Special Feature: Christmas in Japan

“So, what will you being doing this year at Christmas?”

This question was met with various permeations of bemusement, amusement and indifference. These were the most common responses:

“Nothing really”

“Working” (this is a Japanese office after all)

“Having a party with friends”


“At lectures”

“Eating Christmas cake”

“What? Should I be doing something?” (Terrified that the foreigner is going to take personal offence at their lack of respect for their country’s yuletide festivities).

In general the responses reflected lukewarm enthusiasm and an erratic recognition of the familiar Western trappings of Christmas – Christmas cake, but not Turkey or sprouts; Christmas trees, but not mistletoe. The external trappings of Christmas are limited to ‘Rocking around the Christmas tree’ being piped over the depato intercom, snowflake patterned bed socks in the hyaku-yen store and the occasional unnerving inflatable Santa outside the local love-hotel.  The religious aspect is almost unknown, although some recognized it as a nominal celebration of Jesus’s birth, and one friend even shocked me with a note-perfect rendition of ‘Away in a Manger’. Also, to my surprise, most people saw Christmas as a time to celebrate with friends or lovers, rather than the overwhelming family-centric emphasis in the West. School kids plan Christmas parties at each other’s houses, students group together in dorms to watch Love Actually whilst eating pizza; couples smooch under the Christmas street lights; and more than one adult cheerfully admitted they were looking forward to getting utterly inebriated with their colleagues after work (a noble Christmas tradition in itself). Instead, New Year in Japan is the time for family reunions, osechi and gift-giving, rather than the drunken countdown in an overpriced nightclub which passes for celebration in the UK.

It is interesting which festivals have been imported to Japan. It’s hard to imagine transplanting O-Bon, hanami or natsu-matsuri to the UK, not least because you would freeze to death in a yukata during an English summer. These holidays are too closely embedded within their cultural context, centuries of tradition, belief and even the landscape of Japan itself, to truly transpose anywhere else. Similarly, it is hard to imagine Japan embracing Thanksgiving or Bonfire night with the same zeal (although numerous people expressed an interest in Easter eggs – chocolate is the unsung hero of international integration). Such festivities resist material transplantation precisely because their essence is immaterial. Whilst Japan has plenty of fireworks, they’d be equally as bemused about burning an effigy of a 17th century catholic rebel constituting a good time, as the majority of foreigners at Osaka’s Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri were every time imminent death bore down on them in the form of a ten-tonne mikoshi shrine travelling at high speed down a narrow alley. You could just see the cross-cultural confusion in their faces.

It is a depressing truth of cultural exchange that is the material which tends to be imported. After all, plastic reindeer antlers and discounted boxes of liqueur chocolates pack a lot easier into a suitcase then centuries of spiritual and national tradition – and money, of course, packs lightest of all.

Christmas in the West is an increasingly secular festival, with social commentators decrying the erosion of religious significance, though of course irritated pagans would argue that Christianity itself usurped the origins of the mid-Winter celebration long ago. Christmas in Japan exposed for me the unsettling reality behind the yuletide facade. Despite my ingrained cynicism for anything approaching merriness, even in the coal-black, shrivelled up organ I call a heart there remained a vague hope for the anodyne seasonal platitudes. Peace on earth, good will to all men, joy and harmony, and so on. Or, as ‘Don’t they know it’s Christmas?’ reminds us every December, our blithe acceptance of the suffering multitudes briefly becomes an uncomfortable astringency amongst the Christmas saccharinity.  Yet I had to accept the truth that Japan can so easily absorb Christmas because so little of its mainstream celebrations remain un-commercialised; and Japan can teach most of us decadent capitalist societies a few lessons in hard-bitten consumerism.

Probably this is the same reason Halloween and Valentine’s Day have taken off in Japan: you can make money out of them. This is, after all, the nation that invented White Day (March 14th) simply to boost sales of white chocolate, marshmallows and white lingerie (no comment on the last). No-one makes money on Ash Wednesday. So much of Christmas celebrations at home depend on eating the right food, hanging the appropriate decorations, writing the necessary cards and dutifully waiting to be disappointed by snow if you hail from the UK. I hadn’t realized Christmas for myself had become a monotonous checklist imposed by advertisements and women’s magazines, until I startled Ruriko-chan by lapsing into hysterics when I asked her what she ate for Christmas every year and she blithely replied ‘lasagna!’ At least Japan does not pretend Christmas is anything other than an exercise in excess of every kind.

So, Japanese Christmas remains not a big deal, at least in my small corner of Hyogo. People will continue go to work or college, perhaps choosing to throw a party or purchase some fluffy Santa hats if they so wish. Christmas remains just one more festival among a plethora in the land of matsuri. If you feel obliged to take a message from it though, it may be less about the celebration and more about its existence in the first place. The ease with which Japan adopts festivals regardless of religious or national affiliation reflects an inner inclusivity that is often overlooked in the stereotype of an insular society. Just as jinja and o-tera nestle comfortably side by side, the opportunity to enjoy yourself overcomes any other prejudice. So that is why this year I will be sat in front of Love Actually, proudly with themed bucket of KFC in hand. A Merry Christmas to one and all indeed.


Lorna Petty

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