan during December.
But watch out because orders must be made by December 18th, otherwise you may be “fried chickenless” the week of Christmas. “Christmas dinners” including fried chicken, salad, and a simple cake can be made to take out or to be eaten at KFC. Couples on a budget can even be seen having a Christmas dinner at KFC locations.
After families enjoy their Christmas dinner and the young children fall asleep, parents place gifts above the pillows of the sleeping children so when they awaken on Christmas Day, all they have to do is turn around to uncover their Christmas gifts.
Does Japan have Christmas trees?
Large Christmas trees can be found all throughout large cities but Japanese homes are much too small to even accommodate small trees. Thus, Japanese place mini Christmas trees on a visible tabletop in the home, though these compact trees are too tiny for gifts to be placed underneath, hence the need for “Japanese Santa” to place gifts above the pillows of sleeping children. This is a fun and unique way of celebrating Christmas in Japan during your visit.
Westerners may feel Japan lacks the “spirit of giving”, something so palpable in the U.K. and the U.S.. However, the Japanese New Year celebrations make up for this. During this time extended families gather, eat traditional Japanese food, pray at Japanese shrines, and send cards thanking friends and family for support and friendship during the entire past year.
Caleb Parsons is a California native teaching English in Osaka, Japan and the founder of Kids Travel Japan, a program that creates cultural exchange events which bring together international families touring Japan and local Japanese families.
Don’t miss our other holiday posts, including Celebrations in Australia and Hogmanay in Scotland. And check out our Tokyo day trips and Osaka with kids posts.
I loved reading this! My brother lives there now and it’s always so fun to hear the different ways they celebrate. And I still cannot get over the KFC and Christmas link. I remember the first time he told us that we thought he was pulling our leg ha.
I have never been to Japan, but my father worked for a Japanese company as I was growing up, so I got to know many traditions. However, I had no idea about the KFC ‘tradition’. I mean, it interests me that other countries hold KFC and Pizza Hut (yummy company properties) in a regard saved for Christmas. I am fascinated.
Also, long live Godzilla in lights!
This is so interesting! Learn something new every day 🙂
we celebrated Christmas in Beijing one year and it was certainly interesting to see it celebrated without Christianity. I prefer Christ in my celebration
Wow I much prefer the Japan winter celebration to the one in the US! They made it their own. I’d love to see the Godzilla lit up in Malls here! Heck I’d have one in my house!!! Awesome! Though I’d skip the KFC, ew!
I love learning about other cultures. Thank you so much for sharing!
Oh, wow! It looks amazing in Japan! They really go all out!
I would love to visit Japan, it looks like a fab place to visit at Christmas too 🙂
Japan is on my bucket list!! Good information!!!
Too funny! I thought the same thing and had to go back and re-read it!
I’ve spent two Christmases there, but that was a long time ago. All you said here are true. The restaurants are full and reservations should have been made weeks before.
I love this post! I love seeing and learning how other countries celebrate and this was fun!
I find it interesting that so many people celebrate Christmas in Japan, while it’s not even a national holiday. I think it might be interesting to host a Japanese exchange student some day. I find it’s a great way to learn about a new country.
I love learning an Ioverview they facts learned today. Thank you
I had never thought about what Xmas would be like in Japan but I have to say it is fascinating. Who knew it would be so similar to Valentines day!
Nicole, I find it fascinating too. Kind of surprise me as well. And the godzilla, there are no words.
Glad to help!
Oh, I imagine that was quite a story. I’d love to hear about your trip sometime. We keep saying we are going to go, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet.
Right Di. The Godzilla would be awesome. And yes please, I’ll pass on the KFC.
Any time Cynthia!
They do Logan! So very interesting.
I agree Claire. It looks so different than anywhere I’ve ever been.
Thanks Nikka! I hope you travel there soon!
Wow, very cool. We’ve always spent the holidays at home, so I am fascinated.
I agree Eva. I would love to have any exchange student. I think our kids would learn so much.
I agree Ana? It’s fascinating to me too!
Thanks for reading Di! I too am not a big fast food fan. However, I just checked KFC Japan.com and according to them, all the chicken sold within this market is now domestic Japanese chicken. But I believe this is a recent change made to satisfy the very high food and hygiene standards of Japan. So perhaps we can all enjoy Japanese chicken from KFC starting this year 😉
Wow this is something I never knew, I just assumed people celebrate kind of the same but that obviously is not the case. I think I prefer our ways of celebrating the best. 😉
I love learning about other cultures, and this has definitely surprised me! I never would have imagined that KFC would be the ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner in Japan. Fascinating!
So nice. I’ve never left the country, looks amazing. Those lights are gorgeous.
My dad lived in Japan for a few years and it is so much fun to incorporate Japanese traditions into our family!
Very interesting to read about how Christmas is celebrated elsewhere than the U.S. I am surprised to learn that they celebrate it as a sort of Valentine’s Day. Thanks for sharing!
Fantastic article Caleb, I really enjoyed reading this. I remember when we first moved to Okinawa I heard rumors about KFC being a traditional Christmas dish…I thought someone was pulling my leg, so when I found out that it was serious I was shocked. My husband & I always joke we will do the KFC meal thing one year, but to date we haven’t; maybe this year! I look forward to sharing this with my readers later in the week!
I’ve been bery fortunate to have traveled all over the world and I have always thought it was interesting to see how other cultures celebrate Christmas. You wouldn’t even think it was a “religious” holiday to a lot of cultures because it’s more of a family day than anything.
Thanks Laura! Always happy to share something new!
Quite interesting isn’t it?
That’s so cool. What a great idea!
Interesting, isn’t it Blanca?
Very interesting to see how they celebrate isn’t it?
Hi Hannah, thanks for tuning in! We have a few KFC Christmas chicken dinners under our belt. Your family will enjoy them too. Interestingly, Japanese hardly ever eat turkey, a staple holiday food for Americans, so it’s difficult to get and expensive here. With your husband’s connections, your family has access to both birds. Nice!
Thanks to everyone for tuning in! If anyone has any questions that popped up while reading how Japan celebrates Christmas, feel free to fire away.
wow I never realized how low the Christian population was in Japan before! It’s so neat to see how they celebrate such a popular holiday from so far away
Thanks Lexie. I agree. I had no idea!
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