The History of Christmas in Japan—From Secret Celebrations to Colonel Sanders
What do Kentucky Fried Chicken, romantic outings, and Beethoven all have in common? Well, they’re the staples of Christmas in Japan.
Japan is not a Christian country, and Christmas has not been an important holiday historically. Although it’s still not a national holiday, Christmas has become increasingly popular in Japan over the years. Today it can be a fun place to get in the Christmas spirit while experiencing some new and interesting traditions you’re not used to.
If you want to know where to find Japanese Christmas celebrations and how they came to be, keep reading. Starting with the first observance of Christmas centuries ago, we’ll make our way to the spectacles and traditions of today.
The First Christmas in Japan
The first Christmas celebrated in Japan that historians are aware of occurred in 1552. European traders arrived in Japan early in the 16th Century, and soon after, Jesuit missionaries began to come. Specifically, the missionary Francis Xavier is responsible for bringing Christianity to Japan in 1549. They held the first recorded Christmas mass in the Yamaguchi Prefecture three years later.
The Edo Period and Sakoku Isolation
Saint Francis Xavier’s Christian enclave did not last long in Japan, though. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the shogun of Japan. He quickly concentrated power in Edo, now Tokyo, eliminated rivals and created a system where other feudal rulers became his subordinates.
Part of maintaining his elaborate power structure meant eliminating Western influence. The Tokugawa shogunate instituted a policy of sakoku, near total isolation. Foreigners could not enter and Japanese could not leave without risking punishment by death. The shogunate restricted foreign trade to a handful of intermediary ports that they controlled and banned Western philosophies like Christianity.
As a result, Christmas celebrations mostly disappeared in Japan till the end of the Edo Period in 1868. Historians have found evidence, though, of an underground Christian group called Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians” in Japanese), and they had secret, underground Christmas celebrations throughout the Edo Period.
The Meiji Restoration and Western Influence
In 1853, an American fleet led by Admiral Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay and forced the Tokugawa shogunate to open Japan. After two and a half centuries of isolation, the Japanese people realized they’d fallen behind the rest of the world. They were technologically, militarily and philosophically outmatched, especially by the Western powers who were colonizing East Asian countries all around them.
The Japanese were desperate to be back on the world stage, and in 1868, they overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the Emperor to power in a movement called the Meiji Restoration. In only a few decades, Japan rapidly industrialized, modernized and became a colonial power to rival those of Europe.
One big aspect of this modernization was the adaptation of technology and economic philosophies developed by the West. Along with this came a lot of Western traditions, including Christmas. Since New Year’s has always been the primary holiday in Japan, it was, on the one hand, easy to incorporate Christmas into the festivities. On the other hand, it only ever became a minor part of the larger New Year’s celebration. First, Japanese Christians began holding Christmas parties and exchanging gifts, and this eventually spread to non-Christians too.
American Influence After World War II
Although freedom of religion was established during the Meiji Restoration and Christianity grew around the country, the Japanese government in World War II suppressed Western—specifically American—traditions as much as possible. However, this changed once the war ended and the US occupied Japan.
With their infrastructure destroyed and colonies lost, Japan had difficulties supporting its population. It was heavily dependent on the US for aid, and along with that aid came culture.
Plus, American soldiers were all over the country. American music, television, and movies spread quickly, and the typical popular Christmas celebration in the US was a part of that. That included lights, the Santa Claus character, and carols.
Christmas and New Year’s in Japan Today
Today Christmas is very integrated into Japanese culture, but New Year’s is still the major holiday with more ingrained traditions. In general, Christmas is viewed as a romantic holiday which can be seen in Japanese TV and film.
Christmas isn’t a national holiday, and less than 1% of the population identifies as Christian. Schools sometimes close for a winter break centered around New Year’s, but offices, stores and other businesses usually stay open.
Still, the secular and pop-culture traditions of Christmas are very visible in the wintertime. Families get together, and people have parties. Christmas Eve is an evening for romantic dinners, and restaurants cater to this.
One of the most notable pieces of Christmas culture is the lighting. The Japanese put up some of the best Christmas lights in the world. Private companies like malls especially go all out to decorate their buildings. Sometimes lighting ceremonies will be special events or festivals that really ring in the Christmas spirit.
Japanese Christmas Activities
Christmas is a lot like the Japanese version of Valentine’s Day, so most of the activities are romantic and designed for couples. In fact, it’s sometimes viewed as a bit embarrassing to be out on Christmas Eve without a partner.
On Christmas Eve, couples usually go to nice restaurants for romantic meals after which they take long walks to see all the lights. Just like Valentine’s Day, these reservations have to be made a long time in advance, especially at the nicer restaurants.
There’s gift-giving on Christmas, as well, though mostly between couples. Families may exchange some presents too, but not the big piles under a tree typical of the US and UK. More common than presents are Christmas cards as popularized by American Christmas movies after World War II. Leading up to Christmas, stores sell large selections of these cards.
Japanese Christmas Music
Except for the small population of Christians, Christmas doesn’t have religious connotations in Japan, so there isn’t the large catalogue of carols and hymns. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any music specific to the season, though.
Maybe the most famous Christmas song is actually Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, known mainly for the finale “Ode to Joy.” German soldiers taken prisoner in World War I were the first to bring it to Japan. It’s common for Japanese people all around the country to go watch choirs perform the song in its original German around Christmastime.
Besides “Ode to Joy,” Japan has developed a lot of its own Christmas music through its popular culture. Many films and anime shows feature adaptations of American pop Christmas songs or their own originals. These have become popular around the country.
Traditional Japanese Christmas Dinner
In Japan, Christmas dinner is almost always one of two things. It can be a romantic meal at a high-quality restaurant, or it can be fried chicken. Those who eat fried chicken usually go to KFC, but we’ll get to that later.
Besides these two staples, there are a few other dishes typical around the Christmas holiday. As you saw with “Ode to Joy,” many Japanese Christmas traditions can be traced to German POWs, and that’s also the case with food. For example, potato salad is common around Christmas in both countries. Similarly, people often make a stew of chicken or pork with vegetables.
Japanese Christmas Cake
One of the most consistent Japanese Christmas foods is the Christmas cake. It’s a simple layer cake decorated with whipped cream and strawberries. In 1910 a bakery called Fujiya began selling these cakes specifically around Christmastime, and the tradition grew. Now people typically serve them after Christmas dinner, whether at home or in a restaurant.
Where to Spend Christmas in Japan
Christmas may not be as ubiquitous in Japan as the US or Europe, but if you go to the right places, it’s still easy to find that warm Christmas spirit.
Christmas in a Japanese KFC
It’s estimated that over 3.6 million Japanese families eat Christmas dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken. People place orders up to six weeks ahead of time and wait in line for hours to receive their food.
The tradition is mostly the result of a KFC marketing campaign. The restaurant chain came to Japan in 1970 and in 1974 focused most of its advertising efforts on the magical Western spectacle of Christmas. It was massively successful leading to what is now the most popular place to spend Christmas in Japan.
Even if KFC isn’t your favorite food, the energy and community there on Christmas make for a good holiday. In Japan, it’s a great way to spend time with family and friends.
Disneyland Tokyo opened in 1983 and has since become a hotspot for Christmas celebrations. In fact, Disneyland is the party mostly responsible for turning Christmas into a romantic holiday. You’re likely to see Mickey and Minnie being pretty affectionate with each other.
From the second week of November until Christmas Day, the park is full of special performances, decorations and a magical parade that’s entertaining for children and adults alike. These include the Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare, Jingle Bell Jamboree and Christmas-themed food.
Tokyo in general is a fun place to spend the Christmas season. It’s one of the world’s largest cities with foreigners from all over the globe. The multicultural atmosphere provides for a spectacular holiday mood.
The main things you can do are visit Christmas markets and lighting spectacles. Popular markets include the main Tokyo Christmas Market in Hibiya Park, the Christmas Marche at Yebisu Garden Palace, and the Roppongi Hills Christmas Market.
For lights, Shinjuku and Ginza have the most elaborate and impressive displays. The Starlight Garden in Roppongi is also popular and impressive. Decks Odaiba is a large mall next to Odaiba Marine Park which lies on the sea. It is particularly popular around Christmas for it’s massive and expertly decorated tree.
Osaka is the city that probably gets most excited about Christmas decorations and the season in general. Already a tourist destination that draws people in with fun experiences and bright lights, it’s an energetic, warm and all-around magical place for the holidays.
For example, the Osaka Aquarium decorates the entire building with underwater-themed lights, the lighting ceremony for which is performed by king penguins. Divers dressed as Santa Claus also give underwater performances.
The Grand Front Osaka is another place to go. It’s a large shopping center filled with shops and restaurants. At Christmastime they put up a tree and decorate the entire building with lights and flowers to reflect their theme of “Winter in Blossom.” There’s even a light show every 15 minutes.
Finally, you can visit the city’s many parks like Harvest Hill and Expo ‘70 Commemorative Park. The lights and decorations are spectacular, and there are usually vendors of food and drink and frequent events with Christmas themes. Attractions like the amusement park Hirakata Park and the Osaka Zoo decorate as well and sell Christmas goods in markets imitating the Christmas markets of Europe.
Yokohama is the place to go for Christmas shopping. If you’re missing the charming German Christmas markets this year, you can make up for it at the Red Brick Warehouse Christmas Market. Along with vendors of traditional Christmas goods, you can get traditional Christmas market food like mulled wine, sausages and chocolate.
The best time to go is after dark when the beautiful lights and tall Christmas tree really shine. With an ice rink right next to it, the market is a major draw for families, tourists and Christmas enthusiasts. Almost a million people visit each year.
If you remember, Yamaguchi was home to the first Christmas celebration led by Saint Francis Xavier in 1552. As a result, the town takes pride in its Christmas traditions. In fact, it adopted the official title of “Christmas City” in 2009.
Yamaguchi lights the whole town each year and decorates with Christmas trees and other traditional symbols. You can also still visit the Xavier Memorial Church which holds traditional Christmas services for Christians.
Want to Know How to Say “Merry Christmas” in Japanese?
If you’re spending Christmas in Japan, you at least have to know how to say “Merry Christmas!” Don’t worry. It’s not too difficult. It’s a loanword from English and sounds very similar to the English expression. In Hepburn it’s written as merīkurisumasu and basically sounds like “Merry Christmas with a u on the end. In Japanese hiragana script, it’s written as メリークリスマス.
Whether you’re living in the country or happen to be visiting over the holidays, you can definitely find the Christmas spirit. It may not be a national holiday, but the people are still friendly and warm and ready to celebrate. Just greet those you meet with an enthusiastic merīkurisumasu to see for yourself.