PICA Things We Love

Merry Christmas! in Japan

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment
PICA-Merry-Christmas

Happy Christmas, everyone! We hope this morning all your stockings were full of wishes fulfilled!

We all know and love the spirit of Christmas in the West. But what about Japan? Does Japan celebrate Christmas? And if so, is it all the same as the one back home?

Illumination in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Photo by kanegen.

Illumination in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Photo by kanegen.

Right about now Tokyo is brightly light up in all its holiday cheer. The impressive illumination displays adorn the city’s squares, streets and avenues. Some are complex, and some are beautifully traditional and understated. Stores everywhere, dressed up in all out Christmas decor, are setting up elaborate window displays and Christmas trees, all the while blasting festive music from speakers as you enter the holiday shopping heaven to escape the cold Tokyo winter air. I must say, it is hard not to get into the holiday cheer as Christmas in Japan is truly all around us.

How did Japan come to celebrate Christmas?
Christmas was introduced by Francis Xavier, when Christian missionaries first came to Japan in the Sengoku era (戦国時代, Sengoku jidai, from 1467 through 1603, Warring States Period). But the modern celebration did not begin until around 1900 during the Meiji Restoration (明治時代, Meiji jidai, from 1868 through 1912), when Japan opened its doors to the West after a long period of isolation.

Tokyo Dome City Winter Illumination. Photo by Taichiro Ueki.

Tokyo Dome City Winter Illumination. Photo by Taichiro Ueki.

So Christmas in Japan is clearly a big deal. But is it the same?
Not quite. With less than one percent of Christians living in Japan, it should come as no surprise that Japanese Christmas or クリスマス (Kurisumasu) is more of a secular novelty holiday. It is non-official, so yes, it is a regular work day. Anyone, who has ever experienced Christmas in Japan, will tell you that it is a commercially driven event geared mainly towards couples. Thus it is thought to be a romantic holiday—resembling Valentine’s Day in the West—commercialized by the consumer marketing, urging couples to dine out at expensive restaurants, buy into expensive gifts, and partake in couples-only special events. Needless to say, this is the day when hotel rooms and honeymoon suites are booked solid weeks in advance. This Christmas celebration, unlike in the West, happens on Christmas Eve or クリスマス・イブ (Kurisumasu Ibu), making it, perhaps, the most romantic night of the year. Being single on this day is looked down upon, many opting in to get a hold of a last minute girlfriend or boyfriend, and escape the dreadful experience of spending the eve alone.

There is no place like Tokyo Disneyland to really get into the Christmas spirit. Photo by othree.

There is no place like Tokyo Disneyland to really get into the Christmas spirit. Photo by othree.

Now, Christmas being a romantic holiday and all, does not mean that kids and families are completely excluded from the festivities. For families, Christmas Eve is often celebrated with a “traditional” Christmas dinner (more on that later) with a small decorated Christmas tree being put up the day of, only to be taken down shortly thereafter. Santa Claus  (サンタクロース, Santa Kuroosu) or more commonly known as サンタさん (Santa-san, Mr Santa) is still a very popular character. Some even, albeit few, believe that Christmas is in fact a day celebrating Santa’s birthday. Gift giving is also observed, but only with children who believe in Santa. So once the kids stop believing in Santa, gift giving stops being a tradition.

‘Traditional’ Christmas Dinner
Now Christmas in Japan would not be Christmas without that special “traditional” family Christmas meal featuring everyone’s beloved Kentucky Fried Chicken (ケンタッキー, Kentakkii). Yes, you read that right. The Christmas table staple in Japan is indeed the finger-lickin’ good poultry combo that was eagerly adopted in Japan as the authentic festive meal choice. After all, isn’t it how it’s done in the West?

So how did the turkey and ham turn into fried chicken, particularly KFC’s fried chicken, you ask? In December 1974, a couple of years after first entering Japanese market, KFC ran an ad campaign「クリスマスにはケンタッキー」(Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, “Kentucky for Christmas!”). It was so successful that most Japanese people came to believe that fried chicken is indeed the staple of the traditional Western Christmas dinner, rendering the tradition of eating turkey or ham unknown to the general public to this day.

Colonel Sanders’ signature Christmas outfit. Remind you of anyone? The resemblance is uncanny! Photo by Mark.

Colonel Sanders’ signature Christmas outfit. Remind you of anyone? The resemblance is uncanny! Photo by Mark.

In fact, KFC is such a widespread custom that most Japanese families reserve their Christmas Party Barrels weeks in advance, accounting for 20% of the company’s annual sales. The pre-ordered meals come in options of a ¥5800 (approx. $50) Premium Series rotisserie chicken or a ¥4090 (approx. $35) KFC classic fried chicken dinner sets. Those who fail to plan ahead and pre-order are in danger of standing in line for up to six hours for a chance to have a very merry “traditional” Christmas dinner.

KFC, however is not the only place one can get a hold of a Christmas special fried chicken. MOS Burger, Japanese popular hamburger chain, McDonald’s, department stores, as well as local supermarkets are also trying to cash in on the craze by offering a variety of fried chicken meals. Despite all the effort, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without Colonel Sanders’ classic signature dish.

Japanese Christmas Cake. Photo by y_ogagaga.

Japanese Christmas Cake. Photo by y_ogagaga.

Christmas Cake
Following the “traditional” hearty Christmas meal, it is also a custom to end the day with the “traditional” Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ, Kurisumasu keeki), also because “that’s how it is done in the West”. The cake in question is not however a fruit-filled loaf, but a Japanese-style Strawberry Shortcake: an airy vanilla sponge cake layered with strawberries and whipped cream, often adorned with a festive Christmas message at the top. It was first sold in 1922 by Fujiya Food Service Co., Ltd. and has since become a seasonal winter dessert staple. I must add, as an avid desert lover, that it is a truly lovely and light goodness with the sweetness level of just right.

Interesting: By December 25th the cake prices drop dramatically in hopes to sell out before the 26th. This practice gave rise to a nickname for unmarried women over 25. A woman was considered marriageable until her 25th birthday, and by 26th she was considered expired and should be sold at a discount rate, thus earning the nickname of a “Christmas Cake”. This is highly offensive, and thankfully quickly becoming outdated as average age for marriage is changing, and couples tie the knot more and more well into their late 20s and even 30s.

Christmas in Japan might be completely different to what we are accustomed to. But it is no less festive or special. It has that something unique and memorable. After all, Christmas festivities differ from country to country, from one family to the other. And Christmas in Japan is so distinctively Japanese, one must experience it at least once in a lifetime.

メリークリスマス, everyone!