The weird? Christmas in Japan

Michael Martin

Michael Martin was born in Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A., in 1973. After attending Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he graduated from Brown University in 1995 with degrees in history and philosophy. Martin has lived in Tokyo for 14 of the last 16 years, where he is a full-time writer and editor.

‘Tis the Season: Unwrapping Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan may be one of the hardest holidays in Japan for Westerners to appreciate. But like any local tradition, it has numerous charms that can and should be appreciated in their own right. Here, take a brief look at Christmas in Japan through one American’s eyes.

A different kind of holiday

My first Christmas eve in Tokyo was to be unforgettable—but perhaps not for the usual reasons. After a long day at work, I was contacted by my girlfriend, who asked if I had “forgotten anything.” I couldn’t think offhand of what she might have in mind, but she seemed nonplussed with the fact that I hadn’t made any special plans for Christmas Eve. After a bit of delicate “question and answer,” I figured out that the smart move would be to ask her out to dinner. She brightened immediately, and we made plans to meet.

However, I was not through making mistakes that evening. She arrived at the designated meeting spot looking radiant, dressed up for a spectacular night out. I was still wearing the run-down outfit I’d had on all day, feeling shabbier each moment. My date’s mood darkened further when I suggested dinner at a cheap, local bar we had enjoyed together many times. It was clear by now she was expecting something more upscale…but why? As a foreigner, I was supposed to know all about Christmas, right? How could I be so insensitive?

This was my introduction to Christmas Eve in Japan—envisioned as a chance for stylish young couples to take in Tokyo’s sparking nightscape after a romantic dinner for two. I had honestly never thought of the holiday in this way—to me, it had always been a stay-at-home family event, rather than a time to take a date out on the town. Having a girlfriend always makes one a quick learner, however, and needless to say, I never forgot about December 24th after that. Clearly, my first Christmas showed that there was still much I did not know about my adopted home country.

New surprises under the tree

When Westerners first learn that Christmas is a popular holiday in Japan, there is almost always puzzlement. “I didn’t know there were so many Christians in Japan!” is a common first reaction, for in Europe and America the holiday has strong religious connotations. Upon learning that only a few percentages of the Japanese population are Christian, the mystery deepens. Why, then, do they celebrate Christmas?

The most notable aspects of Christmas in Japan for a foreigner are those that are the most different from what he or she is used to. The emphasis here is placed on Christmas Eve, for example, and it usually seems odd to outsiders that the 24th would be celebrated but not the 25th. Moreover, before coming to Japan, I’d never heard of a “Christmas cake,” or associated the holiday with chicken dinners, as many seemed to do in Japan. (In America, Turkey is the most common “Christmas bird,” with some traditionalists favoring dishes like pheasant or goose.) Presents in Japan are often given to lovers, as on Valentine’s Day, but seemingly less frequently to young children or close family members, as an American or European would naturally expect.

The way we were

This might be a good time to pause and look a bit at my own preconceptions about Christmas. For us, growing up in the United States, the holiday season would begin with the selection of a pine tree from a local farmer, and an afternoon of decorating it with cherished ornaments. My brother and I would count down the days to Christmas with a special “advent calendar,” and Christmas Eve would be spent as a family. The big event was Christmas morning, when we would eagerly unwrap presents from “Santa Claus” before welcoming our extended family to a long and boisterous brunch.

None of these cherished memories seemed to fit with what I saw of Christmas in Japan. But could I learn to love it anyway?

The heart of the matter

It is sometimes said the most important core of the Christmas spirit is the “spirit of giving.” Ideally, whether one is religious or not, one should approach Christmas as a time to focus on what one can do for others, rather than what one receives. Seen in this light, I began to understand that giving up my own preconceptions about Christmas and learning to enjoy it from a new perspective would be a kind of “gift” I could give both myself and the Japanese people around me.

One thing that makes Japanese Christmas pleasant—there is less pressure to give actual store-bought gifts. This has allowed me to look at the event as more of an experience, where the focus is on enjoying the company of those closest to me. The beautiful illumination on display in Tokyo has also found a growing place in my heart, and it seems to me that each year the lights become more impressive, especially with the rise of complex LED-based displays in major city centers. Restaurateurs and connectionists go out of their way to make striking seasonal delights. These things have helped make me happier with the holidays during my time in Japan.

Looking for the “real” Christmas…

“Isn’t it insincere to celebrate a holiday without a deeper understanding of the reason for it?” is a lament one sometimes hears from foreigners in Japan. Perhaps, but it must be remembered that millions of essentially non-religious people in the West celebrate Christmas without a much deeper understanding themselves. Commercialism plays an oft-decried role both in Japan and the West. True, even absent strong faith, there is a sense of Christmas as a cultural tradition with deeper roots in the West, and the lack of a family-centered idea of Christmas may seem shallow to some foreigners—but it should not be forgotten that the New Years holidays in Japan take on much the same family role, and that Christmas has a totally different meaning here. When one learns to appreciate and relax with that, Christmas in Japan is no longer so alien, and it can be loved in its own right, completely apart from any ideas about “Japanese-ness” or “Foreign-ness.” In the end, I can say that letting Christmas out of narrow boxes and appreciating it for what it is has taught me more about the holiday than I might have been likely to learn spending my whole life in America.