When it comes to winter holidays, the biggest one for Japan is—you guessed it—New Years! However, there’s another beloved holiday in Japan and that holiday is Christmas. Christmas in Japan is a great time where people focus on spreading joy and having a good time. This translates to some fun and unique ways to spend the holiday that explains why Japan loves Christmas so much.
Learn all about how Christmas found its way to Japan and how people spend the holiday these days, from food to festivities!
How Christmas Started in Japan
Japan is historically a Shinto, Buddhist and Shinto-Buddhist country with a very small Christian population compared to other countries in the region. So how did a Christian-based holiday get so big in Japan? Let’s quickly check out the history of Christmas in Japan.
As you can see in this Utagawa Hiroshige woodblock print, Japanese winter was cold but not very festive. Image via Unsplash
Christianity and Christmas in Japan
The first recorded Christmas in Japan was a mass held by Jesuit missionaries in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1552. However, most people say that the first was an unrecorded celebration three years earlier in 1549 when Saint Francis Xavier arrived in Japan to lead the first major Christian mission to Japan.
If you know Japanese history, Christianity and other foreign religions were banned in 1612 when Japan closed its borders to the world to try and protect itself and its own culture. However, the government didn’t stop Japanese converts from practicing in secret.
Christianity (and Christmas) reemerged during the Meiji era (1868-1912) shortly after the borders opened again. Christmas manifested in the form of Christmas parties and gift exchanges at that time. However, as we mentioned before, New Years was (and still is) the major holiday for Japan, so even then, Christmas was the smaller holiday despite its spread to non-Christian people.
To put this into context, Christmas came to Japan in the same era as the famous Kinkakuji was created. Image via Unsplash
Christmas Comes Again
World War 2 saw another decline for Christmas. Celebrations in general decreased, but “American” holidays were especially discouraged. After the war, it came back again, especially after the 1960s brought a bit of prosperity, Western TV shows and Christmas music to Japan.
Next thing you know, companies like KFC, Japanese singers and music groups, and the Japanese media were all in on Christmas. This solidified the holiday’s place in Japan despite the very small Christian population. Japanese people came to love Christmas even without the religious aspect of it, but the holiday is not a national holiday, so people usually have to work on Christmas Day.
How do People Celebrate Christmas in Japan?
So how is Christmas in Japan any different from the holiday in Western countries? Well, for similarities, there is often gift exchanging, good food, festive music and the fact that it’s celebrated on December 24 and/or 25. We’ll talk about the date later. But let’s look at how Japan celebrates Christmas in detail to get a better idea.
Christmas Parties & Dates
One of the signs of a great Christmas in Japan is the spread. Japanese Christmas feasts can feature anything from sushi to fried chicken. Image via Instagram (@harahettanda)
Christmas in Japan is all about spreading joy and having fun, and with the New Years holidays being the big family holiday here, Christmas is more for everyone else. However, families with children will do a small celebration at home and give gifts complete with “From: Santa” stickers. Also, because most people have to work on Christmas day, festivities usually happen on Christmas Eve.
Friend groups love to do Christmas parties where there is plenty of tasty food, including chicken, cake, pizza and more. These parties can also feature a variety of activities like karaoke, enjoying some drinks, gift exchanges and more.
Meanwhile, Christmas also has a very romantic reputation in Japan, so couples (and singles) tend to treat Christmas more like Valentine’s Day. Couples will often go out to eat at fancy restaurants, exchange heartfelt gifts, check out Christmas markets or go walk around the winter illuminations.
It’s such a couples holiday that many people try to find a partner to at least spend Christmas with just so they can have a “true Christmas” experience. It’s a great time to try and find a significant other.
Japanese Christmas Cake
Japanese Christmas cakes are so beautiful, but they may upset the stomachs of the more lactose-intolerant. Image via Instagram (@maeeeeka_)
Similar to strawberry shortcake, Japanese Christmas cake features strawberries and plenty of whipped cream on a light sponge cake. It originates back in the 1920s but was very expensive due to the ingredients that went into it.
However, it became even more expensive after World War 2 when there were shortages of luxuries like butter, milk and sugar, becoming ingredients of the wealthy. In the 1970s, these ingredients became more readily available, allowing the spread of Christmas cake as a Japanese tradition. In fact, this cake became a symbol and celebration of prosperity these days.
Nowadays, you can reserve and buy these cakes ANYWHERE. High-end bakeries, supermarkets, department stores and convenience stores all offer this cake for holiday parties. That being said, some places may have cakes available on the day without a reservation, but a reservation is usually needed to make sure you can get one.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Colonel Sanders really is the king of Christmas here in Japan, offering 9 different holiday sets this year alone. Image via Instagram (@mxxa_camera)
Yup, KFC is one of the most popular Christmas foods in Japan, with people often having to reserve a bucket 6 weeks in advance or risk standing in line for hours. It all started in the 1970s when the first manager of the first Japanese KFC location had a dream. Literally! He dreamt about the “party barrel” to sell as a promotional item.
Plus, he once overheard two foreigners at his location talking about how they miss turkey and thought chicken would be a good substitute. This led to the introduction of the party barrel to Japan and the amazing slogan of “Kentucky for Christmas”! Turns out that KFC manager had the perfect idea because fried chicken became the go-to Christmas food in Japan.
A massive estimated 3.6 million Japanese families enjoy KFC for the holiday, hence the need for a reservation. Pizza is also a becoming a popular option for Christmas parties, so if you’re trying to get around the rush and go for pizza instead of chicken, you’ll still need to schedule in advance.
Illuminations attract tons of people every year with how beautiful and social media-worthy they are.
Japan puts a bit of effort into the aesthetics and romance of the holidays. Gyms, malls and other businesses will put up decorations to get into a festive mood, but the peak of the holiday aesthetic are illuminations.
Illuminations can take plenty of forms in Japan, from dedicated illumination seasonal spaces to shopping streets decorated with lights. Some may just have pretty lights while others feature something more like a light show that starts every 15 minutes to an hour. Illuminations are even great for seasonal spots, like flower gardens. These locations see a huge surge in winter visitors thanks to the beautiful light shows only available in winter.
From Hokkaido to Nagasaki, there are tons of illumination events to stroll and some of them offer uniquely gorgeous photo opportunities perfect for social media.
The great thing about Japanese Christmas markets is that you can enjoy both German and Japanese festival foods in one place. Image via Instagram
Christmas markets aren’t necessarily unique to Japan, especially considering that they are inspired by markets of Germany. Japan just has so many of them and in really cool locations and plenty of unique products that often utilize local products and foods using local ingredients. Many of these markets have a different vibe based on the location.
The Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse market takes place right in the middle of the iconic historical site. The Meguro market in Tokyo features a lot of art by local artists. The Sapporo market brings a bit more authentic German-ness thanks to Sapporo being sister cities with Munich.
These aren’t all of the markets, so if you plan to spend a December in Japan, definitely do a search of some of the different markets out there.
And that’s how people celebrate Christmas in Japan! It really is a fun holiday here and people really get into the Christmas spirit, spreading joy and making merry with friends, lovers and families.If you had the chance, would you get the KFC party barrel? What was the most interesting thing you learned about Japan and Christmas? How is it different from winter holidays celebrated in your country? Let us know in the comments below!