Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Japanese-style Christmas

First of all, thank you to Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader for organising, once again, the Virtual Advent Tour. I've posted about the Japanese-style of Christmas before, but I hope you'll enjoy hearing, perhaps again, a little about what it's like to spend Christmas here in Tokyo.

Christmas in Japan basically boils down to the following:
If you're an unmarried couple, it's like Valentine's Day.
If you're a kid, it's like your Birthday.
And for everyone else, there is cake and KFC.

December 25th is just a regular day here in Japan. Although there is a national holiday on December 23rd, to commemorate the current Emperor's Birthday, the holiday period doesn't officially begin until closer to the end of the year. It's hardly surprising though that Emperor trumps Jesus in a predominantly non-Christian nation. So Christmas is a completely borrowed celebration. And as with everything, Japan likes to take something from the West and then make it their own.

Although this year it falls on the weekend, since the 25th is typically a work day, it's Christmas eve that is the main event here. Due to some clever marketing by KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Christmas has now become synonymous with fried chicken. People line up to buy their buckets of chicken on Christmas eve, and at busy locations in central Tokyo I've heard that some even reserve it ahead of time. It's KFC's busiest season of the year! But even the supermarkets have been getting in on the action, and will usually have heaps of fried chicken available in their deli sections.

Fujiya Christmas cake
Image © Fujiya Co.

Christmas cake was also apparently introduced to Japan about 100 years ago by Fujiya, a company which has a chain of confectionery stores. I don't know why exactly but the quintessential Japanese Christmas cake is strawberry shortcake. Never mind that strawberry shortcake is usually considered a summertime dessert, it does look festive at least with the red berries and covered in white frosting. Nowadays though you can choose from all kinds of different cakes from a cheap one at a local convenience store to a fancy one from a luxury cake maker. And if you want to be sure to get a specific one, you'd best order it well in advance. You'd be surprised at the number of Japanese who think that strawberry shortcake and fried chicken really ARE how Christmas is celebrated everywhere else.

I think it's thanks to the influence of stores like Toys "R" Us, but Christmas has also become a time of presents, for the kids at least. It's very one-directional though as there is no thought of the kids getting anything for their parents. Then if you're in a relationship but aren't yet married with kids, Christmas is the romantic holiday of the year. Nice restaurants are booked solid on the 24th, and dinner is most likely followed by a visit to a love hotel. Depending on who you ask, Christmas means sex!

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Otherwise, Christmas means pretty lights. Most shops will have decorations and the central areas of the city will have lights on trees lining the streets or some kind of illumination. You'll probably even hear some Christmas carols playing in the background in shops and restaurants. In our neighbourhood there are a couple of houses that have festive lights outside, but that's pretty rare. Some people will have Christmas trees but it's not standard either. I imagine it's an issue of lack of space, as much as just not having the custom. It does seem to be more common nowadays in families with young kids. We have a tiny little tree that I got last year though and it makes me smile.

So that's how the Japanese celebrate Christmas, but what about us, you ask?
Well, neither of us cares much for KFC so instead, a few years ago now, we decided to start our own Christmas tradition of Christmas sushi. We are in Japan after all! Then since my husband has the biggest sweet tooth, we get a cake. Every year it's kind of fun to decide which shop we want to get our cake from, and living in Tokyo there are a gazillion different cake shops to choose from.

This is the Christmas cake we ordered this year, which we ordered back in mid-November! Click on the photo to see some of the other yummy-looking cakes available from this shop called à la campagne. And if you're interested, you can see the cakes we've had in previous years: Christmas 2009, Christmas 2007 and Christmas 2006 (We were in Canada for Christmas in 2008).

So for us, Friday the 24th will be sushi and cake, and then on Christmas Day, it helps that it's a Saturday this year, I'm going to make a kind of Canadian Christmas dinner. Not roast turkey because it's only the two of us and turkeys are very hard to get in Japan, but I'll do some chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and the like, followed by leftover cake, no doubt.

As you can imagine, Christmas in Japan is quite different from the Christmases when I was growing up, but we've managed to combine the styles and make our own fun holiday traditions.

Since Christmas has no religious meaning in Japan, I hope you won't mind me wishing you all a very メリークリスマス (meri kurisumasu)! But however you celebrate, I wish you all the very best for the holidays and the New Year!


  1. Thanks for this wonderful post! It's so interesting to read about Christmas in Japan. So different from the way Westerners celebrate it but still very nice.

    Those cakes are so beautiful, and, I bet, very nice to eat, too! I didn't realise until recently that Japan has so many nice cake shops. I thought it was a Western thing.

  2. Merry Christmas to you too! I enjoyed reading this post very much.

  3. mmm the christmas cake looks wonderful ,all the best stu

  4. Nice to meet you, Tanabata.

    I teach International Advertising and Public Relations, and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this post! In fact, if it's okay with you, I'd like to make it the basis for a lecture on semiotics this spring! I spend a lot of time trying to get my students to understand that no culture "owns" a concept: concepts are mediated through the prism of culture. This post is the perfect example.

    I hope you are enjoying a wonderful, and very unique, Christmas season!

  5. Thanks for sharing your traditions. I never thought about Christmas being celebrated in a largely non-Christian culture. Very interesting information.

  6. Mmmm Cake. Thanks this was fascinating .

  7. Love those cakes! No wonder they have to be ordered way in advance. Merry Christmas!

  8. That's so interesting about the relationship between Christmas and romance/sex! Definitely different from how we see it in the west :P I'd seen you talk about Christmas in Japan over the years, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed this post any less because of it!

  9. Your Christmas cakes do look like an amazing addition to the holiday. Merry Christmas!

  10. I remember you wrote about Christmas in Japan last year and I just loved that post. This is another great post about Xmas in Japan. I love the idea of fried chicken and cake on Christmas though I don't think my family would let me have it! ;-)

  11. That was so interesting to read! I think I'd like a strawberry shortcake now for my birthday.
    Thanks for writing it- have a lovely Christmas and enjoy the sushi!

  12. What an interesting post.I don't know why but I just took it for granted that Christmas would be pretty much the same wherever! This however is like nothing I imagined. Love the strawberries on the Christmas Cakes! And the romance. Not too sure about the KFC though lol. Happy Christmas to you and enjoy your Sushi christmas.

  13. That was a really interesting post. I had to chuckle when I read the part "for some Christmas means sex... " Funny. This development of giving presents only to the kids is starting to spread here as well. People want to do something about the commercialization of Christmas. The cakes look wonderful.

  14. Absolutely loved reading this post, Nat! I love hearing how Christmas and the holidays are celebrated throughout the world and I would have never guessed KFC!

    Is your husband Japanese or Canadian?

    Hope you guys enjoy your Christmas Eve sushi (jealous!) and your more traditional dinner. And the strawberry cake? Oh my!

  15. Although you already told me about Christmas in Japan :) it was very interesting to read it once again and a bit more in your blog post here!
    The cake you ordered looks awesome. So yummie :)
    That's what I found interesting to see that Tokyo has such lovely pastry (in Shanghai this is really difficult to find and often not that nice).

  16. I love the beautiful Christmas cakes. Beautiful.

    And...chicken?! Amazing.

    Here's my Advent post:

  17. Love following your Christmas in Japan series ;). I think I have read them for a few years now.

  18. Haha that's Japan. I never been there but seen enough dorama to know about their Christmas celebration ;)

    I smile here and there while reading your post. Japanese cakes always look too beautiful to be eaten

  19. That sounds like a fun mishmash of traditions. I am always intrigued by the idea of being somewhere where Christmas isn't a big deal, at Christmas. I'm not religious but Christmas is such a huge deal in the UK that I suspect I'd miss it. The KFC thing is crazy!

  20. What a wonderful post!I didn't like spending Christmas in Japan because it so lacked the spirit despite the beautiful lights.

    My first Christmas in Japan in 1996 (when I was 19 and just arrived there) was so lonely. I wrote about it here:

    BTW, I never understood nor found out the reason for eating KFC during Christmas. Who started that weird tradition!?


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