Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? The answer is simply, yes! Though there are a few key differences in how when comparing Japanese Christmas traditions to those in the western world. Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan and widespread Christmas celebrations are a relatively new thing in the Japanese cultural landscape, going back only a few decades. Japan is largely a non-Christian country and in accordance with that, Japanese Christmas is largely a secular celebration. However, the relative newness and secular nature of the holiday in Japan does not mean that the traditions that have sprung up around it are insignificant!
The most interesting Japanese innovation on Christmas is as pervasive in the country as it is unique. On Christmas day in Japan, people flock in droves to KFC to eat fried chicken! An ad campaign by KFC beginning in 1974 firmly planted the idea in the Japanese cultural mindset with a television commercial. The commercial simply depicted a Japanese family eating fried chicken with the slogan “Kentucky for Christmas!” Today, fried chicken is seen as just as much a Christmas food in Japan as gingerbread men and peppermint candy canes are here in America.
Another popular Japanese Christmas food is the Christmas cake. Don’t let the name fool you, the Japanese Christmas cake is nothing like the dense Christmas fruit cake eaten in the UK and the US. Christmas cake in Japan more closely resembles a strawberry shortcake. Light fluffy sponge cake is topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries to make a Japanese Christmas cake. Curiously enough, the popularity of the Christmas cake in Japan can also be attributed to an ad campaign, albeit a much older one. In 1922, the Fujiya confectionery company began to market their cream-covered strawberry sponge cakes with the tagline, “On Christmas, we eat cake!” Fifty years of persistent marketing later, the Christmas cake had cemented itself as a quintessential Christmas Eve dish--in almost the exact same fashion that fried chicken has in the present day.
Christmas music and Santa Claus have also made their way to Japan, each manifesting with it’s own unique twist. In addition to fostering a love for the traditional western canon of Christmas songs, Japanese artists have come up with an entirely original repertoire of Christmas themed music which can be heard playing in public spaces starting in mid-November. Santa Claus, or as he is called in Japan, Santa-san, also makes an appearance. Rather than landing on rooftops and coming down chimneys (features that many contemporary Japanese apartments do not directly have), Santa is known as a sort of friendly magical spirit who manifests in living spaces to give toys to children.
In Japan the secular nature of Christmas means it is a time for bringing cheer, spending time with friends and lovers, and exchanging gifts. Christmas Eve is an extremely popular holiday for couples to have a nice dinner and spend time together while viewing lights and public decorations. It is not common to do much celebrating at home, and home Christmas trees and other decorations tend to be somewhat rare. Christmas in Japan is a lighthearted affair centered around having a bright day in the dark winter, and spending it with the loves in your life that you choose, both romantic and friendly.