Would it surprise you to know that Christmas traditions in Japan are a reflection of American and European culture? For this huge tea producer and a nation with less than 1% of its population identifying as Christian, it celebrates the holiday with same gusto as America. It turns out a mix of good timing, similar cultural stories of big bellied men, and American marketing made this possible.
Santa and Hoteisho
The story of Santa is not that different from the story of Hoteisho. A large bellied, jolly Buddhist monk with a curly mustache that is said to have eyes on the back of his head to see whether or not children are behaving. Hoteisho travels with a large sack full of good fortune to pass out to people as he spreads cheer and good fortune to all. He is one of the seven lucky gods in Japan and a product of a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism that occurred in Japan in the 13th century. As it turns out, Japan had its own Santa Clause long before exposure to Europeans.
This may also help explain why the Japanese culture had no problem adopting this European tradition. They saw Santa as the European version of Hoteisho.
Christmas Decorations and Gifts
After World War I, Japan became was the largest manufacturer of Christmas decorations purchased in Europe and America. Dresden, Germany had held that title previously, but was so decimated by the war that it never caught back up to Japan’s manufacturing. World War II shifted this again, but the legacy of making Christmas decorations stayed with the Japanese culture. The glass balls on Christmas trees where not that different from the paper ornaments hung by the Japanese in celebration of spring. So Christmas trees, lights and ornaments can be found all over Japan during the month of December. It is very popular to take evening walks along the malls and parks to see the Christmas lights and ornaments.
Gifts in Japan are actually exchanged on New Year’s Day as a way of wishing your loved ones well for the new year. So Christmas Day and Christmas Eve are reserved more for parties, family gatherings and outings than actual gift exchange.
The Emperor’s Birthday
As it turns out December 23rd is a national holiday in Japan to honor the Emperor’s birthday. This is one of the few days that the inner grounds to the Imperial Palace, which is currently located in a park in Tokyo are opened to the public. Many people gather there to wish the Emperor good health and happy future. Think of it like President’s Day in the US, only we have a tendency to focus the deceased Presidents more than the living ones. Since the Emperor’s birthday is so close to the week before the New Year, it marks a time when many Japanese go on vacation to visit family and celebrate the end of the year and the beginning of a new one. Schools are closed between the Emperor’s birthday and the new year. This makes it convenient to slide in Christmas, and Christmas traditions, which is what KFC did in the 1970s.
Fried Chicken Christmas Eve
When KFC entered the Japanese market in the 1970’s it was looking for as many ways as possible to get the Japanese into their fast food restaurants. In 1974 they launched their Kentucky for Christmas campaign, which worked beautifully. It was targeted at dating couples to celebrate their blooming relationship and experience a little US hospitality Christmas eve. It took off and is still very popular in country. You have to actually put in for a reservation for a spot Christmas eve, and now you can order for pick up that afternoon to consume at home.
Though a bit quirky, Christmas in Japan is not all that different from Christmas here in the United States.