Santa Claus, reindeers, Christmas trees, mistletoes, gift-exchanging, family gatherings, and game nights embody the spirit of Christmas, which is one of the most favored times of the year and a great opportunity to treat your eyes with the cities dressed in twinkling lights, and shops adorned with Christmas trees and colorful lights, and your stomach with countless tasteful food options at Christmas markets, and delicious Christmas pies as well as traditional recipes. The colorful Christmas time is favored by everybody, even if they come from different religious and cultural backgrounds, and Japan is one of them. With less than 1 percent of the Christian population, Japan embraces the Christmas spirit, not for religious reasons but mostly for the fun aspects of it.
Japan has been celebrating Christmas since the 19th century. As a response to high-paced globalization and the import of American store chains, Japan developed an Americanized taste infused with Japanese national elements. Today, Christmas is one example of this. Very untraditional Christmas ingredients in Japan include KFC as the most popular Christmas meal, a strawberry cake as a national symbol, and a date night on Christmas Eve, which serves itself as the unique Japanese Christmas package.
How did Christmas come to Japan?
According to David Plath’s article, “Christmas as a Christian event came to Japan with the missionaries of the sixteenth century, Japanese converts honored the day as “natara” or as “Our Lord’s birthday”(waga nushi no otanjo).” However, it gained popularity only in the middle of the 19th century as the most well-known Tokyo stores, such as Maruzen and the Meiki-ya, put Christmas decorations on display and imported Christmas cards and gifts.
The democratic aspect of the Christmas tradition in Japan, which is not discussed much, is something worth mentioning briefly. As Plath draws attention to male-female roles in social groups and entertainment events, he points to Christmas parties’ democratic and inclusive nature:
Christmas parties are held both by instrumental and by expressive social groups. These parties are a syncretism with “closing-the-year parties” (bonenkai) long customary in December. But a bonenkai tends to be a man’s affair, with sake, group singing, and displays of masculine affection. Only professional women are allowed in the room: waitresses, geisha, entertainers.
The Christmas party, on the other hand, provides a role for “proper” women. There is social dancing in place of the music of samisens, and often port wine is served rather than sake. Understandably enough, the Christmas party tends to be more favored than the bonenkai in heterosexual groups such as office staff, or the employees of a department store, or village youth clubs. This is one reason why some Japanese see Christmas as democratic.
Bearing this in mind, we see that there are many different perspectives that can be employed to view the social aspects of Christmas and how it translates the Japanese traditions into a more secular and inclusive Westernized form. But, of course, beyond all, the fun part is to explore what Christmas means for modern Japan.
New Year’s Eve (Oshogatsu) & Christmas
Christmas and New Year’s Eve channel different activities and emotional attachments. Christmas, for instance, is actually a Japanese version of Valentine’s Day. Thus, on the 25th of December, you are very likely to see young couples on the streets, making the 25th the most romantic day of the year. For the same reason, going on a date is one of Japan’s most prevalent Christmas activities. So, Christmas is more about couples dating and friends coming together. In contrast, New Year’s Eve is about family gatherings and gift-giving, which is closely linked to Japanese traditions and their concept of New Year’s Eve, which is “oshogatsu” in Japanese.
Unlike the United States, Christmas day is not a legal holiday in Japan. Though in some parts of Japan, schools start their holiday season at Christmas with the spirit of “New Year’s vacation.” However, the 25th of December is a normal working day. Christmas also has a very short life span and doesn’t last for weeks in the West. After the 26th of December, all Christmas decorations are replaced with Oshogatsu ornaments.
Oshogatsu or Shogatsu (January 1-3)
Oshogatsu or New Year’s Eve celebration preparation starts toward the end of December. January 1–3 is the official celebration period when the Japanese visit shrines and enjoy great food, including mochi, noodles, and amazake. Children receive around 5.000 yen, which is called “toshidama.”
First, let’s see how the Japanese get prepared for Oshogatsu. First of all, the houses are cleaned meticulously; old and broken objects are thrown away. This cleaning ritual is called “osouji.” According to Japanese beliefs, it is done to get the blessing of the Shinto deity, Toshigami. Secondly, the houses are decorated with newly prepared decorations. Kadomatsu is one example of this and more like a version of a Christmas tree. It is made of pine, bamboo, straw, the symbols of longevity. Also, shimekazari, a rice straw rope decoration, is hung on the outdoors of houses to keep away bad spirits. These decorations are thrown away to be prepared anew in the next year. It is all about leaving the past behind.
On New Year’s Eve, temple bells ring 108 times. The reason for this is the “Buddhist belief that humans are plagued with 108 types of earthly desires and feelings like anger and jealousy, and each strike of the bell removes your troubling desires.” On the first of January, local temples or shrines are visited, and the act of visiting is called “hatsumode.”
Food, of course, is essential. Toshi Koshi soba or year-crossing noodles, mochi, amazake -the fermented rice- are only some of them. Kagami mochi is a sweet dish of two mochis, round-shaped rice cakes, on top of each other, one smaller, one bigger, to symbolize the year passing and the one ahead.
In short, oshogatsu is a combination of Shintoist and Buddhist beliefs with modern interpretations.
Why do the Japanese eat KFC for Christmas?
Getting back to the Christmas traditions in Japan, there are a couple of national touches to this Western celebration. The most popular Christmas meal in Japan is the fried chicken from KFC. As stated by newsnation, Christmas Eve has traditionally been KFC’s busiest single day of the year – with roughly 10 times more customers than normal.
In 1974, the concept of having KFC became national with the campaign ‘Kurisumasu ni wa, Kentakki’ or ‘Kentucky for Christmas.’According to the BBC, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families treat themselves to fried chicken from the American fast-food chain every Christmas season, in what has become a nationwide tradition.
Here is how it all started. In the aftermath of WWII, the Japanese economy started to thrive, and the citizens were heading for a more prosperous future. With rapid globalization and adaptation of Western customs into Japanized forms, people also, for the first time, afforded to buy and were indulged in the practice of consumerism. The fast-food industry started to be more dominant, and KFC was one part of this process. In time, KFC spread to almost every corner of Japan with more than 300 stores.
KFC started a campaign promoting “party buckets” or “party barrels” with special Christmas menu ads during Christmas. According to CNN news, “Takeshi Okawara, who managed the country’s first KFC and later became CEO of KFC Japan, falsely marketed fried chicken as a traditional American Christmas food to drum up sales.”
Today, KFC has proved itself to be a successful commercial product and the most popular Christmas menu in Japan. If you want to know more about the statistics of what the Japanese eat during Christmas, you can check here.
Japanese Christmas Cake or Kurisumasu keeki
After fried chicken from KFC, of course, a dessert is needed. And the Japanese Christmas cake is the best candidate for it. “Kurisumasu keeki” replaces traditional Christmas sweet dishes such as gingerbread, cookies, and pie. Well, this popular Japanese sweet dish is a strawberry shortcake covered with whipped cream and thick frosting and topped with Christmas-themed decorations, such as chocolate-made Santas and red strawberries. The cake is round in its shape, associated with shrines where everything is round. The combination of red and white symbolizes the Japanese flag.
Just like in the case of KFC, the cake’s story starts with Japan’s economic rise after WW II. During the war, food shortages were a major problem, let alone having sweet things. Only after Japan’s economic prosperity, the strawberry cake became more accessible and was a perfect fit for the Christmas image. As stated in an NPR article, citing Ashkenazi, “This [cake] is part of a whole complex of things that the Japanese adopted from the West, modified for their own needs, and have a completely different meaning and different implications for Japanese society than from whatever host society they borrowed it from.”
In addition to being a sweet Christmas dish, the Japanese used to consider unmarried women over 25 as stale as unsold Christmas cakes getting stale on the 26th of Christmas. This comparison was pretty common until the 1980s, which is out of use in contemporary Japan.
However, they continue to be the most popular sweet dish at Christmas. As Plath states, “Family Christmas gatherings do not center around dinner, as in the American ideal, but rather upon mutual partaking of a Christmas cake.”
If you want to give it a try and make one at home, here you can find a recipe for a Japanese Christmas cake.
Japanese Christmas Playlist
“Jingle Bells,” Wham’s “Last Christmas,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” are some of the most iconic Christmas songs, the kind of songs that never get old. Of course, the Japanese have their own versions. Here are some:
Leona Shishigami- Christmas Song
Hamada Masatoshi – Chicken rice
Yamashita Tatsuro – Christmas Eve
L’Arc en Ciel- Hurry Xmas
TRF – Xmas dance wiz U
Sakamoto Ryuichi – Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
B’z – Itsuka no merry Christmas
Matsutoya Yumi- Koibito ga Santa Claus
Boa – Merikuri
Christmas-themed Japanese films to watch
The palette of Christmas-themed Japanese films is quite rich, ranging from animations to war films and romantic comedies with fantastical elements. Each touches on different aspects of Christmas time, including finding love, homeless people at Christmas, and family bonds. Let’s see some examples.
Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers
Tokyo Godfathers (2003) takes place during Christmas time and revolves around 3 major characters: A gap-toothed transgender woman, Hana, a homeless, drunk, bearded man, and a runaway girl in her teenage years. One night, while searching for food in the trash, they find an abandoned baby. They name her Kiyoko and decide to find her parents. After that point, the film starts to question the true nature of family bonds and what home is, zooming in on the poverty of the homeless. Above all, this is a great Christmas film, perhaps not in the complete fashion of Dickens’s Christmas Carol didactic in its tone; but it shows the true meaning of Christmas: family bonds and friendship. As Satoshi Kon also states,
“Homeless people, as the term implies, “have no home,” but in this film, it is not just “people who have lost their homes,” but also “people who have lost their families,” and in that sense, this film is a story about recovering lost relationships with families.”
Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Directed by Nagisa Oshima and starring Davie Bowie, Takeshi Kitano, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a 1983 Japanese- British war film. It is based on the true story of Sir Laurens van der Post, a South African author and soldier, and his experiences as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in World War II.
The dynamics of the film develop upon the three characters. The first one is Cellier (David Bowie), captured by Japanese soldiers and held in a prison camp during WW II. The second one is the camp commander holding a deep interest in the character of David Bowie. Thirdly, the British colonel finds himself as a translator between the two. This is not one of those classic Christmas films with trees, decorations, or celebrations. Instead, the film focuses upon the Japanese commander’s loyalty to moral codes and their brutality. As the film progresses, it comes to a point where Cellier sacrifices himself to save the other soldiers. By doing so, the film draws a parallel to Jesus Christ.
Here you can find one of the most iconic scenes of the film.
Isshin Inudo’s Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic
Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (2014) is an adaptation of Ko Nakamura’s novel “Debikuro Kun no Koi to Mahou.” Directed by Isshin Unudo, the film is mainly about 4 young people whose paths come across on a Christmas night. It turns out that they somehow have connections, for instance, as classmates from years ago. The main protagonist is an aspiring manga writer with a gentle spirit. One day, Hikari meets his childhood friend, Anna. But he can’t recognize her who has been in love with her throughout her life.
As a warm-hearted romantic story, it also speaks to the Japanese Christmas spirit associated with Valentine’s Day. The film also features some fantastical elements, such as an animated evil Santa figure.
Cultural significance of Japanese Christmas in anthropology
Christmas means a date night, KFC, and a strawberry cake in Japan. In other words, the Japanese version of Christmas brings untraditional ingredients and tastes together, making it unique. By tracking how Japan reinterpreted the concept of Christmas, we can see the impact of globalization, the media, and advertising.
Having many different connotations for the Japanese, Christmas lasts only for a very short time, which transforms into a celebration that is more Japanese in the character, taking its roots from Oshogatsu traditions. Aside from that, Christmas is a part of Japanese popular culture, frequently translating itself into music and films. In one way or another, Christmas is a living spirit in Japan. Lastly, Merry Christmas or what is better, Merii Kurisumasu!