What does Christmas in Japan look like?
It is a unique experience to write about Christmas in Japan as a foreign person who has spent only four weeks in total in Japan. And those were in the sweltering heat of summer, not quite the blissful, snow-covered wintery experience that I associate with Christmas! In addition, Christmas is quite possibly the most important holiday for Christians and people living in North America (I cannot speak as accurately for how people in other parts of the world view the 25th of December). Japan, on the other hand, holds firm one of the most beautiful and most traditional cultures in Asia, and in my opinion the entire world. However, I have done my best to bring together the experiences of many of the Japanese people I know, seeking to provide a wide representation of Christmas in Japan. Note: When quoting my friends, I did my best to not correct any grammatical mistakes in the sentences. I prefer to leave them as they are.
For this article, I asked many people to describe what Christmas means to people in Japan in general and then to themselves as individuals. There were no specific questions asked, so any trends that show up come as a result of the answers themselves, as the questions were very open-ended. I received responses from 51 of my friends, only one of whom is not Japanese. This one person, a Canadian, is currently in Japan working and so it interested me to see how she perceived Christmas in Japan as compared to that of Canada.
I noticed many patterns among the responses I was given. The first one refers to how those who responded qualified the day itself. Of the 51 total responders, 5 referred to it as a holiday, while asserting that it is not a public holiday meaning work nonetheless continues at its usual frantic pace! One friend mentioned that work can actually be even busier on this day. “I’m working at a cake shop for four years so far!”, she said. “It’s the hardest day for any cake shop during a year.” Another five referred to it as a festival, while two claimed it was nothing special for them. What was interesting was how many of them referred to Christmas as an “event”: 20/51 or essentially 40%. As I mentioned before, I did not ask any specific questions, so the fact that so many of them referred to Christmas as an event shows that it’s a word they associate with December 25th. They recognize it as a special day, but not on the level as their own festive days on the calendar. One friend said “It’s just like an event that is not the same compared to other days”. My Canadian friend living in Japan mentioned that “when it falls during the week, it’s just like a normal day- the school’s open and everyone goes to work.” Of course, Japanese people working even during a special day is not surprising, but she added that Christmas often becomes “sandwiched between the Emperor’s birthday (a public holiday) on the 23rd and New Year’s the week after.” As a result, celebrating the 25th to a larger extent would make that time of year even more hectic.
One should not despair, however, as they still view Christmas as a special day, just not on the same level as “us”, speaking as a North American. Examining how they do celebrate this day is still very interesting. For example, 16 of those who responded mentioned that kids in Japan normally do believe in Santa Clause, and 18 mentioned that exchanging presents was an important part of Christmas for them as children, and sometimes even now as adults. There are two interesting differences between the Japanese Santa and the ‘western’ one. First, in Japan Santa is much more efficient! Instead of leaving the presents for the entire family under a single tree, he takes the time to put the presents for each child on their bed! I am still not quite sure how exactly this takes place: if the presents are actually placed ON the bed while the child is sleeping or not, but regardless, this is the tradition. Second, we stop believing in Santa at different ages, depending on how desperate the parents are to cling onto the existence of the “naughty list” to motivate their children. In Japan, it seems that everyone is in agreement that after elementary school, age 12, everyone stops believing in Santa. Again, not sure how this happens so cut and dry, or if it’s more grey in real life, but this was the feedback I received. In any case, it’s reassuring as a Christmas lover that the big man in a red suit still exists in Japan. In my opinion, however, in a country with 5% obesity rates, his normally bulging belly might be slightly less large!
Christmas parties or a special Christmas meal are also important for Japanese people. Sixteen responders mentioned that friends are important for them at Christmas, and 20 mentioned that they would spend time with their families at Christmas time. One important thing to note: Often, Japanese people spend time with their families when they are young children. Once they are older they don’t associate spending time with their families as something to do on Christmas. This is in stark contrast with how most North Americans view December 25th. At these meals or parties, there are often two important elements. 7 people mentioned that Kentucky Fried Chicken is imperative at Christmas time and often sells out at stores, and 17 mentioned that they always eat some sort of cake, such as strawberry shortcake. It is still seen by many as a great celebration that, for ten of the fifty-one people, includes viewing the winter illuminations in their home cities. One of my French-speaking Japanese friends included that they see Christmas as “le jour de s’exprimer la reve, l’espoir, et l’amour”. This means “the day to express dreams, hope and love”.
As in Canada, Christmas in Japan can be accused as being over commercialized. As it is not an original Japanese holiday, many see its arrival in Japan as being brought about by commercial interests. One friend shared that: “I think Japanese companies’ image building strategy made Japanese Christmas of today,” while another claimed that “Companies use the events to accelerate the consumption.” In this way, at least, Christmas in Japan can be considered very similar to that here in Canada.
One friend prefers to not participate in Christmas because of just that: it attracts crowds of too many people. She has no choice however as she explained to me. “Ce Noel je suis obligé de sortir car mon copain en veut :p .” This means that this Christmas she is forced to go out because her boyfriend wants to. Now we get to the meat of the issue: One could not write about Christmas in Japan without explaining its importance for couples and lovers in general. A whopping 44 of the responders, nearly 90%, mentioned the romantic importance of Christmas, which is quite different from how most Canadians tend to view the holiday. Many of my friends compared Christmas to Valentine’s Day, giving equal romantic value to them both. They explained that couples will spend most of the day together, and exchange important presents.
For many Japanese, the sole purpose of Christmas is to go out with your boyfriend or girlfriend. One friend wrote that “There are a lot of couples from 23rd to 26th in December”, and others wrote explicitly that many Japanese people search for a dating partner specifically to have someone to spend Christmas with. In Japanese, there is a term called ‘samishimas’. One friend explained it by saying, “It means “lonely Christmas” and for me, Christmas this year is samishimas!” You are not alone my dear friend….! Some claimed they use this term only as a joke, while others seemed to portray that there is a real feeling behind it. One friend named Aya explained that there is even a difference between men and women in how they are affected by this social pressure. “Interestingly, if women spend the time with friends: like a girls party, they are not payed attention from around the people so much, but if men spend (Christmas) with friends (other men), they are payed attention from around the people. It means they don’t have girlfriends.” On the other side of the coin, one friend named Hikari explained that thirty years ago, Japanese girls were once compared to Christmas cakes. As a Christmas cake is no good after December 25th, so too must a girl be married before her 25th birthday. She clarified that this doesn’t apply to attitudes today.
Finally, we come to how Japanese people view the true meaning of Christmas, meaning, what does the holiday stand for? About 1 in every five responders mentioned the birth of Jesus as being the true meaning, while some others mentioned simply that Christmas in Japan has no religious meaning for them. As my Japanese friends have all spent time in foreign countries, many of them understand in some way how we view Christmas. Several of my friends recognize that in general, Japanese people understand little to none of the nativity story, or are even aware that Christmas is in theory the birthday of Jesus Christ. One person recalled an episode from their childhood school days where their English teacher asked about the true meaning of Christmas. “I remember nobody answered even though she asked who’s birthday was it.” One of my friends who is a Christian and is named Moety said that “Personally I believe in Jesus so it is a little sad and I want them not to misunderstand what Christmas really means”. She added that she does “one good thing to dedicate it to Jesus on the way back to home (from church on December 25th) like buying a book homeless people are selling.” A few of my Japanese friends are Christian, and one, named Shiori, mentioned that “pour moi, comme Christian, C’est pour Jésus bien sur,” meaning that for her, as a Christian, Christmas means to celebrate Jesus. For Christians in Japan, it can be sometimes difficult to balance their view of this important holiday with how it is viewed by the culture around them. One guy, named Toshiaki, explained that “pretty much everyone in here thinks it’s a party and want you to get out there and celebrate “birthday of Jesus” the way I don’t necessary agree.”
All is not lost, however, for those wanting to encourage more Japanese people to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. A friend named Sayaka recalled a story from her high school days explain that “one of my high school friends is Christian and he has a Christmas party at a church every year. I have joined it once, we sang many songs for the god, and had a good time!” Another friend, who is not a Christian, mentioned that “My grandmother is a Christian so in my childhood, I went to church and I acted a nativity play.” She is not alone, as in total three people recalled going to Christmas concerts, and several others shared their love for Christmas music. While this is not on the same level as reading bible verses explaining how Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins, and to die for us, for Japanese people listening to Christmas music can be viewed as participating in the true meaning of Christmas.
Finally, while Christmas in Japan may not have the same meaning as here in Canada, it is evident that it is nonetheless a special day loved by many in Japan. They have their own Christmas traditions, and their own twists on aspects borrowed from ‘western’ styles of celebrating it. I will conclude with the words of one friend named Takuya. It responds well to the question of whether Christmas has value in a non-Christian society like Japan. He views Christmas as a day “to celebrate and appreciate beloved person and family, so Christmas in Japan has great meaning, and I think so too.” Well said, Takuya, well said!
To all of you, Merry Christmas! And I hope you as well come to appreciate more the true meaning of Christmas!