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Christmas in Japan

November 25th, 2003

Well, it is exactly a month before Christmas, and I’ve noticed people putting up their Christmas decorations recently; scattered apartments and houses around Tokyo putting up lights, stores with the usual displays, playing Christmas carols for store music. Even though Japan is predominantly Shinto and Buddhist, with Christians forming a minority 1% or so, Christmas is nonetheless a middlin’-to-big thing over here, for much the same reason it is in the U.S.: commercialism. But with a Japanese twist.

The traditions in Japan are different, however; first of all, almost nobody has an actual Christmas tree. Trees in Japan are way too expensive, and there are no Douglas Fir farms in the hills that I know about. If anyone has a Christmas tree in Japan, it will be made of metal and plastic, readily stowed away in a closet from January, waiting for the next holiday season. And, to the best of my knowledge, even if a Japanese family has a tree, presents don’t get put under it; it is simply a decoration. No cranberry-and-popcorn strings, either (I always loved making those with the family), rather just some ordinary store-bought garnishes. I’ve never seen tinsel here.

Presents are exchanged, though Christmas is not exactly the reason: it is bonus season. In Japanese employment, one’s meager salary is usually bolstered by bonuses, traditionally given out twice a year–once in summer, once in winter. The summer bonus marks the Chugen season, the winter one is called Seibo. Each one is marked by a special gift section created in stores across the country, sometimes taking up as much as half of a floor of a department store. In such gift areas you’ll find a plethora of items, popular ones including small rolled hams, and a wide variety of product packs–a 20-piece soap package, a 15-can beer package, packages with assortments of cookies, coffees, salad oils, fruit juices, canned seafood, and countless other consumer items. One buys gifts here and either gives them or has them delivered to the recipients. The Seibo gift centers are already open for business.

Next is a tradition also made in Japan: Christmas Cake. Don’t ask me why, probably a confectioner thought it up, just like they thought up White Day for bakers (White Day comes a month after Valentine’s Day–Valentine’s is for chocolate, which women give to men; White Day is for men to give cookies or other treats to women, and is supposed to have been created simply as a way to sell sweets). At Christmas time, people who choose to celebrate have a Christmas Cake. It even became a metaphor in the 80’s–women who had not married by age 26 were rather callously called “Christmas Cake,” meaning that nobody wants to buy the old cakes after the 25th of December. That attitude has changed, by the way, and most young people today have never even heard of the expression.

And for some reason, Chicken is the meal of choice. Turkey just isn’t popular here, I suppose, and ham isn’t exactly the same, either. I found out early on that if you want KFC on the 24th of December, you’d better make a reservation (yes, you heard me) if you don’t want to wait two hours for your order to be filled, or better, just go another day. KFC is swamped on Christmas Eve. Good thing I always vacation in the U.S. every Christmas (coming back to Japan before New Year’s–I like that holiday here). Not that I eat at KFC anymore–they usually refuse to let you choose which pieces you’re going to get.

One other Christmas tradition in Japan: romantic evenings at a romantic restaurant, followed by a visit to a love hotel (or perhaps any nice hotel would do). Again, I don’t really know why, but having a date on Christmas Day is considered a must for young couples. This article refers to a love hotel in Kanagawa which has permanent Christmas decorations in order to attract visitors. Some say there is an urban legend that if you confess your love to your special someone on Christmas Eve, your wish will come true.

But to many in Japan, Christmas is simply a secular affair, if an affair at all. Some make something of it, others do not. Here is an interesting sampling of responses in a kind of “man-on-the-street” survey in Tokyo. And here is an interesting article from the Japan Times last year about Christmas in Japan, including some history behind it.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2003 Tags: by
  1. November 26th, 2003 at 18:37 | #1

    Instead of writing “blogs” on the search engine, I mistakenly wrote “blogd” and up came your article on Christmas in Japan. I enjoyed it and will be back to visit.
    Have a nice Thanksgiving.


  2. Luis
    November 27th, 2003 at 00:03 | #2

    Emil: however you got here, I am glad that you visited. Hope you’ll become a regular.

    Also, if anyone has any requests as to what you’d like to see covered from over here, please let me know. I can’t guarantee I’ll cover it, but I am always open to suggestions.

  3. Nina Yoneda
    December 18th, 2003 at 17:38 | #3

    Hi–This is just to see if you would like to bring & put the semicolon before “however” in the following sentence of yours:

    The traditions in Japan are different, however; first of all, almost nobody has an actual Christmas tree.

    No offence meant at all, ok?


  4. January 16th, 2005 at 14:38 | #4

    Look at this, it’s damn cool – http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Cassini-Huygens/ – fresh shots and sounds (!!!) from Titan!

  5. elmo
    October 12th, 2005 at 12:54 | #5

    japan is cool but christmas must suck there were the love;(

  6. Luis
    October 13th, 2005 at 03:00 | #6

    It doesn’t suck, but it’s no great shakes either. That’s why I spend Christmas in the U.S. and New Year’s in Japan.

    BTW, “were the love”?

  7. Nytiah
    December 6th, 2006 at 15:53 | #7

    um, im studying japan for a school project. its really cool. thumbs up to the creative japanese culture you guys!!
    does anyone know the origin of christmas in japan??? how did it get there? who brought it to the country? any details???
    are there any japanese people who have any traditions that you do that you could share with me?? could you tell me what you cook? eat? how you celebrate??
    thanx to anyone who reads this, and replies, i don’t know if this even makes sense but please respond, someone!! anyone!!
    –NYTIAH C.

  8. MinYiing
    December 6th, 2006 at 15:55 | #8

    i love x-mas
    i love japan
    never been
    love usa
    love everything that’s not…how you say…bad
    god bless
    good luck
    (something in sweeden)

  9. Sven
    May 31st, 2007 at 09:05 | #9

    Nina – I tried emailing you as I will be in Tokyo in early July. Please respond to my note and provide me with updated contact information. I hope you are doing well.

    Best regards,


  10. Luis
    May 31st, 2007 at 09:44 | #10

    Umm… Sven, I’m not sure that Nina is monitoring this blog. It seems that she posted here last time about three and a half years ago, and she’s not the person who runs the blog, I am. Also, your email address is not made available here for spam reasons. I suppose if this is your only hope of contacting Nina, she can email me at the address on the blog’s “about” page and I can forward the message… but I doubt Nina monitors the topic that closely after all this time.

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