Japan is predominantly a Non-Christian nation, with the major religions being Shintoism and Buddhism. Only about 1% of the population is Christian. Therefore, it isn’t uncommon for Christian celebrating countries to believe that Japan would sleepwalk through one of the most vibrant festivals to be celebrated in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Christmas is a widely celebrated festival Japan, though not for its religious symbolism. Women and children are greatly fascinated by the story of baby Jesus being born in the manger; however, the celebrations in Japan during the Christmas season have more romantic connotations. This is the time of the year teenagers propose to the girl they like and invite her out for an intimate dinner. It is also the time when guys summon up the courage to ask a girl to marry them. In very simple terms, it is an early Valentine’s Day in Japan.
Christmas in Japan is also a time for great commercial activity not unlike what you would see in America or England. Although Christmas trees are not a popular trend owing to the cramped living spaces most people have, Japanese are fond of buying evergreens and electric lights to decorate their home. Christmas trees are a luxury that can only be afforded by those who have enough space in their homes to accommodate one. Shopping malls and retail outlets woo customers with discounts and offers and people enjoy buying Christmas goodies and gifts to mark the occasion.
The most commonly eaten Christmas delicacy in Japan is the Christmas cake: a sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries. It is customary for the man of the house to bring this cake on his way home from work. Christmas cakes are sold at great discounts since most stores would like to sell all their cakes before the 26th. This has given birth to a rather interesting expression among the Japanese who draw a parallel among young girls and Christmas cakes: eligible and desirable for marriage until they are 25 and difficult to “get rid of” after their 25th birthdays!
For children, Christmas is a special time since they get gifts from “Hotei-osho”, a sort of an Oriental cousin to Santa Claus. Just like Santa, Hotei-Osho delivers gifts to the children in each house. Children are expected to behave well throughout the year and nothing escapes Hotei-Osho’s attention since he has eyes at the back of his head.
The typical Turkey feast organized in Western countries is rarely seen in Japanese households. It costs a fortune to buy Turkey from one of the very few department stores that stock them and even more if you should take it into your head to have it mail-ordered to you. However, Japanese have found a happy replacement in the Christmas Chicken dinner. Thanks to the aggressive marketing done by Kentucky Fried Chicken, this has become an extremely popular concept and you can see a long line at any of the KFC outlets in Japan. There are many who make reservations for their Christmas dinner weeks in advance.
Turkey or no Turkey; Christmas tree or no Christmas tree; reindeers or no reindeers, the spirit of Christmas is very much alive in Japan. So, what if it is slightly different and they don’t get together and sing carols or stuff red stockings with treats for kiddies. It is still a very Merry Christmas for them, or as they would say ‘Meri Kurisumasu’.