Christmas is a wonderful and incredibly stressful time of year. For some people, it is the best time of year. For some people, it is the most anxiety inducing.
No matter where you stand on your opinion of Christmas itself, we can all agree that the sentiment and emotions behind Christmas are pretty good, if sometimes misplaced.
It is about coming together as a family and giving gifts to each to show our love. Yet, if you are not from a country that celebrates Christmas or have never celebrated yourself, I can understand how bizarre Christmas looks.
The indulgence in thousands of calories over a few hours, dinners and gifts that somehow only lead to arguing, and the decorations that burn a 5-mile hole in the ozone layer may seem like an exercise in lunacy.
But the nostalgia and time together makes it all worthwhile. So, if there are countries that do celebrate Christmas and countries that don’t, which one is Japan?
Does it celebrate Christmas? Or does it not? In this article, we will look closely at Japanese holidays and whether they celebrate Christmas (see also ‘Does Japan Celebrate Thanksgiving?‘).
Most Important Japanese Holidays
No matter what holidays there are in other countries, there are three very important ones in Japan. These are Shogatsu and Obon.
Shogatsu is the first of these holidays to appear in the year, as it is the Japanese New Year, which is celebrated from January 1st until January 4th.
During New Year’s Eve, Japanese people will gather with loved ones or friends and hold a small party, normally catered with lots of traditional Japanese food (see also ‘Is Japanese Food Healthy?‘).
This is normally osechi-ryori, which is normally a box full of sweet, sour, or dried foods that people can snack on as they see fit. Another traditional food is Toshikoshi soba, which is commonly made for very close family members.
At midnight, the bells in shrines around the country are rung 108 times to symbolize the 108 earthly temptations in Buddhist belief.
Then as dawn breaks, people will head to their local shrine to pray and get shrine predictions of what the New Year holds for them.
Postcards will be sent to relatives at this time of year and money will be given to children from adults as well, similarly as Christmas cards are done in other countries.
The Obon festival is another very important Japanese holiday. This will occur around August 13th to August 15th, but it depends on the region you live in when you go.
During this holiday, people will return to their ancestral home to honor and pray to their ancestors at their graves. It is expected that people will not only visit but clean their ancestors’ graves as well, in preparation for them visiting.
This holiday also acts as an unofficial family reunion as well, with siblings and cousins meeting up during this time. This festival has been celebrated for 500 years and spiritually is one of the most significant to Japanese people.
So, Do Japanese People Celebrate Christmas?
To save some time, we will answer this question immediately. Yes, Japanese people celebrate Christmas, but in a different manner from you or me.
You see, even at the root of the most decadent and over the top Christmas in the west, there is still a kernel of religious adherence in it.
This is because, for all intents and purposes, Christmas is still a religious holiday that is important to Christians the world over.
Even if your family is completely atheist, I imagine that they might still go to church on Christmas, even if it is the only time they do so.
However, Japan has never been a Christian country. In fact, Japan is one of the few countries of the world to keep hold of its traditional beliefs and cultural rituals.
The percent of the Japanese population that are Christian is roughly 1.5%, which is very low indeed.
The most followed religions are the native religion Shinto (69%) and the introduced religion Buddhism (66%), with both of these religions being on the Japanese islands for thousands of years.
Both religions have become so intertwined with each other and each other’s rituals that many people believe in both and hold great respect for both religions.
As such, Christmas is not really celebrated as a religious holiday, the way Obon or Shogatsu are.
Strangely, Christmas Eve and Day have become in Japan what we would consider Valentine’s Day, and although Valentine’s Day is celebrated too, Christmas is considered more romantic.
People in Japan consider it important to at least have a date for Christmas, and the gifts are for a romantic partner, not really family.
Even the Christmas decorations are more synonymous with romance in Japan than what we would think of in the west.
However, for those not spending Christmas with a romantic partner and instead with family members in Japan, then you can look forward at least to Christmas dinner!
A Christmas dinner at KFC, in fact! No this is not a joke, KFC orders are booked in advance for Christmas day, so everyone can have a family bucket.
Part of the reason is that KFC Japan had a massive Christmas marketing campaign, after manager Takeshi Okawara overheard a couple of foreigners talk about how much they miss traditional food on Christmas, creating a tradition that has continued.
The other part is that Japan doesn’t really have any other food that resembles traditional Christmas dinner except KFC, so it became the go-to meal for Christmas.
Why Does Japan Celebrate Christmas?
Realistically, the reasons for Japan celebrating Christmas have to do with opening relations after World War Two.
The war was brutal for both sides, but being on the losing side meant a lot of concessions had to be made to be in the allied nation’s good graces.
As such, the Japanese government (see also ‘What Government Does Japan Have?‘) did a lot of things to make themselves appear humbled and open to diplomacy.
One of these was Christmas. After the war, missionaries came to Japan, bringing gifts and the concept of the holiday.
Although, the religious aspect of Christmas never stuck – Christianity is very different from Japanese beliefs and may just not have vibed with them – the holiday was adopted.
One of the main reasons was it was a holiday based around gift giving from the west. By adopting it, you can appear friendly to those nations that have the holiday and show prosperity by the vast giving of gifts.
However, I believe that Christmas has stuck around for so long for another reason. Japanese culture has a great respect for gift giving, and it happens in some capacity on every holiday.
During New Year, money is given to younger members of the family. When you are sick, food is given to you. If you have done a good job at work, a small gift is given.
Souvenir gifts are even expected no matter where you’ve gone and these are so important, they have their own word in Japanese which is ‘omiyage’.
As such, I believe that while Japan adopted Christmas for political reasons, it has remained because it works well with Japanese culture.
Christmas is a holiday of gift giving and Japan has a culture that places a high value on giving gifts, so it is only natural that people would enjoy this holiday.
Christmas is celebrated in Japan, just not in the same way as in the west. It is a holiday that is primarily romantic and places emphasis on giving gifts in Japan, and has none of the religious or cultural overtones that we have in the west.
Therefore, even though the Japanese people adopted Christmas only 80 or so years ago, they have truly made the holiday one that is their own with some standard western features as well.