Christmas in Japan is an interesting holiday, in that only 1.5% of Japanese people are actually Christian, yet elaborate Christmas trees illuminate the city as soon as the clock strikes midnight on November 1. Though not necessarily for religious reasons, Japanese people enjoy Christmas, and have their own traditions for the winter holiday. From buckets of fried chicken to a romantic dinner on Christmas Eve, here’s what to expect when spending Christmas in Japan.

Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan is a Lover’s Holiday

If you’re hailing from a western country, and you associate Christmas with wholesome family gatherings, you might be shocked that in Japan, Christmas is a lover’s holiday. With December being well into cuffing season, Christmas can even be a stressful holiday for many single folks in Japan, since all the lovey-dovey festivities remind them of their relationship status. 

A lot of couples reserve romantic dinners, exchange gifts and celebrate the holiday essentially like Valentine’s Day. Plus, many foreigners are surprised that Japanese people celebrate Christmas Eve more so than Christmas Day. In short, if you’re lucky enough to get a last-minute reservation for somewhere nice on Christmas Eve, expect a room full of couples.

The more family-gathering, wholesome holiday that equates to a western Christmas is Japanese New Year. Families get together to eat osechi and kids receive money from their parents and older relatives. In many ways, the roles of Christmas and New Year in Japan and the west are reversed.

Cake and KFC on Christmas in Japan

KFC and Strawberry Shortcake are Staples of Christmas in Japan

In Japan, the traditional roast chicken and fruit cakes have long vanished from the dinner table, leaving a bucket of fried chicken and a fluffy strawberry shortcake in its stead. Eating KFC at Christmas has become such a common tradition that you have to reserve weeks, if not months, ahead. Not to mention that you still must line up to get your bucket of fried goodness on the holy day. 

KFC’s holiday popularity in Japan is attributed to Takeshi Okawara, the first store manager and later CEO of KFC. Legend has it that in the 1970s, Okawara overheard foreigners claiming they missed Christmas turkeys back home, so he marketed KFC to be associated with Christmas. Basically, everyone who works in advertising should have a shrine to this man for his legendary marketing tactics.

Strawberry shortcakes also reign supreme in the Christmas dessert kingdom. Though some people dabble in yule logs or Christmas stollen, strawberry shortcakes absolutely dominate the rows of cakes on display during the holidays.

The cake was popularized in the 1950s by Fujiya, a confectionary company you might recognize from the adorable tongue-out Pekochan icon. The post-war era made western culture more accessible, and strawberry shortcake was a massive hit due to its light and fluffy texture and red-and-white kouhaku coloring, a famously festive color scheme in Japan. 

Illuminations Everywhere

The big to-do in Japan during the holidays is going to see the illuminations across the city. If you’re in central Tokyo, you probably won’t be able to avoid them even if you wanted to. Almost every popular street has its trees covered in fairy lights and bright Christmas trees sit center-stage in plazas like Yebisu Garden Place.

Also popular are Christmas markets that pop up everywhere from Roppongi Hills to Yokohama’s Red Brick Warehouse. The consensus is that they are slightly disappointing and an overly polished, faux Europe, but everyone attends for the sparkly lights, overpriced sausages, mulled wine and the vibes. The markets often sell ornaments and snow globes. Local artists put up stands as well, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a big Christmas fan.

Christmas in Japan

Santa Also Visits Japan

Any kids who are worried whether they’ll receive their presents — regardless of their naughty-or-nice status — can rest assured: the tradition of Santa bringing gifts is very much alive in Japan. Children wake up on Christmas Day to find the gifts Santa has left them, just like in western countries. However, gift-giving is not as extensive here. Children receive presents and lovers may exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, but the Christmas gift-giving tradition is usually overshadowed by workplace gift-exchanges or New Year festivities. 

If you’re used to gathering as a family around a fireplace to open gifts before enjoying a decadent meal on Christmas Day, Japanese Christmas might feel a little disappointing. The pressure to have a romantic partner might feel antithetical to the holiday. The good news is that just because you’re in a foreign country doesn’t mean you have to follow its traditions. You can carve your own. There are plenty of international churches in Japan that hold English services, and you can get creative with family recipes and home parties. Christmas is a lovely season to make time for your loved ones, especially if you’re spending it away from home. And everyone loves strawberry shortcake.

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