I’ve often heard it said by friends and colleagues here in Osaka that: “Japan doesn’t really do Christmas.” However, I tend to disagree with this notion. There is a Christmas of sorts in Japan, but it’s very different from what you might be used to.
Is it a normal working day?
It’s true that Christmas is considered a regular working day here in Japan. But for me, through a number of means such as selective use of annual leave, timing of school events and simply the lucky way the calendar falls, I have so far been able to enjoy the day off on each of the seven Christmases that I’ve spent working in Japan. With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday this year, I’ll be able to avoid the depressing scenario of working on this most holy of holidays. Despite not having been to mass since I was a teenager, Christmas is the one time of year when this former Catholic schoolboy decides to invoke religious prerogative!
That all being said, Christmas Day is not a national holiday in Japan so, depending on the policy of your workplace, you’ll likely have to take it off as part of your annual leave. Nonetheless, December 23rd is a yearly public holiday since it’s the reigning Emperor’s Birthday that day.
Who do you spend it with?
I find that the way in which Christmas and New Year are celebrated by the locals here, is the inverse of how they are celebrated back in Western countries.
In Scotland, Christmas was always seen as the family time. No matter how busy we all were, the whole family always came together on Christmas Day in the late afternoon for a feast of turkey, Christmas pudding and all the usual toppings. New Year, on the other hand, was the time to go out with friends in order to get, as we slur in Glasgow, “steamin’ drunk.”
In Japan, it seems to be the opposite. Christmas is the time for friends and couples to throw parties, go out for dinner, and celebrate, whereas New Year is when families come together, visit a temple and usher in the beginning of January with food and drink at the family home.
In fact, Christmas Eve is sold as the most romantic night of the year – kind of equivalent to Valentine’s Day. All of the restaurants and hotels are booked up, all of the stores are selling lovers’ Christmas gifts, and all of the streets are overrun with sickly sweet displays of affection. Apparently there’s such unspoken pressure for romance that single people look for any boyfriend or girlfriend in the weeks leading up to Christmas, just so they can have someone to go on a date with.
In fact, Christmas Eve is sold as the most romantic night of the year – kind of equivalent to Valentine’s Day.
What’s the deal with Christmas and KFC?
On Christmas Eve in Japan, if you want to treat yourself to a meal that truly captures the Japanese spirit of Christmas, then there really is only one place to go: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Yes, for Japanese people, no Christmas celebration is complete without a visit to the Colonel.
But why is this?
Apparently the answer goes back more than 40 years. Before Osaka’s historic World Expo in 1970, American fast food was almost unheard of in Japan. However, at the Expo, established names like McDonalds and KFC tested very well among Japanese visitors. As a result, the first KFC in Japan opened in Nagoya later that year, to great reception from both Japanese and foreign residents alike.
However, it wasn’t until four years later that the link between Christmas and KFC was established. After observing a group of foreigners opting for KFC at Christmas time in the absence of the traditional turkey, one of the executives at KFC decided to push an aggressive marketing campaign centered around Christmas. And so it transpired. In Christmas of 1974 the “クリスマスにはケンタッキー” (Kentucky for Christmas) campaign proved to be a massive success.
Today it is a core part of Christmas tradition here in Japan. It’s so popular that you have to place your order more than a month in advance for some items on the Christmas menu, and/or face a six-hour queue on the actual day. Have a look at this 2010 commercial for a very merry KFC Christmas, featuring actress and singer Haruka Ayase dancing with children to the tune of Suteki na Holiday (a famous Japanese Christmas song).
To be fair, it kind of makes sense, after all Colonel Sanders, with his white beard and cheery disposition probably takes to a Santa Suit better than most Japanese mascots do.
What are “Illuminations”?
Japanese shopping malls, restaurants and other public areas are get the Christmas bug too. And when it comes to tacky, over-the-top, yet always adorable expressions of festive joy, nobody does it better than the Japanese.
Everywhere shoppers go, you will see Christmas lights, illuminated displays and gaudy decorations all over the place. It was rather jarring to see the large Halloween pumpkin outside of my gym replaced with an oversized inflatable Santa, complete with accompanying reindeer, just one day after Halloween.
The whole country goes mad for “illuminations” – seasonal Christmas light-up events that range from small street decorations to spectacular audiovisual and projection mapping extravaganzas. There are plenty taking place all over the country, from late November sometimes all the way until Valentine’s Day and beyond.
In Osaka, the festive lighting in and around the Kaiyukan Aquarium, just a short walk from my house is especially beautiful. Namba Parks’ illuminated rooftop is another famous Christmas feature.
For a number of reasons, 2016 has been a pretty poor year for a lot of people and there’s nothing quite like an extended festive season to lift the spirits. So if this is your first or fiftieth Christmas in Japan, I hope it’s a happy one!