Christmas in Japan: 5 Fun Facts!
Whilst the traditional Western Christmas is the festivity’s unofficial standard on account of its Christian affiliations, countries such as Japan have also come to embrace the Christmas cheer minus the religious connotations: some traditions you’ll recognise and others you won’t! Here’s 5 things to look out for in Japan this festive season!
A Different Type of Christmas Pud
Any excuse to eat cake is always welcome and thankfully, Japanese Christmas does not disappoint. Japan's take on a Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ, kurisumasu keeki) is rather different from our traditional Christmas pud: it's a sponge cake-based strawberry shortcake with enough whipped cream to feed 10,000!
But how did "Christmas cake" come to be? Turns out it was down to the confectionery manufacturer Fujiya's straightforward and surprisingly effective 1922 marketing strategy led by the slogan, "Let's eat cake at Christmas!" - the rest is history. Nowadays aside from the well-established original seen above, you can also find variations featuring a range of different ingredients from chocolate to hazelnut and ice-cream to fruits. But as a sign of the strawberry shortcake's everlasting reign as Japan's number one Christmas dessert, it even has its own emoji [🍰] - made it!
A Holiday for Couples
One of the most notable differences when comparing Christmas in the West and that of Japan is the people with whom it is spent: whilst we associate Christmas Day, if not also Christmas Eve with getting together with family, exchanging gifts, feasting on a lavish Christmas Dinner, watching TV and playing board games bound to start a family feud, in Japan it's a time when couples will most likely plan a romantic date at a restaurant, head to a German-style Christmas market or admire the many impressive Christmas light displays. Japanese families instead gather for New Year's (お正月, oshōgatsu) celebrations, typically lasting until the 4th January.
'Kentucky For Christmas!'
The rumours are indeed true - eating fried chicken at Christmas is actually a thing in Japan! But how in the world so may you ask! Well, just as Fujiya had successfully marketed their strawberry shortcake as a Christmas staple, KFC too some 50 years later ran an advertising campaign with a simple yet impactful message: 'Kentucky for Christmas!'.
With a life-size Santa Clause-Colonel Sanders mash-up beckoning them close, millions of Japanese have since heeded the festive call for fried chicken over the years but unfortunately it's not as simple as walking into your local KFC and scooping a bucket then and there - oh no, it's essential that you reserve your chicken weeks in advance before then queuing for hours to pick it up! Would you go to such lengths for fried chicken... at Christmas?
Does Santa Make a Stop in Japan?
Everyone knows that Santa Claus delivers coal to the "naughty" children on his list, and presents and candy to the "nice" children the world over with the help of his elves and his trusty reindeer, right? Sort of! Unlike in the West where Santa Claus is believed to make his way into the homes of children by climbing down the chimney, Japanese children instead believe that he magically appears like a ghost with all his goodies - understandable given the lack of chimneys in most Japanese homes. Another day off for the reindeer then!
Like so many other children around the world, those in Japan look forward to meeting Santa Claus, or at least finding a present or two waiting for them on Christmas morning. Gift-giving generally plays a much less significant role in Christmas in Japan than it does in the West, with the majority of presents or monetary gifts instead being given during the ensuing New Year's celebrations.
Popular Christmas Anthems
As much as Christmas is about the visually superb, such as the colourful and grand decorations, the food and of course the embarrassing Christmas jumpers, no one can deny the all-important role Christmas songs play in giving life to the iconic Christmas atmosphere that envelops so many countries across the world.
Japan of course has its fair share of domestic Christmas hits such as 'Christmas Eve' by Tatsurо̄ Yamashita, the "king" of city pop and Junichi Inagaki's 'At the Time for Christmas Carol' that have stood the test of time and serve as unofficial indicators that Christmas is fast-approaching, much like Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' that's played non-stop here (and in Japan too coincidentally!). Interestingly enough however, one of the most iconic songs played around Christmas and the year's end is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and its final act the 'Ode to Joy'. The piece is so famous its widely-known as daiku (第九, 'Number Nine') and choirs all over Japan sing it in its original German - including the 10,000 member-strong 'Number Nine Chorus' choir in Osaka!