Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our Anime loving friends! To get into the holiday spirit, this week’s post is about Christmas in Japan! Christmas in Japan is quite different from the celebrations in Christian countries. The major religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shinto, but the Japanese still celebrate Christmas despite a small population of actual Christians. The Japanese are great lovers of festivals and celebrations, and thus celebrate Christmas, though less in the religious sense and more in the commercial gift giving sense.
Christmas was initially introduced to Japan with the arrival of the first Europeans in the 16th century. Only in recent decades has it become popular in Japan, despite the fact that Christians make up a small percent of the population (about 1-2%).
The first recorded Christmas in Japan was a Mass held by Jesuit missionaries in Yamaguchi Prefecture in 1552, but there may have been unrecorded celebrations held before then, perhaps going back to 1549 when Saint Francis Xavier came to Japan. Christianity was banned throughout Japan in 1612, but a small enclave of “Kakure Kirishitan” (hidden Christians) continued to practice underground over the next 250 years.
Christianity in Japan, along with Christmas, reemerged during the Meiji era. Influenced by the United States, Christmas parties were held and presents were exchanged. The practice slowly spread, but its proximity to the New Year’s celebrations made it a smaller focus of attention. During World War II, all celebrations, especially American ones, were suppressed. From the 60s, with an expanding economy, and influenced by Western media, Christmas became popular.
Many western Christmas traditions have been adopted by the Japanese. Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and other seasonal decorations can be found several weeks in advance and people enjoy having Christmas parties around Christmas Day. In recent years, European Christmas markets are also held in some Japanese cities and attract many visitors. December 25th is not a national holiday in Japan, schools and businesses are open as usual that day. December 23rd is the birthday of the current emperor, Akihito, and many celebrations circle around the Emperor’s birthday as well.
Christmas presents are exchanged between people with romantic commitments as well as close friends. The presents tend to be “cute” presents and often include stuffed animals, flowers, scarves, rings and other jewelry. Christmas cards are also given to close friends.
More obligatory year-end presents are given during this season as well to people who have done favors for each other during the year. However, in contrast to Christmas presents, they are given between companies, to bosses, to teachers, and family friends. These presents are known as “oseibo’”(end of the year gift) and are generally things which are perishable or which wear out quickly for which the price can readily be checked, because of the system of “on” and “giri” (obligation and reciprocity, loosely translated). These presents are usually purchased at department stores so that the recipient can check the price and return something which relates to the scale of reciprocity.
Within the family parents give presents to their children, but the children do not give presents to the parents. The reasoning is that Santa Claus brings presents, so once the children no longer believe in Santa Claus, the children no longer get presents.
Another aspect of Christmas in Japan is that it has more in common with Valentine’s Day. Christmas Eve in Japan is thought of as a time for romantic miracles. It is seen as a time to be spent with one’s significant other in a romantic setting, so fancy restaurants and hotels are often booked solid around Christmas. Often times, girls reveal their affections to boys and vice versa. Because of this, extending a girl an invitation to be together on Christmas Eve has very deep, romantic implications.
Many single women in Japan wish to have somewhere impressive to spend Christmas, with that special someone, who will lavish them with impressive gifts. The whole evening must be very special, gorgeous and romantic. Japanese women with a significant other tend to show off this fact, flaunting it to women who do not.
Christmas Eve has become a night for couples to go out and spend a romantic time together at fancy restaurants or hotels in Japan. Many hotels host dinner shows featuring major singers, actors, and actresses. Tickets to these shows, due to the season, can be pricy. It isn’t easy to make reservations for such restaurants and hotels at the last minute on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas season comes during the month of the year-end parties. Friends, co-workers, or a whole company itself often book a section of a restaurant to have drinking parties, known as “Bōnenkai “ (forget the old year party). This leads to streets, subways, and trains full of people in varied states of intoxication during this season. The purpose of the party, as its name implies, is to forget the woes and troubles of the past year, and hopefully look to the new year, usually by consumption of large amounts of alcohol. Bōnenkai do not take place on any specific day, but they are usually held in December.
Although the Japanese have always been a people of great feeling and emotion, they are usually more reserved in expressing their feelings to others, so bōnenkai has been a way of showing public displays of gratitude. This is especially true for the company or business office bōnenkai where they can relax and not worry about the formal boss/employee relationship or rank and age divisions while having a good time.
Traditional Japanese Christmas Foods
The traditional Japanese Christmas food is the Christmas cake, a white sponge cake covered with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries. Traditionally, the father of the family purchases Christmas cake on his way home from work (or his wife does in the case where he has to work on Christmas Eve). Stores all over Japan carry Christmas cake and drop the price of it drastically on December 25th in order to sell everything out by the 26th. This resulted in an old expression in which young women were compared to Christmas cake: desirable until the 25th (birthday) and requiring heavy discounts to sell (marry) after that point. Japanese women over 25 years old were often referred to as “unsold Christmas cake”.
Oddly enough, another food in the Japanese Christmas tradition is a chicken dinner, specifically from Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC made a successful advertising campaign during the ‘70s in Japan that made eating at KFC around Christmas a national custom. Many people even make reservations for their “Christmas chicken” months in advance and people line up out the door at their local KFC to pick up their orders. As a result, many in Japan believe that Westerners celebrate Christmas with a chicken dinner instead of the more traditional ham or turkey.
Will you celebrate Christmas with a Japanese flair? Are you going to have a Bōnenkai with your true love while eating KFC and Christmas cake? Feel free to leave a comment!