5 Unique Japanese Christmas Traditions

With December finally here and Christmas decorations up in full force, it’s only fitting that here at Japan Centre we talk about some Christmas traditions unique to Japan. Let’s start by looking at the history of Father Christmas (サンタクローズ, Santa Claus) in Japan. The earliest recorded Christmas celebration in Japan dates back to 1552, with the belief that smaller Christmas celebrations were being held as early as 1549 thanks to the arrival of Saint Francis Xavier in Japan.

Christmas celebrations continued in Japan until 1635, the year in which the Sakoku Edict was put in place – a Japanese decree intended to eliminate foreign influence, enforced by strict rules and regulations from the Tokugawa Shogunate (the Tokugawa Era (徳川時代), more widely known as the Edo Era (江戸時代), lasted from 1603-1868).

Nevertheless, jolly Saint Nick didn’t make his official debut in Japan until 1875, when a Father Christmas dressed as a Samurai appeared at a Christmas celebration held at the Harajo School in Ginza, Tokyo. Adding to the start of Japan’s embracing of the festive season, a children’s storybook about Father Christmas was published by Shindō Nobuyoshi in 1898 titled Santakurō (サンタクロウ). 

5. Decorative Bento (デコ弁)

Decorative bento (デコ弁), or deco-ben for short, started as a quaint hobby for fans of everything cute. However, as the years have passed, deco-ben have become a staple of a Japanese Christmas. In fact, deco-ben are becoming increasingly popular not only in the home-cooking world but also the commercial world too, with famous Japanese bento brands like Asami creating their own deko-ben. 

With cute caricatures of Father Christmas and other yuletide characters, these bento look as good as they taste and are a great way to bring some Japanese flair to your merry celebrations.

4. Japanese Christmas Cake 

While here in the West, Christmas is a time for gingerbread, fruitcake and Christmas pudding, Japan has yet another little twist on festivities. While Western Christmas cakes tend to be variations on fruitcake, Japanese Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ, kurisumasu kēki) is usually a sponge-based strawberry shortcake.  

Japan’s love for Christmas cake dates back to 1922 to which confectionery manufacturer Fujiya marketed the cream-covered cakes with one simple tagline: “Let’s eat cake on Christmas!” (クリスマスにケーキを食べましょう, kurisumasu ni kēki wo tabemashou). While Western cakes tend to be a little conservative in decoration, their Japanese counterparts are lavishly adorned with strawberries, ornamental but edible Father Christmases and other Christmas-themed decorations. 

3. Illuminations

While most countries around the world get into the festive spirit by decorating their streets with Christmas lights, Japan is amongst the best when it comes to lighting up the festive season. Not only are streets draped in beautiful light decorations, but shopping centres, restaurants, public areas and even famous landmarks are turned into mesmerising displays of light. 

For those of you visiting Japan during the Christmas season, Tokyo Station, Tokyo Skytree Town and the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka are some illuminations that aren’t to be missed! 

2. A very Kentucky Fried Christmas

Probably one of the most well-known features of a Japanese Christmas is the Christmas KFC, with an estimated 3.6 million families eating it on Christmas Day. In 1970, Takeshi Okawara, manager of the first KFC to open in Japan, saw a gap in the Japanese Christmas market and in 1974 pushed the message: “Kentucky for Christmas” (クリスマスにはケンタッキー, kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkī). 

Ever since then, the original Christmas “party barrel” has evolved from its simple chicken bucket to a bundled Japanese Christmas cake meal, with premium buckets even including ribs or roast chicken with stuffing! And let’s not forget, part of the Kentucky fried Christmas tradition is to see Colonel Sanders dressed up in Father Christmas costumes up and down the country! 

1. Christmas Eve is the more important day

For us in the West, Christmas Eve is the last day in which we can prepare for the upcoming Christmas festivities – full of last-minute gift shopping and rushing around. However in Japan, the Christmas period is seen as a time to spread happiness, rather than a celebration steeped in any kind of tradition. 

As a result, Christmas Eve is the star attraction of the Japanese festive season, with many in Japan viewing the Eve as a day to go on a date with their partner. Thanks to the more romantic notion of Christmas Eve in Japan, gift exchanges also happen a day earlier than here in the West and a typical Christmas Eve date plan would be to have a reservation booked at a restaurant or perhaps a stroll through town to view the illuminations.

Learn how to make your own deco-ben and Japanese Christmas Cake by clicking on the links!

Get your ingredients in-store and online at www.japancentre.com