Christmas in the Japan - Land of the Rising Sun: An In-Depth Guide
Christmas comes to Japan a little differently than in most Western countries. While younger generations have embraced the secular and commercial aspects of the holiday with open arms, older Japanese view it more as a romantic date night than a family or religious celebration. Traditions are also mixed with unique cultural twists across modern and ancient. From illuminated city streets to tasty holiday meals, Christmas in Japan promises delightfully unexpected surprises.
The History of Christmas in Japan
Christmas first arrived in Japan during the 16th century along with visiting Portuguese and European missionaries who sought to spread Christianity. These early Christmas celebrations were primarily religious in nature and followed by a very small minority of Japanese Christians. Over the next few hundred years the holiday faded and was even banned at times as Christianity was outlawed. It wasn’t until the 20th century after WWII that Christmas began to take root once more, but less for reasons of faith and more for commercial and cultural appeal.
As Japan rapidly rebuilt after the destruction of WWII, leaders promoted Christmas as a way to spread goodwill and build closer ties between Japan and the West. Department stores latched onto the trend using Christmas themes and imagery to drive holiday shopping. At the same time the exchange of gifts on Christmas Eve emerged as a popular romantic custom among young couples. Bit by bit Christmas in Japan transformed from a religious observance to a more secular and commercial celebration focusing heavily on relationships and romance.
Now the cities sparkle with dazzling lights and festive Christmas trees as romantic songs drift through shops and cafes from early November through Christmas Day. The Japanese have fully embraced a sort of hybrid version of Christmas by blending local culture with imported traditions from the West. The result is a unique take on the holiday that feels at once comfortingly familiar and thrillingly exotic to foreigners and natives alike.
When & How Japan Celebrates Christmas
In Japan the Christmas season kicks off in early November with colorful light displays and holiday music filling shops, streets, and buildings across Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and beyond. Decorations only increase as December approaches culminating in extravagant final preparations on Christmas Eve day. Unlike in the West where family gatherings focus around Christmas Day itself, celebrations in Japan revolve more around Couple’s Christmas on the 24th. Christmas Eve has essentially evolved into a romantic date night similar to Valentine's Day in the US, where couples exchange gifts and enjoy special meals together.
Christmas Eve tend to follow certain customary patterns across the country. Women give gifts of chocolate, jewelry, clothing, or other thoughtful presents to their boyfriends or husbands. The men then reciprocate on Christmas Day with similar gifts. Most reservations for popular Christmas Eve dates book up by early December at the latest.
After exchanging presents, couples celebrate over plush, romantic, Christmas-themed meals at hotels, restaurants, or even KFC which has become tremendously popular for Christmas in Japan since the 1970s. Christmas cake is also a requirement, as Japanese custom dictates eating cake on Christmas, though not fruitcake but rather a light sponge cake covered in whipped cream and strawberries.
Besides Couple's Christmas, Christmas Eve is also a huge night for social gatherings with friends, family, coworkers and neighbors. Restaurants and karaoke bars fill up for Christmas parties serving holiday fare alongside the usual drinks and entertainment. Many offices have raucous annual parties with Secret Santa gift exchanges on Christmas Eve too. As evening fades on Christmas Eve the celebrations continue with millions flocking to glow of Tokyo’s dazzling winter illumination displays, many hand-in-hand with a significant other. Quieter Christmas light displays grace smaller cities and towns as well for romantic strolls. Whether taking in the grand Tokyo displays or smaller town cheer, Christmas Eve illuminations cap a full night of seasonal magic across Japan.
Christmas Day itself feels much more lowkey with most elaborate festivities centering the night before. Some gift exchange does still occur on the 25th while kids may receive a small gift or candy from Santa-san. Christmas Day serves as more a relaxed recovery and unwinding from the excitement of Christmas Eve. People often gather for a traditional Christmas lunch or dinner of chicken or turkey with cake for dessert, but generally spend the day resting at home with family, friends or loved ones.
10 Fascinating Facts About Christmas in Japan
A successful Christmas marketing campaign in the 1970s made KFC fried chicken a beloved Christmas meal. Now millions order their “Kentucky Christmas Chicken” weeks in advance as stores regularly sell out.
Christmas Eve has its own special name in Japan: Omisoka. The phrase originally referred to New Year’s Eve but took on new meaning once Christmas Eve emerged as a romantic holiday for couples.
The winter illuminations that fill Japanese cities, parks and buildings with spectacular, colorful light displays between November and February traditionally peak in extravagance around Christmas. Some mark Japan’s biggest and most popular illumination events.
Christmas cakes in Japan are light sponge cakes covered with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Custom calls for sharing Christmas cake on Christmas Eve instead of fruitcake or conventional cakes. Most Japanese bakeries take orders weeks in advance.
While younger generations of Japanese have adopted Christmas celebrations in full, older generations still generally view it as more of a romantic holiday catering to couples and dating culture rather than a religious observance or family event. McDonald’s Japan usually releases special holiday menu items between November and December, like special holiday pies or chicken sandwich sets. Burger King and other chains follow suit.
Around 98% of people in Japan follow either Buddhism or Shintoism so Christmas really only gained mainstream cultural appeal when marketed as a romantic, gift-friendly holiday devoid of specific religious overtones. Japanese Christmas gift-giving revolves around Christmas Eve rather than Day. Women give presents to men they are dating or married to who then reciprocate those gifts sometime on Christmas Day.
The Japanese Christmas vocabulary mixes adapted English borrowed words and native Japanese. Christmas Eve is more commonly referred to as “Holy Night” (Seiya) while Santa Claus goes by “Santa-san.” While Christmas trees usually go up throughout November and December both artificial trees and pine tree imports do a brisk business in Japan. Yet New Year's traditional plants like kadomatsu bound rice straw still take priority for seasonal home decor.
Common Japan Christmas Traditions
On top of Couple’s Christmas date nights and Kentucky Christmas Chicken dinners, other widespread Japanese Christmas happenings include: Parties with coworkers, friends or neighbors on Christmas Eve are extremely popular for food, drink, games and gift exchanges Special Christmas-themed displays and events at museums, galleries, zoos and other attractions Seasonal illumination light displays decorate cities from early November through Christmas with lights shaped like snowflakes, trees, giant ornament and tunnels of light to stroll through.
Department stores like Takashimaya in Tokyo have spectacular annual Christmas displays, trees and holiday shops that attract visitors across Japan.
Christmas pop songs and romantic Christmas Eve music fills stores and public spaces for months leading up to the big day Seasonal limited-edition offerings like Christmas sweets, baked goods, meals and merchandise flood stores across Japan Christmas markets at foreigner-dense areas in Tokyo and Kyoto sell international holiday foods, crafts and gifts through December
Even convenience stores and popular chains like 7-Eleven get into the Christmas spirit with special cakes, fried chicken buckets and meal deals.
Christmas trees and decorations are increasingly common to find at offices, homes, shops and hotels from late November on Santa-themed outfits pop up across Tokyo’s Harajuku fashion district and kawaii culture.
Temples, shrines and parks often hold winter festivals or displays playing off Christmas light concepts and visual aesthetics Special Christmas trains on Japan’s famous Shinkansen bullet routes get full holiday makeovers inside and out.
Temporary Christmas shops and markets appear specially for the season, closing promptly on December 25th. Cities large and small launch Christmas countdown light shows on buildings in late November. Despite fewer Christians, many Christmas masses and choir performances still fill Japan’s churches. Even Buddhist temples partake in secular Christmas traditions with trees, lights and decor.
So while Christmas in Japan skips certain familiar hallmarks like overt religious references or gatherings, Santa parades, caroling and emphasis on family time, Japan makes up for it with romantic candlelight Christmases for couples, glittering urban wonderlands and Christmas cake for all.
An Area by Area Breakdown Across Japan While Christmas unfolds most elaborately in huge glittering metropolises like Tokyo, the holiday spirit sprinkles seasonal magic across Japanese cities big and small in various ways.
Christmas in Tokyo
As Japan’s neon-lit capital, Tokyo Christmas transformations shine the brightest with nearly endless yuletide attractions and events on offer across the city’s 23 wards:
- Ginza debuts delightful annual light shows and Christmas markets between its high-end shops and restaurants
- Shibuya’s winter illuminations see 2 million tiny LED bulbs layer the trees in glittering “Christmas Fairy Forest” while street musicians entertain under sparkling tunnels and arches.
- Luxury department store displays like Isetan Shinjuku and Takashimaya captivate with intricate mechanical Christmas scenes alongside corresponding holiday boutiques
- Yebisu Garden Place erects a dazzling 20-meter high crystal tree and joyful German Christmas market at its plaza full of shops and eateries
- Roppongi Hills decks the halls with illuminated trees lining its outdoor walkways all the way up to the Grand Hyatt’s stunningly lush Christmas setup
- Tokyo Midtown outdoes itself yearly with massive lighting and wreath displays surrounding its signature Christmas tree and German market
- Koenji neighborhood dazzles with over a million holiday lights and miles of lit garlands showcasing local businesses
- Yomiuri Land amusement park launches elaborate Christmas parades and shows on weekends
So from twinkling light art in Harajuku backstreets to extravagant crystal trees in hotel lobbies, Christmas envelops Tokyo in seasonal splendor unlike anywhere else. Visitors flock for “illumi dates” strolling the luminous winter wonderlands hand-in-hand with loved ones on Christmas Eve.
Christmas in Kyoto
As Japan’s historic capital Kyoto brings ancient holiday nuance to its elegant Christmas transformations throughout its enchanting temples, shrines, gardens and geisha districts:
- Arashiyama bamboo forest lights up with arched pathways glowing in icy blue hues like a frigid winter wonderland Sento Imperial Palace dresses in festive finery for nighttime light shows on its lawns and illuminated trees around the castle Hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Grand Prince light up every corner with Christmas trees, massive custom wreaths and abundant twinkle lights
- Nishiki Market hangs bold red and gold garlands across its busy alleyways filled with shops and traditional eateries Numerous temples put up trees and decor using traditional materials like straw, bamboo and paper crafted into seasonal shapes So visitors can admire Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites like Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion during the day then join glittering illuminations displays winding through temples, shrines and zen gardens at night for full immersion in ancient Christmas elegance.
Christmas Away from the Main Cities
Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto plenty quainter towns still sparkle with Christmas magic: World Christmas illumination leader Kobe generates over 20 million dazzling lights across city streets coordinated to holiday music.
Sapporo’s German-style Christmas market fills its historic brick former brewery from late November while light displays decorate the snowy city. Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo launches a luminous "Kingdom of Lights" show with millions of bulbs, lasers and projections covering its Netherlands replica buildings. So Christmas cheer finds its way to towns across all of Japan, just with more intimacy and small-town charm than the grand-scale spectacles of urban centers like Tokyo. Tranquility mixes with festive beauty for an atmospheric, peaceful Japanese Christmas vibe.
Top Questions About Christmas in Japan
With its hybrid spin on Christmas traditions Japan’s celebrations prompt plenty of curious questions. Here are answers to some top Christmas in Japan FAQs:
How popular is Christmas in Japan? While more secular, Christmas has mass popularity across Japan nowadays. Over 73% of Japanese celebrate Christmas Eve giving gifts on “Holy Night” and indulging in Kentucky Christmas Chicken dinners. An estimated 10 to 15 million also flock to winter light displays that only increase in extravagance each year. So Christmas joy permeates mainstream culture.
Why do Japanese people eat KFC on Christmas? After a wildly successful KFC marketing campaign dubbed “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) in 1974 promoted fried chicken as the quintessential Christmas meal the tradition stuck. Now millions order ahead for “Kentucky Christmas Chicken” every year up to 10 times KFC’s regular sales. Japan drives up to one-third of KFC’s global Christmas profits.
What is the Japanese word for Merry Christmas? “Merii Kurisumasu” (メリークリスマス)is the adopted Japanese phrase. But Christmas Eve is more commonly referred to as “Holy Night” translated from the English term.
What do couples do on Christmas Eve in Japan? Romantic date nights are the core Christmas Eve custom where women give boyfriends or husbands gifts followed by exchanging presents sometime on Christmas Day. Couples enjoy fancy Christmas dinners and cake at hotels and restaurants or KFC meals at home. Strolling winter illuminations together caps “Holy Night.”
Why is Christmas Eve more celebrated than Christmas Day? As an imported tradition Christmas never took off as a religious event but rather a romantic one playing off Valentine’s Day tropes. Christmas Eve emerged as “Couple’s Christmas” for dating pairs while Christmas Day remained lowkey, focused on rest, leftovers and kids.
Do they give presents on Christmas in Japan? Yes, gift exchange revolves around Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day though. Women bestow gifts on boyfriends, fiancées or husbands who then reciprocate a present on December 25th following traditional Japanese gender roles.
What do you say for Merry Christmas in Japanese? The standard Japanese Christmas greeting is “Merii Kurisumasu” pronounced like “Mary Christmas.” But plenty also say the adopted “Meeri Xmas” and “Kurisumasu Omedetou” meaning “congratulations on Christmas.”
What percentage of Japanese celebrate Christmas? Roughly 73% of Japanese celebrate Christmas Eve giving gifts or going on romantic dates. Meanwhile only about 1% of Japanese identify as officially Christian.
Why are Christmas cakes popular in Japan? Custom traditionally dictates sharing Christmas cake on the big day. While Western fruitcake fills this role abroad, Japanese Christmas cakes are fluffy white sponge layers with whipped cream icing and fresh strawberry garnish more akin to birthday cake.
Do Japanese decorate for Christmas? While less conspicuous then Western holiday house displays, Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and decorative lights grace homes, offices, shops, restaurants and hotels across Japan from late November onwards behind Couple’s Christmas and winter light displays.
While Japan puts a unique spin on certain Christmas conventions, the holiday still promises plenty familiar and new seasonal magic alike. Key points to remember include:
- Focus falls heavily on Christmas Eve instead of Day for romantic “Holy Night” dates and customs
- Winter illuminations transforming cities in dazzling lights are key Christmas attractions
- KFC fills the role of a traditional Christmas meal through their historic marketing success
- Gift giving occurs on Christmas Eve into Christmas Day adhering to Japanese gender traditions
- Cakes not fruitcakes take the customary Christmas dessert spot with strawberry shortcake
- Modern generations and commercial culture embraced Christmas separate from religion
- Ancient sites like temples transform with rare yuletide decorations and events
- Christmas in Japan blends imported appeal with local culture for memorably different traditions
So Christmas in Japan retains all the cheerful holiday spirit of familiar beloved hallmarks while introducing plenty exotic new twists. Visiting Japan during this season promises excitement as richly varied as the country itself. From peaceful ancient temple light displays in Kyoto to the neon-lit party sprawl of Tokyo, Christmas joy blankets the islands in unique yet universal seasonal beauty open for everyone to enjoy regardless of background. If anything Christmas in Japan signals the holiday at its finest - bringing people together around hope, happiness and human connections despite any differences in customs. The Japanese people warmly welcome international guests to share in their Christmas festivities as global unity tops lists for Santa-san alongside romance and cake.