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11 Things You May Find Different About Christmas in Japan

Kiyomi is a former Canadian pharmacist who is now living in Japan, where she enjoys being immersed in her Japanese roots.

Christmas in Japan

When the holiday season comes around, I'm often asked by friends and relatives back in my home country of Canada, “what is Christmas like in Japan?” But there are more things that are different than I can list off in a quick answer. Every country has different traditions, some old, and in the case of Japan (where the holiday has only relatively recently spread countrywide), some new. I’d like to share some of the differences that I’ve found as a Canadian now living in Japan.

A department store in Japan during the Christmas season (Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas" playing in the background)

A department store in Japan during the Christmas season (Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas" playing in the background)

1. Christmas Day Is a Normal Work Day

Since Christianity remains a minor religion in Japan (Buddhist and Shinto customs are more often participated in), and most Japanese do not celebrate the religious aspect of Christmas, it is not considered a national holiday here. As a result, people go to work, as usual, do their usual overtime, and go about the day as if it were any other day.

2. Christmas Is Mostly a Couple's Day

In most Western countries, Christmas is a time to spend with family, celebrating in the warmth of the holiday spirit. For those who are religious, it is also a time to visit the churches and hear the masses. Japan, however, has somehow made it into a couple’s day; I suppose it has much to do with the fact that it is a regular day and people have to work. Also, wherein the West, the New Year is a time to party with friends or be on a date; in Japan, New Year is the time to be with family. It would mean a lot of family get-togethers if Christmas was also a family event.

Couples here will exchange extravagant gifts (or not so extravagant, it really depends on the couple), and will go out for a dinner date. Much like Valentine’s day in the West, restaurant reservations book up pretty early, especially those venues that serve a special Christmas course meal.

Of course, families with children still make it a family celebration with a meal at home; that is if the parents don't have to work.

Tunnel of lights at Nabana no Sato

Tunnel of lights at Nabana no Sato

3. Christmas Lights Are Much More Spectacular

In my hometown in Canada, during Christmas, you’ll see lights lining windows and roofs, or thrown on a tree outside someone’s house and perhaps decorations will light a commonly travelled street in the downtown area. In Japan, however, people don't seem to decorate the exterior of their own homes; instead, they will make it a day trip to go and seek out large commercial displays of lights or ‘illuminations’ as they call them.

Theme parks and cities will make elaborate displays to attract customers and tourists. A 200m-long tunnel made up of different colours of LED light bulbs, for example, is one attraction at Nabana no Sato, a flower park in the Mie prefecture. They use at least 7 million light bulbs in the whole park; including another attraction being a 35m high and 155m wide area of lights that change colour in order to depict different moving scenes. I’ve always had the feeling that if something were made like this in Canada, people would complain that it’s a waste of energy and money that should be put towards more important things.

4. The Christmas Spirit Feels Slighly Lacking

Although there are decorations everywhere, Christmas music and displays of gift ideas in the stores, and Christmassy commercials on TV, somehow it feels like something is missing in terms of the Christmas spirit. The hype is all there, but when Christmas comes around, it’s so anti-climactic. I think the main reason for this is that although the stores may have Christmas spirit, the people don’t seem to.

In the West, especially when it comes close to December 25th, you’ll hear people wishing others a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays no matter their religion. People tend to be a little bit more cheery than usual (if they aren’t one of the ‘Scrooges’) during this season and a little bit more giving. You’ll see strangers smiling at each other, tip jars being filled a little higher, and even the homeless seem to be in the holiday mood.

In Japan, however, you see none of this. People don’t do the season’s greetings (at least not until around New Year’s), and they go about the day as usual. They are so efficient, too, that come December 26th, all the Christmas decorations are completely gone; there aren’t even sales selling Christmas items that could not be sold in time. In Canada, people will keep decorations up until at least the New Year so they can still enjoy the holiday spirit. Here, only some of the illuminations are kept up until winter is over, but only the ones that don’t have a Christmas theme.

5. There Is No Boxing Day

Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is Canada’s version of ‘Black Friday,’ where stores mark down prices, and people are made to line up outside stores that are too busy and packed. Most Japanese I have spoken to have never heard of Boxing Day. Interestingly though, the idea of Black Friday sales has recently crept into the Japanese market.

6. You'll Hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas" EVERYWHERE

I do admit that this is used to be one of my all-time favourite Christmas tunes. It’s upbeat, cheery, and easy to hum along to, but if you’re in Japan, you won’t be able to escape hearing it . . . a lot. Not only does almost every store’s compilation of X-Mas tunes include this song, but television programs also use it for anything related to Christmas.

7. Home Christmas Meals Must Have KFC and Cake

In Canada, Christmas dinners usually include a whole roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, and stuffing (whether it’s stove-top or actually stuffed in the bird). The only turkey meat I’ve ever seen in Japan is at the sandwich chain store ‘Subway.’ I have never seen or even heard of ‘stuffing’ in Japan. I suppose stove-top won’t catch on because when you think about it, stuffing isn’t exactly visually appealing, and if you haven't noticed, the Japanese tend to place importance on the visual aspect of food.

Even if there were turkeys, there is no way a whole turkey would fit in a standard Japanese-sized oven! I can only bake about 7 or 8 cookies at a time in my oven. For the Japanese, I guess the next best thing to turkey is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Roasted chicken would also take time in the tiny ovens, so although chicken legs are sold for roasting at home, it is way easier to buy a bucket of KFC. The company starts advertising their family-sized Xmas buckets in November to remind people to make their reservations for Christmas Day. They are so busy that if you don’t pre-order your bucket, you may be stuck with no chicken for your celebration.

Christmas cake is also a must for Japanese families. You might be thinking, ‘ew, nobody likes Christmas cake,’ but in Japan, it is slightly different (see difference #9 for an explanation). You won’t find gingerbread or shortbread cookies on the dessert table here, just cake.

8. Christmas Cake Is Not Fruitcake

When you say Christmas cake in the West, people will probably conjure up a picture of a dry, dense cake filled with nuts and dry fruits, with a slight aroma of rum or brandy and perhaps a topping of marzipan icing. Christmas cake in Japan is more like birthday cake; sponge cake layered and slathered with whipped cream. They can be white vanilla cakes with slices of fruit in the icing, or richer with a chocolate cake and ganache.

What makes it different from birthday cake is the decorations: figures of Santa and his reindeer, plastic holly, Christmas greetings written on a piece of chocolate, snowmen, or Christmas trees drawn with colourful icing cream, and so on. I’ve also seen fruit tarts labelled as Christmas cake. Because these cakes are not easy to make oneself, most people will turn to bakeries, confectionary shops or even pre-order them from convenience stores.

Stollen is now sold in many stores and bakeries in Japan

Stollen is now sold in many stores and bakeries in Japan

9. Stollen Is a Big Trend

German Christmas markets pop up in big cities all over Japan in December. Germany seems to have a lot of Christmas traditions that the Japanese like. I have noticed recently that the German bread, stollen, seems to be a big trend right now. These nut-and-dried-fruit-packed loaves can be found at almost any bakery or specialty food store.

They aren’t cheap, going for 15–20 USD per loaf. It’s a good thing that they usually have a long expiry date and can be savored little by little for a couple of weeks. I have noticed some regular grocery stores selling mini loaves, which are a little less pricey, though. The characteristic sprinkling of white powdered sugar somehow makes it perfect for Christmas. I personally like those that have marzipan, or almond paste, baked into them.

10. The Children Don't Sit on Santa's Lap

Kids growing up in the West often associate Christmas with sitting on Santa’s lap, telling him what they want for Christmas, and putting milk and cookies out for Santa to eat after he’s dropped off the presents. This tradition has not found its way into Japanese Christmas.

First of all, Santa Claus does not often make public appearances in Japan (not even at the shopping malls). Although some children here do write letters to Santa, this is the extent of their communication with him. Children here will also wake up to Santa’s present by their pillow instead of under a Christmas tree. Not all families have room to store and put up a tree in their small apartments or homes. Hanging stockings and stuffing them with little gifts has not become a regular tradition here either.

11. There Are No Santa Claus Parades

There are all kinds of parades in Japan, usually including school bands, dancing (traditional or not), people dressed in yukata, kimono, samurai clothing, etc. However, I have never seen or heard of a Santa Claus parade.

Christmas in Japan Is Ever-Changing

Just as in Canada, every family and every household will have different Christmas traditions. So while some may bake cookies and some may hang stockings, I have only given you an overall impression of Christmas in Japan. I’m sure Japan’s Christmas traditions will continue to change.

Because this is a relatively new holiday in this country, certain traditions of other countries that fit well with the Japanese will be borrowed, and unique traditions will be made. It will be interesting to see what comes, what stays and what goes. For now, I hope I have given you a sense of what Christmas is like at present in the rapidly changing society of Japan.

© 2018 Kiyomi Motomura