The Story of Christmas in Japan

The Christmas season is a widely anticipated time all around the world. Each country and region celebrates Christmas in different ways. In Japan, Buddhism and Shinto religious beliefs are predominantly practiced by most Japanese, but Christmas is still celebrated. Several Western customs have also caught on such as giving out presents and sending and receiving Christmas cards.

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Christmas in Japan is more a time to spread the joy of the season rather than a religious celebration. In fact, Christmas in Japan is considered a romantic occasion, much like Valentine’s Day, where couples spend the evenings together strolling along streets lit with beautiful Christmas lights. Couples have a romantic meal and then exchange gifts. Other Japanese families love to celebrate their Christmas by serving Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and a Christmas cake at the dinner table.

Christmas time in Shinjuku. | Roger Jolly

Christmas was first introduced to Japan during the Sengoku period, or the “Warring States Period” (15th – 17th century). This was a time of social upheaval among Japanese warlords. The missionary Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan. The first Christmas service was held in 1552 and to honor the holiday spirit, donations were given to the less privileged farmers. The Tokugawa Shogunate was a new era of isolation to Japan that led to widespread persecution of Christians for fear that they might attempt to overthrow the new government. This resulted in the crucifixion of 26 Christians and the outward disappearance of public practice of the Christian faith.

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The Meiji Restoration restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji. Christianity was again allowed in Japan in 1873. Christianity at the time meant large lavish parties for visiting foreigners. Santa Claus was introduced a year later. Japanese department stores began putting up Christmas trees in 1904 and a few years later, stores began selling Christmas cakes. By the 1930s, the Christmas shopping season was a much anticipated event.

Christmas cake. | Bert Kimura

The 1980s brought in a sudden boost to the Japanese economy. Yuppies had money to burn and many corporations took advantage through commercialism. Trendsetting magazines geared towards the younger generation advertised the concept of Christmas as being a day for romance, hence the Japanese concept of Christmas equals Romance.

No matter how Christmas is celebrated around the world, its meaning is universal – giving thanks and spreading the love. Merry Christmas, everyone!