Christmas in Japan

Posted on December 9, 2014

The spiritual culture of Japan centres on Shintoism and Buddhism.  Less than 1% of the population describe themselves as Christian.  Yet Japanese Christmas tradition is well established.  Various customs have been borrowed from the West, others have commercial origins and some are quite unique to Japan.

Visually, Christmas customs in Japan can be hard to distinguish from most countries around the world.  Homes, shops and businesses are festooned with twinkling lights, tinsel garlands and shimmering ornaments.  The Japanese use no living trees and their artificial versions are adorned with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans, lanterns and wind chimes.

Origami swans are possibly the most popular decoration and carry a special message that resonates with Japanese children.  Over the festive season, children exchange thousands of origami ‘birds of peace’, in a pledge that war must not occur again.  Nativity scenes are especially engaging, partly because this may be the first time Japanese children encounter a cradle (Japanese, couples typically co-sleep with their babies).

Traditionally, the Christmas season is a popular time for parties.  Because it falls during Japan’s month-long year-end celebrations, venue bookings include many ‘bonenkai’ (forget the old year drinking parties) events, following which intoxicated revellers spill into the streets and subways.

Japan has unique Christmas food traditions too.  Most people order well ahead so as not to miss out on fresh-baked strawberry sponge Christmas cake and take-away fried chicken.  Christmas Eve is the time for this special meal and long queues are common at popular fried chicken outlets.

The formal year-end gift tradition is most widely practised in business settings.  ‘Oseibo’ are gifts of perishable goods or items that wear out quickly and for which cost is readily checked.  Most often, these presents are obtained through department stores so that, in the system of ‘on’ and ‘giri’ (loosely translated obligation and reciprocity), receivers may return a gift of equal value.

While children or close friends may receive a small present, most gifts are exchanged between couples.  Because of the close relationship between giver and receiver, gifts tend to be endearing and often expensive items.  This is because, above all, Japanese Christmas is a celebration for lovers.

Christmas Eve may be the most romantic night of the year in Japan, surpassing both Valentine’s Day and White Day for romantic entanglements.  In popular culture, Christmas Eve is thought to be a time for romantic miracles.  Because it is also when admirers reveal their affection to one another, extending a Christmas Eve invitation has deep romantic implications.

While Japanese stores stock and restock their shelves, Christmas Eve bookings for Japan’s swanky restaurants open months ahead of the date.  Christmas Eve is also a popular wedding date with honeymoon suites across the nation booked out.

Older couples might enjoy one of the leading hotel shows, featuring popular Japanese entertainers.  Due to the season, tickets to these shows can be scarce and pricy.  So a performance of the ‘daiku’ (Great Nine in reference to Beethoven’s ninth symphony) may be an alternative.  This work is performed all over Japan at Christmas time and New Year, sometimes with a huge massed chorus for the final movement ‘Ode to Joy’.

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