Christmas without the Christianity Just one per cent of Japan’s population of 128million identifies as Christian. Both the prevailing religions, Buddhism and Shinto, place greater emphasis on New Year, when a host of celebrations take place. Christmas is not a national holiday either, so it’s common for people to work on the day and end-of-year deadlines mean December can be a hectic time. Shops also continue to trade, albeit heavily decorated with Christmas bling.
Christmas Eve is the big event
Christmas Eve is a big deal in Japan, not unlike Christmas custom throughout Europe – but that’s where the similarities end, as Christmas Eve in Japan has more in common with St. Valentine than St. Nick. It is customary for couples to spend time together on Christmas Eve, enjoying a romantic meal, exchanging gifts and booking out hotels and restaurants in the process. The trend comes from a popular song called Koi-bito Ga Santa Kuroosu which translates as ‘my boyfriend/girlfriend is Santa Claus’. Originally performed by singer Yumi Matsutoya, the song was popularised in 1986 after it was used in a film. Every December, it is played on repeat in homes, supermarkets and malls across the country.
KFC for Christmas
Kentucky for Christmas Forget turkey – in Japan, Christmas is all about KFC. This particular custom dates back to 1974, and a man by the name of Takeshi Okawara. Okawara was the manager of the first KFC restaurant to open in Japan and, as legend has it, he overheard a young couple discussing how much they missed eating turkey at Christmas. Realising that fried chicken could plug the turkey-shaped hole in the emerging Christmas market, Okawara developed a slogan – Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii or ‘Kentucky for Christmas’.
It was enough to convince an entire nation to make Christmas finger-lickin’ good from here on out. KFC quickly rolled out its Christmas offering: the Party Barrel, which included a seasonal chicken bucket with a side of wine and cake. Incredibly, it worked. In 1984, Okawara was promoted to CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan where he remained until 2002. Today, around 3.6million Japanese families indulge in a feast of the Colonel’s finest during the festive season. KFC experience peak sales in the run up to Christmas Day, which sees queues trailing down the street and month-long wait times for the most popular dishes. Staff dress up as a festive version of the twinkly-eyed, white haired Colonel, creating a hybrid Santa Claus figure that is revered in Japan as a wise elder.
Christmas cake – but not as you know it
Christmas cake is an iconic part of Japanese festivities that is yet again American-inspired, but with a Japanese twist. The cake dates back to the end of the World War II, when American soldiers were remaindered in Japan to help rebuild the country after years of brutal fighting. The soldiers had access to sugary treats that were a scarce luxury in post-war Japan and confectionery was soon considered the height of indulgence. Many Japanese aspired to the wealth and privilege embodied by the United States – something epitomised by the trappings of an Americana Christmas. Japanese Christmas cake is therefore something of a tribute: a combination of picture-perfect icing worthy of any American Christmas table, and layers of soft sponge topped with ruby-red strawberries. The red and white colour scheme was a happy accident – not a reference to Santa’s wardrobe but a paean to the Japanese flag. If the whole cake thing sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been staring at it since the day you bought a smart phone: the cake emoji you send everyone for your mates’ birthday is actually a Japanese Christmas cake.
Gifts and giving
Gift giving at Christmas is largely limited to couples on Christmas Eve (children receive presents at New Year) but there is still etiquette to unwrapping. In Japan it’s considered rude to tear at wrapping paper. Presents should be opened slowly as a sign of respect and the wrapping is often so intricate in itself that it is a waste to decimate. Cards are more widely available and it is customary to send them to friends and relatives in other countries – just don’t expect chestnuts and an open fire. Japanese scenery is popular so look out for landmarks like prominent temples, Mount Fuji and the bullet train, surrounded by travelling Santas, of course.
Lovely lights and merry markets
One of the Japanese Christmas traditions you might recognise – in fact, one that you can’t fail to see – is Christmas lights, referred to as ‘Illuminations’. These are not your average household displays – whole cities are festooned with lights and famous sights such as Tokyo Station and public parks like Inokashira have their own designs. For couples, the displays provide the perfect setting for a romantic stroll – the display along the Roppongi Sakurazaka is considered one of the best. And just as no Yuletide is complete without a flashing Santa, the same is true of Christmas markets. For this tradition, Japan has turned to the masters of the merry marketplace: Germany.
From the December 16 to Christmas Day the Tokyo Christmas Market sets up in Hibiya Park in Tokyo, sponsored by the German Tourism Association and the German Embassy. It has all the frills of a traditional market and sells everything from tree decorations to hot cider. Close your eyes and you could be anywhere in the world. It just goes to show how much we have in common with our international neighbours than may initially meet the eye. Whether it’s over fried chicken or roast turkey, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and with lovers, friends or family; Christmas is a time for coming together. Merikurisumasu, everyone.