Unsurprisingly, we’ve recently gotten quite a few emails asking about Christmas (クリスマス or kurisumasu) in Japan. Though this might be a bit late, I thought I’d endeavor to answer those questions today, unwrapping my presents with one hand and typing this up with the other.
A Brief History of Kurisumasu
Christmas in Japan is an interesting creature. The holiday was introduced back (during the 16th century, if you want to be exact about it) when Christian missionaries first came to Japan. In modern times, though, Japan being a largely non-Christian country, observance of the day is pretty secular—no midnight mass or nativity scenes or anything like that. In fact, many Japanese kids (and possibly adults?) seem to be under the impression that the day is a celebration of Santa’s Birthday. Not a wholly unreasonable thought, I suppose. Anyway, initially adopted by the Japanese government to gain acceptance from powerful and snobby Western nations, Christmas gained more and more popularity as the country modernized, reaching its most commercial form around 1960.
It’s important to note, though, that Christmas isn’t actually a national holiday in Japan and is often seen as an offshoot of the New Year’s festivities, which are official. Still, to the relief of department stores, bakeries, and Christmas tree sellers nationwide, most people have adopted the non-religious aspects of the holiday, buying and exchanging gifts, eating “special” foods and decorating their houses (though not quite so much as their American counterparts).
A 2nd Valentine’s Day?
Aditionally, Christmas Eve is seen as one of the most romantic nights of the year. The 24th is a day often chosen for dates and confessions—remember the last episode of Hana Yori Dango when Shizuka tells Rui she loves him and Tsukushi finally kisses Tsukasa? That’s
exactly kind of how it is in real life! Because of the popularity of Christmas Eve as a “date night”, hotels and restaurants usually offer discounts or special packages to capitalize on the lovey-dovey feelings going around.
KFC and Christmas Cake
Somehow, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or ケンタッキー (kentakkii) as it’s known in Japan, managed to convince the country in 1970 that fried chicken is what everyone eats for Christmas dinner. Most people (from my experience, anyway) see it as a kind of turkey substitute, as turkey is traditional for Western Christmases but not readily available in most Asian countries. Fried chicken is so popular that most Japanese families reserve their Christmas Party Barrels ahead of time; items bought between the 24th and 25th account for 20% of the company’s annual sales.
As for Christmas cakes, they’re not bought from any particular restaurant or bakery, but they’re pretty ubiquitous—more so, I would say, than fried chicken. They’re usually a vanilla sponge cake decorated with simple white frosting, strawberries, and a Christmas message.
Fun Fact: Because Christmas cake is thrown out after Christmas Day (the 25th), the term has become slang for a 25+ year old woman who has passed her prime and is no longer attractive as a potential wife, girlfriend, etc. As they say, “Nobody wants Christmas cake after the 25th”. Now, I don’t believe that this is true (or particularly nice), but I thought it warranted mentioning, anyway.
About 50% of all Japanese people have bought at least one of the two items this year. Together, they comprise the stereotypical (some would say “traditional”) Japanese Christmas meal.
A Message From Tofugu
From all the writers at Tofugu, I’d like to wish you all Happy Holidays and a great New Year! As corny as it may sound, it’s true. We appreciate your comments and support more than we can say.