While Christmas may have taken its place in modern-day Japanese society, the idea of Christmas has only somewhat permeated Japanese thinking. Of course, department stores don decorations and play festive tunes but, for the predominantly Shinto Japanese, Christmas is simply a fun event borrowed from the West.
In the lead-up to Christmas, restaurants and stores will advertise “Christmas chicken” and “Christmas cake” – a sponge topped with whipped cream and strawberries – for Christmas parties, but much of the “atmosphere” or “excitement” that you may feel in the lead-up to Christmas in places where it is one of the major holidays of the year, is basically lost.
The culmination of Christmas festivities in Japan takes place on Christmas Eve when it is popular for couples to go out on a dinner date and exchange gifts. Try getting a restaurant reservation on December 24th and you'll know what I mean! Christmas Day is basically a non-event. Christmas chicken and cake are already off the menu and it's business as usual. There is no holiday for Christmas, much to the dismay of many foreigners living in Japan who often claim that Christmas “isn't the same” here.
While Christmas Day may not be a day off, thanks to the reigning Emperor, we get a national holiday pretty close to it. Emperor Akihito was born on December 23rd, 1933, and according to Japanese law, the birthday of the current Emperor must be declared a national holiday. Thanks to the 23rd falling on a Sunday this year, the 24th has been declared a holiday in its place!
So what happens on the Emperor's Birthday (Tennō Tanjōbi – 天皇誕生日)? Well, it is one of only two occasions (the other being the New Year Greeting on January 2nd) that the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace – the residence of the Imperial household – are opened up to the public. On this day, Emperor Akihito and his wife, Empress Michiko, as well as other members of the Imperial family, appear before crowds of well-wishers on a balcony behind bullet-proof glass. They appear three times on the morning of his birthday, each time the Emperor giving a short speech and then waving to well-wishers who wave back with Japanese flags while shouting “Banzai!” (in this context meaning “Long live the Emperor!”).
On the way out, you can sign the Greeting Book which, according to the Imperial Household Agency, “will be duly forwarded to its highest destination as the expression of your warm congratulations.” There is also a desk where you can hand in your “meishi” (name/business card), the giving and receiving of name cards playing a large role in Japanese custom. You won't receive a card back, but there is something kind of cool about saying “The Emperor has my card.”
While the East Gardens are closed on the Emperor's Birthday, those who entered the grounds to see the Emperor, may visit the East Gardens afterwards as it leads to one of the exits.
When: December 23rd, 2012.
Where: The Imperial Palace, Tokyo (a 15-minute walk from Tokyo Station, or a 5-minute walk from Tokyo Metro Ōtemachi Station).
Entrance: Main Gate (Nijubashi) (9:30am – 11:20am). Pick up your free Japanese flag on the way in.
Exits: Sakashita-mon Gate, Kikyo-mon Gate, Ote-mon Gate, Hirakawa-mon Gate and Kitahanebashi-mon Gate.
Who will appear: Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress, Their Imperial Highnesses the Crown Prince and Crown Princess and Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Akishino.
First Appearance: Around 10:20am
Second Appearance: Around 11:00am
Third Appearance: Around 11:40am
For more info, please visit the website of the Imperial Household Agency.
So while Christmas may not be met with the same fanfare here in Japan, the Emperor's Birthday national holiday is the next best thing for those celebrating. The fact that Emperor Akihito is a well-respected man, that he married Michiko – the first “commoner” to become part of the Imperial family, and the lucky festive timing of his birthday, leads many to declare “Banzai!”