Like a number of Western holidays in Japan, Christmas seems to be getting bigger every year. Christmas celebrations in Japan are an interesting mix of traditions from abroad with some unique Japanese interpretations thrown in.
Here are 7 areas of difference that make the Japanese Christmas experience its own.
1. Christmas Eve is the Main Event
When Japanese people say Christmas, they are more often than not referring to Christmas Eve. It is essentially an evening for couples and friends to get-together and exchange gifts. If you plan on eating at a restaurant or visiting a popular date spot, it’s best to plan ahead and make reservations wherever possible. Consider it an early Valentine’s Day, if you will.
While it is mostly a romantic holiday or a time to spend with friends, an increasing number of families celebrate it too. It’s generally not considered an important family event though; rather a fun Western thing to do in the spirit of the season. Children nowadays grow up with knowledge of Christmas traditions (however Japanized) and do expect a visit from Santa. Although the extent to which Christmas is celebrated still very much depends on the family.
2. Christmas Food in Japan
Chicken is the staple main dish for Christmas Eve dinner, while a sponge with cream and strawberries simply referred to as “Christmas cake” is popular for dessert. Many restaurants offer these items for eat-in or take-away, but some require a reservation to be placed in advance so it’s best to check ahead of time.
3. The Advent of the KFC Christmas
Interestingly, one of the most popular places to get your fill of Christmas Eve chicken is at KFC. In fact, we can probably say that it is thanks to KFC that the whole chicken on Christmas Eve thing became popular in Japan in the first place.
The popularization of KFC for Christmas came about as a result of a very successful marketing campaign in the 1970s that just seems to have stuck around. The idea for the marketing campaign can actually be traced back to a foreigner who went to the Aoyama store in Tokyo one Christmas and ordered such a large amount of chicken that he felt the need to explain to the store clerk that he was having a Christmas party and since he couldn’t find any turkey, he’d decided to just get a whole stack of KFC chicken instead. The store manager picked up on this and was savvy enough to take the idea of promoting KFC for Christmas to the higher management. In 1974, they launched a campaign called “Kentucky for Christmas” that went so well it sparked a new tradition.
Nowadays, KFC’s in busy locations can have queues around the block on Christmas Eve, with waiting times of several hours. While stores stock up big on chicken for the evening, they can and do sell out. That’s why they recommend placing an order in advance, either online or in-store. Doing so means that your order is guaranteed and you can use a special express queue when you pick it up.
4. By Christmas Day, it’s over
Christmas Day itself is rather uneventful. Neither Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day are holidays for the Japanese so after a fun night on the 24th, everyone is back at work as usual on Christmas Day and the festivities feel more or less over.
However, with the increasing popularity of Christmas in Japan, Christmas parties may often extend to any of the days around Christmas Eve, and the very close December 23rd national holiday in celebration of the current Emperor’s birthday makes for a convenient day for Christmas get-togethers. Banzai (long live the Emperor)!
5. Christmas Lights
Something that many people don’t know about Japan is their extensive winter lights displays or “illuminations”. Some are specifically Christmas orientated that wrap-up on Christmas Day, while others extend all the way to Valentine’s Day, giving couples ample opportunity for the perfect winter date night.
We recently visited a few of the displays to show you, which you can see in the video below.
6. German Christmas Markets
An interesting trend over the past few years has been the adoption of the German-style Christmas market. In the few weeks leading up to Christmas, the Japanese celebrate the season with wooden market stalls selling hot mulled wine, bratwurst and trinkets.
Here are 5 places you can visit German-style Christmas markets in Tokyo.
7. Shopping and gift-giving
While it is quite commonplace for couples/friends to exchange gifts and for presents to be given to young children, whether one gives gifts or even celebrates Christmas at all really depends on the person. As a non-traditional holiday that often falls in the middle of the working week, it’s not uncommon for some people to pass on marking the occasion altogether.
Having a small get-together followed by watching TV at home and getting an early night for work the next day is a common response from Japanese. Check out this video from That Japanese Man Yuta as he interviews Japanese women on what they plan to do/want for Christmas.
One of the things I love about Christmas in Japan is that there isn’t pressure to buy presents for everyone you know, the stores aren’t overly crowded and there isn’t a huge sales rush. The sales in Japan actually start in the New Year when stores package their unsold stock into “lucky bags” known as fukubukuro.
They are usually sold at quite heavily discounted prices but the catch is you don’t know the contents until after purchase. They can therefore be a bit hit and miss, but they can work out well if you really like the style of a particular store or can swap pieces with friends.