Christmas in Japan: The Unique History and Traditions!

After Obon, people in Japan work busily until without realizing it, it already the end of the year! While New Year’s or O-shogatsu is a huge celebration, there is one last big event many people celebrate at the end of the year: Christmas! But as you can imagine, Christmas in Japan is very different. In truth, Christmas is so different in Japan that is confuses many people from overseas. So, let’s explain how Japanese people celebrate Christmas.

The History of Japanese Christmas

It might come as a surprise to many, but actually, Japan’s relationship with Christmas is quite old. Records indicate that the first Christmas in Japan was in 1552, only three short years after the introduction of Christianity. Moreover, in 1560, Kyoto held a huge Christmas day mass. However, the Japanese government banned Christianity during the Edo Period and it wasn’t until after the 19th century before Japan would celebrate another Christmas.

Stores and businesses displaying Christmas trees is now the norm in Japan

In 1900, a store called Meiji-ya in Tokyo put up a big Christmas tree, ultimately leading to the revival of the holiday. Meiji-ya also widely profited from holding Christmas sales— something their competitors quickly started emulating. Many store also started to sell Christmas related food in the years after.

Christmas in Japan Today

Today’s Christmas in Japan is really just a big couples’ day that developed during the bubble economy, when many love songs set during Christmastime got popular. Some of those include “Kobito wa Santa Clause” by Matsutoya Yumi and “Christmas Eve” by Yamashita Tatsuro, both of which are still popular today.

Christmas for Japanese People

As we’ve highlighted, Christmas in Japan is primarily for couples. Many people spend Christmas Eve having a romantic Christmas date; usually going out to have a nice Christmas dinner and exchange expensive presents. But what if you don’t have a sweetheart? You get the label “Kuri Bocchi” (literally meaning alone Christmas). This is why many college kids try to find a date before Christmas!

A number of people from overseas fell awkward about the concept of Christmas as a couples’ day and wonder why Japanese people don’t want to spend the day like most Westerns, and enjoy the holiday with family. However, it is customary for Japanese people to spend time with family during the New Year’s, so perhaps they do not think it is necessary to have two family centered holidays so close together.

Also, some people wonder why Japanese people even bother celebrating Christmas, especially since few not Japanese are actually Christian. While historically Christmas did start out as a religious holiday, I think Japanese people don’t perceive Christmas as religious activity anymore. Perhaps the reason they don’t perceive it that way is in part due to the commercialization of Christmas or because they already view it as a couple’s holiday.

Christmas in Japan: Traditions

While Christmas in Japan only really started to take off in Japan’s cultural consciousness from the 1960’s on, there are still a number of things Japanese people enjoy doing around Christmastime. Many of these traditions are done either with a family that has children, or by a couple for a romantic evening.

1. Christmas Cake

As in common throughout Europe, Japanese people also enjoy their own version of Christmas cake too. It seems Fujiya, a famous Japanese cake company, began this tradition in the 1970s when they decorated a seasonal cake with icing trees and a sugar Santa Claus.

Chocolate Japanese Christmas cake

The most typical Japanese Christmas cake is rather simple, just a basic short cake with strawberries and plain whipped cream frosting. Increasingly though you can find a variety of flavors, with chocolate being the second most popular flavor. If you want something with a little more flare, Japanese department stores sell very elaborately decorated Christmas cakes.

Not all Christmas cakes are long, it just so happened these were the ones we thought looked tastiest.

These cakes are so beautiful it is almost a shame to eat them, almost….

2. Eat KFC Chicken

This one really confuses a lot of people, but KFC chicken is extremely popular at Christmas in Japan.

This unusual tradition is actually a clever marketing campaign started by KFC. The company noted that while many Westerns large turkey or some other large fowl at Christmas, but most Japanese households do not have the means to cook a whole bird! Obviously, KFC’s campaign succeeded and now KFC chicken at Christmas is practically a Japanese Christmas tradition. Also, keep in mind that KFC is very expensive in Japan, so a family Kentucky dinner is considered a nicety.

If you want to eat KFC around Christmas, be sure you make your reservation (yes reservation) early! The reservation period starts in November and order quickly pile up. You may even not be able to buy it when you go there without reservation on Christmas Day.

If you don’t care about having specifically KFC for Christmas dinner, can get fried chicken on Christmas day in super markets and even convenience stores.

3. A Christmas Present

Of course, what is Christmas without presents? Just like American children, Japanese children also look forward to their Christmas presents. Japanese kids even write to Santa with their Christmas lists, who they believe lives in Finland, not the North Pole!

The major difference between Christmas presents between in Japan and America is volume. Japanese kids normally only get one present from their parents.

It is hard to say why this is, but it is possible that since New Year’s is such a big event in Japan and families spend a lot of money during Oshogatsu, they don’t want to spend even more on presents. Not only that, during Oshogatsu Japanese parents also give their children an envelope filled with money called Otoshidama.

4. Christmas Boot

For children, the Christmas stocking is a highlight of Christmas morning. Japanese kids enjoy something very similar— a Christmas boot.

Fashioned like Christmas stockings, Christmas boots popped up in the 1960s and very common throughout Japan today. Just like in other countries, the boots contain candies, snacks and small toys.

5. See Beautiful Winter Illuminations

Winter illuminations at Osaka Central Public Hall

One of the most romantic things couples enjoy during Christmas in Japan is seeing Christmas illuminations. After nice meal, couples often visit any number of winter/Christmas illuminations to enjoy the romantic atmosphere.

Winter illuminations at Osaka's naknoshima during Christmas in Japan

Happy Holidays from Kansai Odyssey. No matter where you are this year, keep your traditions alive but don’t be afraid to try new ones too!

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