How Did Christmas in Japan Become A Thing?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

As Christmas approaches, I have noticed that that holiday seems to be popular in Japan, despite the fact that Christianity is not widespread in that nation. How did Christmas become popular in Japan, and why do the people there enjoy celebrating a foreign holiday?

It's true, Japan isn't a particularly Christian country -- they only make up about 2.3% of the population, according to Wikipedia. So how did Christmas become a big mainstream holiday over there? As with a lot of Western things, it didn't really take root until after World War II, when the American occupation took over the Japanese way of life. As the Americans made a big deal of Christmas, and based a lot of commerce around the holiday, so too did the Japanese. As time went by, Japan consumed a lot of American media, and therefore a lot of Christmas themed movies and TV specials. While there was initially some hesitation about celebrating a Christian holiday, the overall themes of piece on earth and goodwill toward men were something they could get behind.

As the vast majority of the people celebrating the holiday in Japan are not Christian, the holiday takes on a markedly different, more secular tone in that country. It's not an official holiday -- few people get the day off -- but for retailers and kids it's a big deal. All of the secular Christmas iconography, from trees to Santa Claus, are everywhere.

Christmas Eve is also traditionally a big date night, leading Westerners to compare it to how Valentine's Day is celebrated in the West. (Japan has Valentine's Day too, of course.) Couples of all ages get all dressed up and go out to dinner and possibly a show. Gift giving is seldom part of the event, but for kids and dates, a small gift of something cute, like a teddy bear, is usually given. Close friends might get Christmas cards, although nengajo, or New Year's postcards, are much more of a thing.

Christmas also gets folded into end-of-year parties, both private and work-related. Bars and restaurants are rented out, and there is much drinking and general sloppiness in the streets.

Japan has its own Christmas traditions. The one that baffles Americans the most is the ritual of eating fried chicken -- namely KFC -- on December 24th. KFC Japan marketed themselves as a Christmas Eve tradition, and it's caught on in a ridiculous way. In fact, it's their busiest day of the year, and customers are required to book their orders in advance. Amusingly, many Japanese are under the mistaken impression that this is an American tradition as well!

Japan also adopted the French tradition of the Yule Log, or Christmas Cake -- a thin sponge cake that's been frosted and rolled into a log, to resemble the actual Yule Logs that were once traditionally burned on the holiday in Europe. These are usually bought by dads on the way home from work on Christmas Eve. (On Christmas Day, Christmas Cakes are marked down to a very very low price.)

Of course, New Year's is only a week after Christmas, and Japan has traditionally used the five days from New Year's Eve to January 4 as a time for families to get together, feast, visit and pray at a temple, and take some time off of work. With that in mind, Christmas, with its lack of religious roots, takes on a different role and meaning. But nonetheless, it's still a special day. Just, not what most Americans would expect.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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