Christmas in Japan

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Prior to this year, I have endured enjoyed precisely two Christmases in Japan. They were enough for me to determine that Japan’s idea of Christmas and my own are quite different.

As a result, my policy in the years prior to this one has been to hightail it home to Australia for Christmas. This year, though, I find myself with a new baby who hit the seven week mark right before I would typically fly out. Fortunately, I figured well in advance that doing a long-haul flight with him in the heart of the holiday season might not be a great idea, both for immunological and child-management reasons. Given I would say I’m still less than confident right now in my ability to manage even a trip to the local shopping centre with him minus back-up (i.e. my partner), this was probably sound reasoning on my part.

And thus, I am spending Christmas 2015 in Japan.

If you just look at the surface of things, you would gather that Japan is pretty enthusiastic about Christmas. In the absence of any other holidays between it and Halloween, decorations appear in early November and the carols start blaring over loudspeakers. Festive merchandise becomes readily available.

When you look a little deeper, though, some differences become quite apparent:

  • Christmas Day isn’t a holiday. It’s a regular day, business and school carrying on as usual.
  • In fact, Christmas Day itself isn’t even the main event here. The main day for observing Christmas is actually Christmas Eve. 
  • The meaning is also different. There are absolutely no religious meanings attached to Christmas in Japan. For the general public, there is “Santa-san”, his reindeer and some snowmen-laden winter landscapes.
  • Along with the lack of religious associations, there is a lack of association with family, goodwill and being charitable to your fellow humans. Instead, Christmas Eve is considered a day for couples… or, given it’s still a regular day, the night. It’s an evening for dates at fancy restaurants and expensive gifts exchanged between couples, romantic viewings of the Christmas lights. It’s also one of the most difficult nights of the year on which to find a free room at a love hotel. As R once charmingly put it, Christmas Eve is basically a “big sex day.” 
  • If you are having Christmas dinner – again, probably on Christmas Eve – the food is different. Courtesy of a very successful campaign by KFC some years back that continues to this day, the main Christmas meal is fried chicken. 
  • This is followed by a dessert of elaborately decorated strawberry shortcake. Not actually being a fan of rich plum puddings and Christmas fruit cakes, this is the one Japanese Christmas tradition I’d happily get behind even in Australia.

In the spirit of fairness, I want to point out that I don’t think this way of celebrating Christmas is wrong. It’s not you, Japan, it’s me. It’s different and Christmas being such an event laden with fond memories and meaning for me, I want to celebrate it in the spirit I always have. It’s also not all bad/weird. I made an effort and wrote this article about the good things about Christmas in Japan here a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve seen it pointed out a few times this year that, actually, the way Christmas and New Year are celebrated in Japan are kind of the reverse of how we celebrate them in Western countries. New Year is the major holiday and a time for family and tradition. Christmas, on the other hand? It’s the party occasion.

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