The most common question I get about Japan during December is: Do the Japanese celebrate Christmas? The answer is “Yes and no.” The Japanese, who love anything sparkly with lights, could not resist importing Christmas. But since Japan is a Buddhist country and Christmas has no religious meaning to them, they imported only the fun parts. Almost everyone has a small, desktop plastic Christmas tree in their house which they often put in an out-of-the-way place such as on top of the refrigerator. The stores all have Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. Some cities, such as Hakodate in Hokkaido will have a larger Christmas tree on display in the city center (pictured).
Santa definitely comes to children’s’ houses, but through their bedroom window, and he leaves the present (yes, just one!) underneath the child’s pillow. So if you are used to getting lots of gifts at Christmas, you might want to avoid Japan at Christmas time!
Christmas in Japan has also developed into a romantic holiday for couples, a sort of Valentine’s Day in December. So on Christmas Eve, couples will go to a nice restaurant for dinner and may exchange Christmas gifts. But be warned, “Christmas Dinner,” which every restaurant will advertise, does not mean traditional Christmas food such as turkey, stuffing, ham, etc as you might eat at home with your family. Christmas Dinner merely means dinner at Christmas time.
Christmas Day is not a holiday in Japan, and westerners who live and work here will be expected to work on Christmas.
The Japanese have another unusual Christmas tradition: eating Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is the biggest day of the year for KFC in Japan, as everyone orders buckets of chicken to eat at home with the family on Christmas. Christmas cakes are also popular. Not fruitcakes, but round, two-layered, store-bought cakes with chocolate or white icing and Santas gracing the top. From this tradition comes a rather unflattering saying in Japanese about older women: “She’s Christmas Cake.” This means the girl is older than 25, and is no longer of desirable marrying age, as the 25th day of December is the expiration date for Christmas cake. This expression is dated, however, and not often heard anymore.
The most similar Japanese holiday to Christmas is New Year’s. New Year’s is a serious holiday in Japan in which all family members get together from far and wide and eat traditional New Year’s foods that are only eaten at this time of year. There are also traditional New Year’s decorations. There are no big New Year’s parties nor count downs like we have in the West.
In short, Christmas in Japan is more like New Year’s is to us, just a fun holiday.
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com