Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Note the Differences - Christmas Time

Actually... Christmas is actually a big event in Japan, but not necessarily for the reasons that you might think. Firstly, Japan has a very small proportion of Christian followers (<1% by most reckoning... but that's still over 1 million people in total). Secondly, Christianity has seen many purges from the country over the centuries, and has to some extent persisted by not being overt in nature. Finally, as is often the way in Japan, the external trappings of Western Christianity have to a large extent been subverted for commercial and social enrichment (e.g. faux church white weddings).

It is the image of Christmas that is most appealing... and can you blame them? It is an image that the West has developed (and commercialised) for centuries... culminating in the Coca-Cola Santa folk-lore image of the 1930's. When we look at Christmas in Japan, it's like looking through a secular mirror of what our own Christmas is becoming, if not become. Yet, there's more to Christmas in Japan than the trees, decorations, Santa and presents...

Christmas in Japan is first and foremost a time of romance... and to be without a date on Christmas Eve is to have suffered one of the great social evils. Well - it might not be that bad, but it's close for the youth of Japan. In fact it's second only to Valentine's Day in terms of romantic overtures and commercialisation. This goes especially for single women...

The other odd thing about Christmas that is often talked about is the Japanese pseudo-tradition of eating KFC for Christmas dinner - and supposedly many Japanese pre-order months in advance to avoid disappointment. The odd thing was that when staying in Japan for Christmas with T-chan's family, we also had KFC (which I thought a little odd at the time), but they just assumed that this was their family thing to do. I've read that up to 1/3 of Japanese families partake of this tradition. KFC first came to Japan in 1970, yet, by 1974 the tradition of  "Christmas Chicken" had supposedly started in one of the first restaurants (in Aoyama).

Nowadays the dominance of KFC, thanks to it's Santa-like Colonel Saunders is unassailable (for now).

The other tradition is of course the Christmas Cake. Unlike the traditional fruit-cake/pudidngs that often adorn our tables in the Australia, the Japanese Christmas Cake is an extravagant affair... well, then again, most cakes are in Japan. The cakes themselves are often just sponge cakes, with strawberry and cream toppings. Sadly, single women in Japan always get it hard - and traditionally when they reached over 25 years of age and were still single, they were referred to as "Christmas Cakes"... which like their real counter-parts must be heavily discounted from the 25th in order to sell. Thankfully those days are gone (are they T-chan?)

And the other thing that is becoming more popular in Japan is the Western Santa Claus... such as our cold Sapporo friend here, photographed in Odori Kouen in very cold conditions)

Actually, Santa's with real beards are becoming especially popular these days, and many foreigners will earn a tidy sum coming to Japan to be the department store Santa. And they can be the most unlikely people.. ever heard of Santa living in Okinawa?

In the West, Christmas is generally associated with spending time with the family, and yet this is traditionally associated with New Years in Japan... but I'll post more about that shortly. The important thing for our family is however that Christmas is almost always a reminder of separation for us. No matter which way it turns out, either my wife or I will be missing our family over Christmas. And this is a common thing for many people sharing international weddings. Of course, whilst T-chan has no Japanese family here in Australia, she is part of a broader family of fellow emigré that spend their Christmas here in Australia with their partner's families.

Over this Christmas break, think back to your own traditions and the way you have spent the time leading up to and including the day. For most of us, a large amount of time is spent worrying about presents to buy, looking for presents to buy, or wondering how we might be able to pay for the presents we've just bought... let alone what presents we will ourselves get. It's good to take some time out from that rat-race and reflect on what Christmas (even from a secular point of view) means to our modern international societies.

So, as the Japanese say "Merii Kurisumasu", or メリークリスマス! And if you have your own Japanese Christmas traditions to add to the list, please drop me a line or send a comment.


  1. I always wondered why Japan seemed to place so much emphasis on Christmas when the Christian population was so small. The KFC tradition is totally new and fascinating to me hehe.

  2. Yeah.. but it's a fun place to enjoy at least the external trappings of Christmas. As for the whole KFC thing... it's often reported feature of Japanese Christmas, but is also one of those things that still is a bit hard to understand from a non-Japanese perspective.

  3. Loved your post, Ben. But I've got to say that here, in the Kansai area, I have yet to see a Santa Claus...other than in a decoration of some kind. And the lights that you have pictures of here are, for us, more of a winter celebration than for Christmas...since they are put up in October and stay up until the end of January. But you are totally right about the KFC Christmas chicken. People often feel the need to tell me that they are ordering KFC for Christmas dinner. I suppose it replaces what, to me and I think many others, is a traditional Christmas turkey...which I've yet been able to find in a grocery store (I order mine from the US). And again, spot on with the Christmas cake. Something that every family does - except mine LOL. But have you noticed how wonderful these cakes look...and then you take a bite and they are pretty much tasteless? Am I the only one who thinks so? Love the pic of L-kun in his elf outfit...and the pic of your Christmas ornament. I tried several times to take a pic like that and they just do not come out.
    Thanks for the post!

  4. Thanks Angie... I always appreciate your very kind words of encouragement. I always look forward to your own posts.

    I'm surprised you're bereft of Santa's in Kansai. That's a shame (especially for your children)...

    Actually I know what you mean about the cakes looking absolutely gorgeous. I don't mind the light flavour however... it beats the sickly sweet cakes we can buy here in Australia. Too much of everything.

  5. I've been trying to convince my Australian husband to spend a Christmas in Japan - 1) so we can have a white Christmas an 2) the idea of it being similar to Valentine's day appeals.

    Great blog by the way. Nice to see an Aussie spouse writing about the expat experience!

  6. Thanks Suzer - I'd definitely recommend Christmas in Japan... but don't expect the whole nine-yards in terms of "Christmas", as it definitely doesn't have the same religious connotation (whether that's good or bad depending on your viewpoint).

    I really want to be back there for Christmas soon.

  7. Thanks for posting this, this helped me alot with my Christmas In Japan Readding project :) .. that little boy at the end is the cutest thing ever :)

  8. Thanks Erin, I appreciate your comment, and good luck with your reading project.