Though less than 1% of Japan’s population is Christian, Christmas is widely celebrated as a secular holiday throughout the country. However, there are some key differences between the traditional Western festivities and the way that Christmas is celebrated in Japan. In this article, we identify some of the unique cultural approaches that Japan takes toward Christmas.
A Holiday for Couples
While westerners view Christmas as a time to reconnect with family, Christmas is seen as a romantic holiday in Japan. In fact, it’s even been likened to a Japanese Valentine’s Day, with many couples planning dates or trips around this time of year. Restaurants and department stores cater to couples looking for a romantic night out by preparing special packages and gifts. For those without a partner, Christmas is often celebrated as a social event with friends.
Conversely, for Japanese people, New Year’s is typically reserved for family, while westerners treat it as a time to hang out and party with friends.
No Japanese Christmas dinner is complete without a slice of Christmas cake. While you can technically serve any flavor of cake as Christmas cake, the most iconic variety is a strawberry shortcake that consists of moist sponge cake, fluffy whipped cream, and fresh strawberries as a topping. Christmas cake is sold everywhere from the supermarket to convenience stores to chain restaurants to high-end bakeries. Incredibly popular, many stores open their Christmas cake pre-orders as early as November.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Peculiarly, the most popular Christmastime food in Japan is a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Every year, more than 3.6 million Japanese families chow down on the classic fried chicken seasoned with 11 herbs and spices.
The story starts almost 50 years ago in 1974 when the first KFC manager in Japan, Takeshi Okawara, launched a massive marketing campaign advertising a “party bucket” to be sold on Christmas. It worked, and KFC is now synonymous with Christmas in Japan. In fact, the campaign was so pervasive that fried chicken in general is now eaten on Christmas, with local restaurants also offering their own deals. KFC pre-orders open six weeks in advance. On pick-up day, families wait hours in the cold to get their hands on the Colonel’s juicy fried chicken.
Though decorating houses and streets with Christmas lights is a tradition worldwide, Japan takes winter illumination to a whole new level. Winter illuminations are the top attraction during the holiday season, with just about every public gathering spot putting on its own display. Local gardens, amusement parks, and shopping centers host massive illumination festivals that draw large crowds. Some of the most famous illumination displays are the Sendai Pageant of Starlight, Osaka Hikari Renaissance, and Kobe Luminarie.
Influenced by German culture, Christmas markets specializing in seasonal products such as mulled wine, stollen cake, and festive handicrafts start popping up at the start of the winter season. Many offer chances to observe and participate in traditional wintertime activities such as gingerbread house making, tree lighting, caroling, and even meeting Santa Claus.
About the author:
Britney Budiman (@booritney) is a writer, minimalist, aspiring effective altruist, and runner-in-progress with a penchant for saying “yes.” Previously, she has worked in Cambodia at a traditional arts NGO, in Brazil as a social sciences researcher, and in San Francisco at a housing start-up. She currently lives in the countryside of Kagoshima, Japan, where she teaches English. Her favorite thing in the world is good conversation.