Japanese Christmas: How Japan Took an Imported Holiday and Made It Its Own

Japanese Christmas: How Japan Took an Imported Holiday and Made It Its Own

What event do you associate with fried chicken, strawberry shortcake and romance?

If you’re stumped, you probably aren’t alone! The answer, you might be surprised to know, is in fact Christmas in Japan!

Christmas in Japan is an entirely imported holiday and has evolved over hundreds of years to what it is now, a secular commercial celebration that is all about enjoying pretty Christmas lights, good food, cozy time with family and romantic partners.

The History of Christmas in Japan

It’s said that the first Christmas celebrated in Japan was in the 16th century, when Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier introduced Christianity, and with it, Christmas, to Japan when he arrived to Kagoshima in 1594. During the Edo period (1603-1867) though, Christianity was prohibited by the state, and so celebrations of Christmas, and practicing of Christianity in general, largely disappeared or went underground.

Part of the "Nanban byobu" screen painting by Kanō Naizen showing Jesuit missionaries arriving in Japan.

After Japan reopened to the West in the Meiji Period, (1868-1912) Christmas became more widely known and there are records of an appearance of Santa Claus in a newspaper in 1906! When Emperor Taisho died on December 25, 1926, the day was designated as a subdued public holiday, where Christmas celebrations were not encouraged.

Emperor Taisho

Christmas Gains Popularity in the Post-War Era

Throughout the two world wars, celebrating Christmas was further discouraged as it was associated with America. After the end of WWII though, when many American Christian missionaries entered Japan, Christmas became more widely celebrated and evolved into a family-centered holiday for gift-gifting and a way to signal economic prosperity after the hard wartime years. Celebrations, especially on Christmas Eve, became more extravagant in the 80s and throughout the “bubble period” of Japan’s economic growth, when Christmas became more associated with romance, almost like how New Year’s Eve is in the West.

Christmas Dinner? KFC Fried Chicken!

Interestingly, the Christmas meal of choice in Japan has become fried chicken from KFC, thanks to a brilliant marketing strategy by KFC Japan in the 70s.
Today, over 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC meals during the Christmas season!

Inspired by Western style Christmas dinners with roast turkeys and Christmas, this is a great example of how Japanese has adapted foreign Christmas traditions and turned it into its own unique celebration.  Similarly, the dessert choice — light and delicious strawberry shortcake—is a departure from what is considered traditional Christmas fare overseas!

A Cake with Traditional Japanese Colors

The reason why Japan has adopted this cake during Christmastime lies in the simple color combination of white (from the whipped cream) and red (from the strawberries). In Japan, the combination of red and white is known as “kouhaku”, and is associated with festivities and good fortune!  

However you may be celebrating your cultural and family traditions during this time, the Bento&co team wishes you very happy holidays full of good food and memory-making!

P.S Have you wrapped your Christmas presents yet? Check out our video below on ways to wrap using furoshiki, Japan’s traditional wrapping cloths. The video is for bento boxes specifically, but the same techniques can be applied for presents!

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