Christmas is one of the most anticipated holidays of the year. It is the perfect occasion to spend some quality time with the most important people in your life. And most importantly, it is the perfect time to give and receive gifts.
Just like the rest of the world, Christmas is also a big deal in Japan. It is celebrated by most Japanese people and is generally a fun time for everyone. As expected with Japan’s imported events, Christmas in the country is unique and extra special.
Japanese Christmas shares many characteristics and features popular Christmas icons such as Santa Claus. However, Japanese Christmas is more romantic and similar to Valentine’s Day compared to traditional Western Christmas.
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In this article, we will be learning all the essential facts about Christmas in Japan. We will talk about its unique history and how it was molded into what it is today. We will also talk about traditions, food, and special places to visit during Japan’s Winter season.
Is Christmas Celebrated in Japan?
Japan is well known for adapting many international celebrations. Just before the Winter season, Japan celebrates its version of Halloween. So it is no surprise that Japan is also celebrating the season of giving.
Also Read: ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HALLOWEEN IN JAPAN
Despite not having many Christian citizens, Christmas has become part of Japan’s annual celebrations. Unlike its Western counterpart, modern Japanese Christmas isn’t tied to its religious roots and is simply a time for relaxing and having fun.
Christmas in Japan isn’t an official holiday since office work still resumes the following day. However, thanks to the publications in mass media and promotions in various outlets, Christmas has been imbued into the collective consciousness of the Japanese people.
A Christmas charity event where Japanese residents walk around Osaka Castle Park dressed as Santa Claus.
Many readers might be surprised to learn just how long Christmas has been celebrated in Japan. Most imported celebrations only came to Japan after the second world war.
In fact, Halloween has only officially existed for about a decade in Japan. On the other hand, Christmas has been celebrated in the country for hundreds of years.
History of Christmas in Japan
Christmas has been present in Japan for a long time. Historians believe Christmas first made its way to Japan during the Sengoku Period (1467-1615).
The Sengoku Period was Japan’s war era or the warring states period. During this period, the country was in complete chaos. Daimyos (Feudal Lords) battled each other for regional dominance. There was no central rule or government present at the time.
It was also the era when foreigners first started entering Japan. In 1549, the missionary Francis Xavier first came to Japan to spread Christianity. Japan later celebrated its first publicly documented Christmas celebration in 1552.
Japanese portrait of Francis Xavier. It is currently on display at the Kobe City Museum.
Unlike modern Christmas celebrations in Japan and the rest of the world, Christmas during the Sengoku Period was slightly different. Japanese Christians’ activities included Bible verse readings, charity events, and donations for less fortunate farmers.
When Japan transitioned into the Edo period, ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate, Christianity was banned, and Christmas would mostly disappear from the country. All foreign influences and ideologies that could help overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate’s complete rule were removed from the people’s consciousness during this period. This act was called the Sakoku Edict of 1635.
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Christmas would be absent in Japan for almost 300 years until the Meiji Restoration. However, it would be somewhat preserved by kakure kirishitan (Hidden Christians) practicing Christmas in secret. Once the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown, and imperial rule was restored, the Japanese people once again embraced foreign influences and culture.
Mary disguised as Buddhist figure Kannon to avoid detection by authorities in Edo era Japan.
However, Christmas and other Western influences would disappear again in Japan during World War II (1939-1945). Given that America was one of Japan’s primary foes, it only made sense not to promote their celebrations and culture in the country.
Of course, once the global conflict was over and tensions started dying down in post-war Japan, Christmas could once again prosper. Today, Christmas is widely celebrated and is considered one of the country’s major celebrations in December.
When is Christmas in Japan?
Japan’s Christmas season officially kicks off after Halloween. Since Japan does not celebrate Thanksgiving, the transition is pretty straightforward. All Halloween decorations are immediately replaced with Christmas decorations.
Also Read: ULTIMATE GUIDE TO HALLOWEEN IN JAPAN
From November to December, theme parks offer unique Christmas-style decorations and Winter-exclusive events during the Christmas season. Winter light shows are also very popular during the season. Christmas-themed merchandise and food are also available for a limited time.
Aeon Mall’s Christmas range appearing on Japanese News
Just like its international counterpart, Christmas Eve takes place on December 24. On December 25, Christmas in Japan is officially over. All decorations are immediately replaced with New Year decorations.
Why is Christmas Celebrated in Japan?
In the early days of Christmas in Japan, Christmas was celebrated as part of the Christian tradition. It signifies the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course, it wasn’t universally celebrated in Japan since not all of the Japanese people were converted to Christianity.
Once the ban on Christmas was lifted during the Meiji restoration, Christmas started appealing to a different demographic. In the 1930s, Japanese newspapers and mass media started painting Christmas as a perfect time for lovers.
An excerpt from Youth and Ideals by Isoo Abe (安部磯雄の青年と理想）, talking about his romantic encounter while in Berlin during Christmas – published in 1936
As a result, Christmas became a commercialized event in Japan that appealed to non-Christians. It also became the perfect time to sell limited-time merchandise and food.
Japanese Christmas shares many similarities with its Western counterpart. These include traditions such as gift-giving and decorations such as Santa Claus, reindeer, Christmas trees, etc.
However, Japanese Christmas is actually a lot closer to Valentine’s Day. In Japan, Christmas is considered the most romantic day of the year. It is the perfect day to spend quality time with your significant other. It can also be a perfect opportunity to ask someone out on a date.
Christmas in Japan also appeals to groups of friends and children. Smaller-scale parties are held at houses and establishments during the Winter season.
Unlike Christmas in the West, Japanese Christmas isn’t meant to be celebrated with family. Instead, New Year, which comes right after, is the official holiday for family gatherings.
How is Christmas Celebrated in Japan?
Christmas Eve is considered the most romantic day in Japan. On Christmas Eve, couples spend time together by going on walks, watching various Winter illuminations, visiting theme parks, and eating dinner in fancy restaurants.
And, of course, couples give gifts to each other on Christmas eve. During Japanese Christmas, some young people go so far as to consider it an embarrassment to be seen alone in public. Many dating companies or groups of singles use this as an opportunity to organize mixers amongst their friendship groups or just general meetup events.
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With that said, groups of friends and children can also enjoy Japanese Christmas. Like couples, children and friends often do the same activities. Some even throw parties in their homes and invite others to come over.
Christmas Holiday Traditions in Japan
Japanese Christmas traditions are a bit different compared to the rest of the world. Each Christmas, it is considered essential by some Japanese to eat KFC fried chicken or strawberry cream cake.
It is also essential to properly decorate homes and large establishments during the Winter season. During Christmas, beautiful light shows are often done for tourists and locals to enjoy. Japan’s citizens do their best to ensure that the cities have the perfect atmosphere for Christmas.
Christmas Decorations and Santa Claus in Japan
In terms of Christmas decorations, Japanese households usually decorate their homes with the usual Christmas items and ornaments. These include Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Nativity Scene, gifts, and many more.
And surprisingly, Santa Claus (サンタさん/Santa-san) has become a popular figure in Japanese Christmas. Even though Santa Claus’ origin isn’t related to Japanese tradition or religion, he has still made his way to Japanese Christmas festivities.
In 1875, Santa Claus, dressed as a samurai, appeared at the Harajao School from Ginza, Tokyo. In 1898, a book about Santa Claus titled “Santakuro” was published, further etching Santa Claus into the minds of the Japanese people. Today, all sorts of Japanese characters, including Doraemon and Hello Kitty, dress up as Santa Claus.
Santa Claus appearing in a late Meiji era newspaper – December 24th, 1906
Many researchers also believe that Santa Claus’ similarity to the Buddhist figure Hoteiosho made him more appealing to the Japanese people. Like Santa, Hotei has a big belly and is known for giving gifts.
Santa Claus widely appeals to the children of Japan. Strangely enough, they also believe that Santa comes from Finland instead of the North Pole. Children also believe him to enter their houses through the windows since Japanese houses do not have a chimney.
Japanese Christmas Gifts
Just like Western Christmas, Japanese Christmas is the season for gift-giving. Lovers usually give gifts to each other during their date night on Christmas Eve. For groups of friends celebrating together, they tend to hold gift exchanges.
Children, on the other hand, ask for a gift from Santa. However, Japanese children tend to request a single gift during Christmas. They usually write it on a note and leave it under their pillow or on the window.
Famous Japanese Youtuber Shogo has stated that he thought children tend to receive only one gift because parents would give “otoshidama” or New Year’s money to their children during New Year.
Japan Christmas Lights
Japanese Christmas lights, or “Winter Illuminations,” is one of the highlights of the Japanese Winter season. Several theme parks and establishments throughout Japan host special light shows for everyone to enjoy.
Most establishments are already open as early as October and can extend up to the following year. One of the most popular spots includes Kobe’s Luminarie, originally dedicated to victims of the Kobe earthquake in 1995.
Other popular spots include Tokyo Midtown and Marunouchi in Tokyo, Sagamiko Illumillion and Yomiuriland Jewellumination in Kanagawa, Sendai Pageant of Starlight in Sendai, Ashikaga Flower Fantasy in Tochigi, Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination in Nagoya, Osaka Hikari Renaissance and Midosuji Illumination in Osaka, and Kingdom of Light in Nagasaki.
Christmas Music in Japan
During Christmas, you can hear both international and local Japanese Christmas music in Japan. Popular Christmas songs, such as Mariah Carrey’s Christmas songs, are often played.
In terms of Japanese Christmas music, some popular J-Pop songs are Sutekina Holiday by Maria Takeuchi, Christmas Eve by Tatsuro Yamashita, and Koibito ga Santa Claus by Yumi Matsutoya.
Aside from pop music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is also very popular during Christmas in Japan. It is simply known as “daiku” or number nine. Japanese choirs, including the “Number Nine Chorus,” made up of 10,000 members, sing this song.
It is believed that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was made famous by German prisoners in Japan during World War One. Since then, it has been a mainstay at Japanese Christmas.
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Even though Japan is located in the far East, even its residents are not safe from the silky smooth singing of George Michael at Christmas time.
Throughout the month of December you can hear the Christmas classic Last Christmas by Wham! on repeat in every store throughout the Christmas period.
If you are a fan of this song, Christmas time in Japan is definitely for you – here it is for your convenience:
What is the Most Popular Food for Christmas in Japan?
KFC in Japan for Christmas
Since the 1970s, KFC’s fried chicken has become synonymous with Japanese Christmas. Many stories and theories have been floating around that try to explain how KFC became a major player in Japanese Christmas.
One theory is that Takeshi Okawara, one of the first managers of KFC Japan who later became the company’s CEO, falsely marketed fried chicken as a traditional American dish to drive up sales. During the early 1970s, KFC struggled in the Japanese food market, so they had to think of something to become more competitive.
Another theory states that Okawara went to a Christian school’s children’s party dressed up as Santa and served fried chicken. The small-scale event was so successful that other schools also started requesting fried chicken.
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The final story that was circulating says that one day, a foreigner went to the Japanese KFC branch to purchase fried chicken during Christmas in lieu of a Christmas turkey. Regardless of which of these theories is correct, KFC’s catchy marketing campaigns ultimately led to the company being integrated into Japanese Christmas.
During the 1970s and 1980s, KFC Television ads showcased families enjoying KFC fried chicken with “My Old Kentucky Home” serving as the commercial’s theme song. In addition, KFC Japan also offered limited edition menus during the Christmas season.
It should also be noted that most Japanese households lack the large ovens that are a staple in most Western homes, so the prospect of even cooking a turkey is out of reach for most Japanese residents.
Today, KFC’s fried chicken meals are considered to be an essential part of Japanese Christmas. Various limited-time Christmas promos are still held by the company today. Often you will see statues of the Colonel dressed up as Santa Claus if front of KFC stores.
Christmas Cake in Japan
The Japanese Christmas Cake is another essential dish during Japanese Christmas. It started gaining popularity in the post-World War II era when sugar and butter became more readily available. Japanese sweets also became more popular with technological advancements in food preservation and refrigeration technology.
The Japanese treated these advancements as a sign of progress. Thus, the Japanese Cake symbolizes how Japan rose from the ashes of defeat to enter a new era of prosperity.
The Japanese Christmas Cake is referred to in Japanese as “kurismasu kei-ki” (クリスマスケーキ) and is essentially a Christmas-themed strawberry shortcake. Most have special Christmas-style decorations, such as Santa Claus and other Christmas icons.
Japan’s Christmas cake is often sold in almost every cake shop and “depachika.” However, the Japanese store Fujiya is credited for creating the first Christmas cake.
Other Christmas Foods in Japan
Aside from KFC’s fried chicken and the traditional Japanese strawberry cake, there is also other food that Japan enjoys during the holiday season. Pizza is another imported food that is well-loved during Japanese Christmas.
Given KFC’s success, other fast-food chains have also tried entering the Japanese Christmas food market. And over the years, Japanese pizza has become a suitable alternative to fried chicken thanks to its popularity in Japan.
Pizza La, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s Pizza have become the major players during Japanese Christmas. All three fast-food chains offer limited Christmas menus and Winter specials for the special occasion.
Pizza Hut has even teamed up with KFC in the past to offer combo chicken and pizza meals. Their efforts have solidified pizza as another essential food for the holiday season.
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As for nonalcoholic drinks, the Japanese “Chanmery” (シャンメリー) is popular during the holiday season. The word Chanmery is a combination of the words “Champagne” and “Merry Christmas.”
Chanmery is a carbonated soft drink with a cap that imitates a champagne cork. It is primarily marketed towards children allowing them to join the Christmas toasting tradition.
It was said to be originally served at bars and clubs. However, it has since made its way into the holiday and into family homes. You can often find it with various character designs from popular franchises such as Pokemon or Doraemon.
Where to Spend Christmas in Japan
Christmas in Tokyo
One of the best spots in Tokyo during Christmas is Tokyo Disneyland. During the holiday season, Tokyo Disneyland hosts several Christmas-themed events. There are special parades, fireworks, limited-time merchandise, candies, and many more.
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Aside from theme parks, Tokyo’s Marunouchi Area is the best place to experience Tokyo’s Christmas Lights. The Kitte Building is also the home of one of Japan’s largest Christmas Trees, standing at 14 meters. Other great spots to enjoy Tokyo’s colorful Christmas Lights include Omotesando Street in Harajuku, Roppongi, and Odaiba.
Another great spot is the Tokyo Christmas Market held in Hibiya park. It is considered to be one of the best Christmas markets in Japan. It was established in 2015 and was inspired by the oldest Christmas market in the world found in Dresden, Germany.
During its 2-week run, the Tokyo Christmas Market features 16 food stalls and 11 shops selling Christmas-themed items. European-inspired food is also sold during the event. And lastly, live music performances are also present to fully bring the holiday spirits.
Christmas in Osaka
Just like in Tokyo, Osaka is also home to a number of different spots for Winter Illuminations. Osaka’s most popular Winter illumination festival is the Midosuji Illumination. The festival has been turning Osaka into a colorful and magical Christmas spot for the past nine years.
Other popular Illumination festivals in Osaka include Osaka Hikari Renaissance, Umeda Sky Building Christmas, Waterfall of Light, Welcoming Abeno at Tennoji Park, and Harry Potter‘s Christmas in the Wizarding World at Grandfront Osaka.
Osaka also has a German-Style Christmas market in Umeda. They have one of the world’s largest Christmas tree displays, authentic German Christmas ornaments, German food, beer, and other delicacies. It happens to occur below the Umeda Sky Building that has an observation deck that overlooks Osaka. There are areas where you can place a lover’s lock, making it an incredibly romantic place at Christmas time.
Tokyo Disneyland’s rival, Universal Studios Osaka, is also stepping their game up with their own Christmas-themed celebration. In 2022, Universal Studios Japan is bringing back their legendary giant Christmas tree that stands 30 meters tall. Many Winter-themed activities also take place during the Christmas season.
Also Read: HOW TO ORDER FROM UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN (USJ) ONLINE STORE
How Do You Say Merry Christmas in Japan?
Since Christmas is not natively Japanese, the Japanese phrase for Merry Christmas is simply “Meri- kurisumasu!” (メリークリスマス！), with many younger people shortening it “Meri- kuri!” (メリークリ！). Here are other interesting Japanese phrases used during the Christmas season:
- Have a great Winter vacation! – Ii fuyu yasumi wo! (いいふゆやすみを！)
- I want a girlfriend by Christmas! – Kurisumasu made ni ha kanojo tsukuranakya! (クリスマスまでには彼女つくらなきゃな！)
- Happy holidays! – Ii kyuuka wo! (いいきゅうかを！)
- Enjoy the holidays! – Kyuuka wo tanoshinde ne! (きゅうかをたのしんでね！)
- Happy Hanukkah! – Hanūka omedetō! (ハヌーカおめでとう!)
- Warm Wishes! – Go-takō o oinori shite imasu (ご多幸をお祈りしています。)