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Christmas Japan-Style – Yule Be Amazed!

It’s more about KFC than JC (Jesus Christ)!

Japan Christmas Traditions pic 1 croppedTraditions vary from culture to culture. In Japan, Christmas customs are far different from the reindeer, Christmas morning gifts, caroling and other traditions known to the Western world. Christmas is mostly a commercial holiday in Japan, and actually, it isn’t a real Japanese holiday at all. But Japan has really made this pseudo-holiday its own, spinning it into something fun and festive.

Here are a few Japanese Christmas traditions that you might want to be aware of if you ever plan on spending Christmas in Japan:

KFC is the meal of choice

Japan Christmas Traditions

Pretty much everyone loves the taste of KFC but in Japan the buckets of golden-fried goodness might seem a bit excessive around December 25th. On Christmas day, Japanese families sit down to – not a ham, or a turkey, or even a delicious sushi platter – but a meal composed of KFC chicken and sides.

This tradition was set in motion over 40 years ago when Colonel Sanders apparently began a marketing campaign in Japan that suggested that Western families love KFC on Christmas. The idea stuck for Japanese people and now it’s the expected food of choice for families during the Christmas season. More than 240,000 barrels of KFC chicken are sold during Christmas there. That can be as much as 10x KFC’s average monthly profits in Japan at any other time of the year.

Christmas Cakes aren’t the same as fruitcakes

While many people in the West think of fruitcake when they think of holiday baked goods, Japanese people think of something much more decorative. Sponge cakes elaborately decorated with frosting and strawberries (strawberries are a must), line the shelves of baked goods stores throughout the country, waiting to be consumed on Christmas Eve.

The origin of Japan’s Christmas Cakes remains unknown, but the Christmas Cake tradition began in Japan in 1922. Fujiya Food Service first began selling the cakes then and the treats have since become a staple of Japanese Christmas tradition.

Christmas Eve is a time for dating

Japan Christmas Traditions pic 3

Christmas Eve in Japan isn’t a prelude to a morning filled with gifts; it’s a time for young couples to go out on romantic dates. Similar to how many Westerners treat Valentine’s Day, Christmas Eve in Japan is dominated by expensive restaurant reservations, gifts for the ladies and, sometimes, a hotel room. Basically, if a man asks you to go out to dinner with him on Christmas Eve, a whole lot more is implied than you might initially think.

The best Christmas carol is… Beethoven’s Ninth?

For more than 50 years, one of the most-performed and played songs during the Christmas holiday season in Japan is – not Rudolf or Jingle Bells – but Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. And not only can it be heard at live performances throughout the country, it also makes a seasonal appearance as cell phone ringtones and is even (somehow) sung at karaoke bars.

The LA Times reports that Beethoven’s Ninth, and specifically the Ode to Joy, may have given Japanese communities a sense of togetherness during the rapid developments and societal transformations that were necessary after the devastations of WWII. Another possible explanation is that people simply sympathize with the depressed and deaf persona of Beethoven. Whatever the cause, this holiday piece of music is in Japan to stay.

The birthday being celebrated is anybody’s guess

Christmas in Japan has very, very little to do with Christianity, Jesus or going to church. The holiday was introduced to Japan in the 16th century when Western missionaries traveled East in search of souls to save. However, during Christmas, many Japanese people are aware of the fact that the holiday was originally meant to celebrate a birthday. Whose birthday is being celebrated, though, seems to be anyone’s best guess.

Koichi from Tofugu says he’d estimate that about 60% of Japanese people know that Christmas is meant to celebrate Jesus’s birthday. However, about 20% of people believe the holiday is meant to celebrate Santa’s birthday, and another 20% have no clue whose birthday is being celebrated – it’s just a great time!

If you’re ever in Japan during Christmas, don’t expect the same experience you might find at home. The Christmas traditions of Japan are truly festive and unique. Participate in the experience and you’ll have tons of great stories for your friends back West. 

Japan Christmas Traditions pic 1

Author Profile

Kayla Matthews is a freelance blogger, anime nerd and Japanese cultural enthusiast. You can check out her blog at Blipular.com and follow her on Google+ and Twitter @KaylaEMatthews to get updates on her latest posts!

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  1. January 17, 2014 at 2:44 pm

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