Although it’s considered a Western holiday in Asia, Christmas is still a popular event in Japan, and the Japanese have their own unique traditions that offer an exciting new perspective on the holiday.
In the U.S. and U.K., Christmas has deep religious undertones, but Japan is a widely secular nation with groups of people who practice Shinto, Buddhism and Confucianism. Japan has a strong anti-Christian history, and only about 1 percent of the entire country ascribes to this faith. For that reason, Christmas has a much more commercialized concept than it does in other countries.
In fact, many people are surprised to find that the Japanese consider December 25th to be one of the most romantic days of the year, similar to the Westerners’ Valentine’s Day.
The Origins of Christmas in Japan
Christmas in Japan dates back to the 1500s, but it was later cancelled in the 1600s as Buddhist and Shinto practices became the nation’s approved religions. During this era, practicing Christians faced severe consequences, so no one was able to practice publicly or observe Christmas beyond their own home.
Religious freedom was restored in Japan in 1817, which welcomed the return of Christmas along with the ability to openly practice Christianity again. However, during and after the events of World War II, American culture and Western holidays fell out of popularity for many years.
The biggest factor that drove Christmas back into contemporary Japanese culture was the invention of the famous “Christmas cake.” This cake, featuring red and white icing and topped with strawberries, became an instant hit and is now one of the most beloved Japanese Christmas traditions to date.
It wasn’t until the 70s’, however, that the largest and strangest Japanese Christmas tradition was invented. The “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign of 1974 introduced the Japanese people to one of America’s most popular fast-food chains, KFC. Legend says that KFC in Japan became tradition after a large number of tourists were searching the city for a Christmas turkey; unable to find any, the business decided to market itself as an alternative Christmas dinner, and it was so successful that the entire nation began to celebrate December 25th with a KFC dinner.
The Most Popular Japanese Christmas Traditions
These are the traditions most Japanese people observe on Christmas Day, but they may seem quite odd and off-beat for foreigners. First, it’s important to understand that Christmas is not a religious holiday in the country, so the Japanese have infused this day with their own beliefs and meaning that can be equally appreciated and admired.
On December 24th, many Japanese couples book a room at a “love hotel.” Christmas Eve is considered the most romantic night of the year in Japan, which naturally became a profitable business for many entrepreneurs. Many couples want to spend the evening somewhere special, but it is not easy to afford a luxury hotel in most of Japan’s major cities.
To compensate, “love hotels” began to spring up throughout the country. Now, couples will book a room for a passionate evening. Guests can simply book a room for several hours or stay the whole night, and to avoid discomfort or embarrassment, couples simply have to book a room and press a button in the lobby to be administered a room key.
Even couples who do not book a room at a love hotel will spend the evening together by going on a romantic date and strolling through the city, admiring the Christmas lights and decorations.
Listening to Beethoven
In America, there are many Christmas classics that practically everyone knows. If you travel to Japan for the holidays, you may be surprised to hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and ninth symphony being played all across the city. Many believe that the composition was introduced to the country by German prisoners in World War I. It’s so popular, in fact, that Japanese refer to it simply as “daiku,” which means number nine.
Going to Disneyland in Japan is a dream for many, and those who want to make the experience even more magical should go during the holidays. Tokyo Disneyland pulls out all the stops for its Christmastime celebration, including a parade, thousands of decorations, light shows and special seasonal events, souvenirs and foods to enjoy.
Disneyland is also a prime date destination for many Japanese couples during the Christmas season, so expect to see plenty of them dressed elegantly.
For both natives and tourists, Disneyland’s Christmas parades and events are a magical way to mark the season.
The coveted Christmas cake in Japan is a sponge cake dressed in festive red and white frosting, strawberries and, sometimes, powdered sugar. Some bakeries go a step further and even decorate the berries themselves to look like miniature Santa Clauses.
The fluffy cake, airy and sweet whipped cream make the “kurisumasu keki” a delectable treat that families typically enjoy after finishing their chicken dinner.
KFC for Everyone
Christmas in Japan and KFC go hand-in-hand. The restaurant is so in-demand during the holiday season that families even book reservations month in advance to ensure they’ll be able to take home a classic KFC bucket.
While Americans and Europeans typically end the evening of December 25th with a ham or turkey, the Japanese love to indulge on some tender chicken thighs, crispy drumsticks and juicy wings. A complete Kentucky Christmas dinner in Japan comes with the obligatory Christmas cake and salad and costs around 50 USD.
Japan’s Unique Christmas
The way the Japanese celebrate Christmas may seem strange or even blasphemous to some, but the holiday is just another illustration of the culture’s fascinating and unique approach to many different global customs. Christmas in Japan can be celebrated in a major city, where tourists are most likely to find all of the decorations, events and Kentucky Fried Chicken they can get their hands on.
Although Japan may not be the ideal Christmas destination for everyone, the Japanese holiday traditions can make for an unforgettable experience to many.