Posted by achimrunnebaum on Wednesday, December 25th, 2013 (Japan Standard Time)

Santa brought me some....Chicken?

A look at Christmas in Japan

Christmas comes but once a year.  It's that most festive of seasons when the towns, cities, and houses get decorated elaborately, the ovens (if you have one) get warmed up for some good Christmas treats courtesy of Grandma (if you have one), everyone runs around town trying to find that perfect present for their kin before settling down with the last Gluehwein for the day, and the ever-present "Last Christmas" by the 80's group Wham provides the background music for what is arguable the best Holiday of the year.  

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Traditionally a western celebration, the Christmas tradition has long since made the ardous journey across the big ocean and grew firm roots in Japan, where it dates back all the way to the Sengoku period.  During this time, a missionary named Francis Xavier introduced some Christianity, and with it the Christmas traditions to the Japanese.  The first Christmas service was held in 1552.  It wasn't until the Meiji Restoration, however, that Christmas began becoming engrained in Japan as well.  Mainly (re-) introduced through parties held by foreigners, it has enjoyed a steady increase in popularity since then.  

Having a Christian population of only about 1%, but being lovers of all kinds of celebrations, the Christmas trend, rather than the actual meaning, has caught on in Japan big time.  The Japanese are very tolerant of all faiths, and the tradition of Christmas has taken on a very different meaning here.  One could still consider it a festival of love…. just in a different way.  You see, for most Japanese people, Christmas is more akin to Valentine's Day: Couples go on (usually very exclusive) dates, exchange personal gifts, and proclaim their affections for one-another with a twinkle in their eyes. 

Restaurants and hotels are usually booked out months in advance, and anyone without a partner for this season (especially women) generally tries to avoid going out on the 24th and 25th.  The romantic connection came thanks to the bubble economy of the 80's.  During this time, young people had lots of disposable income, and corporations were more than happy to find ways to market their merchandise to them through the use of romantic imagery in magazines, department stores, and advertisements.  The Christmas = Romantic Time concept stuck in the minds of young people and has enjoyed a permanent stay there since.  

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The other interesting change from a "traditional" Western Christmas is that heaps of people will flock in droves to KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) to get their Christmas Chicken, which often must be reserved weeks, or even months in advance, lest ye be stranded without 'yer Christmas Chicken.  It's a very curious tradition here in Japan.  In 1974, the KFC company launched a wildly successful marketing campaign that has permeated the Japanese Christmas Traditions ever since.  I'm sure most older Japanese people will still remember the slogan: "Kurismasu ni wa kentakiiiiii" (Kentucky for Christmas).  


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But many of the European traditions have also caught on hugely during the festive season.  Every year there are more and bigger Christmas markets in all major cities in Japan. Everything from Gluehwein (hot red wine) to Sausages, to Christmas Stollen, etc. can be had there.  

So, with all these western Christmas traditions becoming more engrained in Japanese society, I wanted to find out what everyday people think about it.  I approached a couple of people of various ages on the street and asked a very simple question: "What does Christmas mean for you?".  Here's what they had to say…

1) Harumi
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"I used to spend the time with family, giving presents, eating chicken, and listening to jingle bells.  I'm not Christian, so I just enjoy the time I could spend with family.  Now my kids are grown, and I mostly spend it alone now.  I like the decorations, but it's just another day for me. 

2) Oga

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"I'm Japanese, so it doesn't have any special meaning for me.  Also, I have to work during Christmas since it's not a Japanese regular holiday.  It's just another day for me, but I do like the decorations during this time. 

3) Manami & Naoki

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"Many people think it's a romantic time, so we do the same.  We will go to dinner and have a nice time exchanging gifts together. 

4) Akihito
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"I'm married with two kids, so I'm looking forward to give presents to my wife and kids, have dinner, and a Christmas Cake for dessert.  I also think of decorated trees when I hear Christmas, so we have a small tree at home now".

So there you have it…. Christmas in Japan is a consumeristic, bright, sometimes gaudy, but always fun conglomeration of various countries' traditions, all mixed together in a loving, sweet, and romantic package.  It has become one of the favourite times of year for me here and I hope someday you, our readers, will also be able to experience this truly eclectic festival in Japan.

This is where I'll leave you for now since my KFC dinner is getting cold. Have a wonderful Christmas time wherever you are in the world, and however you chose to celebrate this festival, whether you want to call it Saturnalia, Christmas, X-Mas, Yule,  Midwinter, Noel, or クリスマス. 


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Have a wonderful time, and Merry Christmas to you all!!! 

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Achim Runnebaum
Freelance Photographer, Writer, and Journalist. Achim was born in Germany, raised in the States, and is currently living in Japan.
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