Christmas in Japan

The celebration of a random date representing the birth of a religious character by over-eating, binge drinking and rampant consumerism has made its way to Japan, in one form or another but in many ways it is a different beast to what you’re used to.

From some time in November onwards you’ll start seeing Christmas decorations appearing in shops. One time as early as October I spotted a Christmas tree in the entrance hall of a mall. Regular trees get adorned with lights and curiously mummified remains of Col. Sanders, that stand in front of every KFC, are suddenly wearing a very tatty father Christmas outfit. Christmas greetings in Engrish shout out from posters and shop windows. Restaurants and retailers start giving out seasonal coupons for discounts. Muzak, already in a dire state in Japan, gets taken down a few notches with rock, house and Harmonium versions of Christmas carols and pop hits on a non-stop loop. And just when you think they couldn’t copy Western Christmas tradition any more…they don’t. This is it. Christmas in Japan. There is nothing else.

No Emperor’s speech. No presents. No trees in the house. No special family dinner, and certainly no turkey. No crackers. No copious amounts of alcohol. No turkey sandwiches until February. No socks from grandmother. No thank you letters. No cards. No mass. No Boxing Day hangovers. No secret Santa. No James Bond or “Bridge over the River Kwai" or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. No Christmas cake or mince pies.

Christmas in Japan only takes on the outward appearance but doesn’t follow the real traditions. What does happen, apparently, is that young couples go out for a meal at restaurants that suddenly become very expensive; they offer Christmas courses, though not any special Christmas food, at highly inflated prices. The couple may then spend the night at a hotel, again at a highly inflated price. But that’s about it.

For Japan the real seasonal celebration is the coming of the New Year. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve the family sits round the table to eat soba and mochi. Mochi is a very nice sticky rice-cake; you can see street stalls and displays where kids can make their own by using a large wooden mallet to grind rice into a sticky goo in large stone bowls. It is said a dozen orso old people die every year by choking on these rice cakes.

In the first few days of January, though preferably the 1st, people go, en masse, to the local or biggest temple to pray for good fortune. Famous places like Asakusa are crowded with jostling masses; a bit like an out-of-control religious rock concert. You make your way to the front, burn some incense and waft the smoke over you. You then go to the trough and throw in some 5 or 50 Yen coins, ring the bell, clap your hands and pray. And then you’re pushed out of the way so the other half million patrons behind you can do the same.
It’s probably better to go to your local, smaller temple. Buy yourself a fortune, remembering to tie it to the tree if it’s a particularly bad one. Buy an arrow with an enma featuring the year’s zodiac animal on it; 2007 is the year of the boar, apparently. Decorate your home’s entrance hall with said arrow and any other boar imagery you can find.

Before the New Year it is also customary to send out cards. This is a big business in and of itself. You can either buy the postcards from shops or you buy pre-paid cards that you can print yourself and massive books with CD-ROMs full of clipart, heavily featuring the animal of choice, the boar, can be bought at bookshops. Usually though the home-made variety center around the family and kids; especially young parents will plaster photos of their offspring looking presentable all over the card. Businesses too send them out and take the opportunity to advertise with them.
If you have suffered a bereavement or other bad fortunes you do not send out cards, as that is bad form. In stead you send out cards telling people you won’t be sending them a card. The mind boggles.

Children are the stars of the new year celebrations; they get given presents, usually envelopes with money. Hence this season has the same commercial importance Christmas has in the west. Everybody puts in their bid for the juvenile Yen and the winner, the provider of this year’s hot item, can expect a nice little dink in their yearly earnings. In games too you will see massive publicity with this year focusing, obviously, on the Nintendo Wii and Sony’s Playstation 3.
Last year it was interesting to see how the DS trampled all over the PSP because of its IPs. This year I expect to see similar results. It’s a lot harder to sell an expensive machine for Ridge Racer and Resistance to the under-twelves than it is to sell them a cheaper console with Zelda and Wario. A Nintendogs or Mario title for the new year would have sealed Nintendo’s success.

As you can see there is plenty to be going on with in this festive season but homesick foreigners can go to the many Irish or English pubs and enjoy Japanese versions of Christmas dinner along with the many other drunk, bitching gaijin. Or, like me, you can get your mum to send you a home-made Christmas cake and stock up on booze so you can spend Christmas at home, in front of your disgustingly huge television (fingers crossed), drunk out of your tiny little mind.

Merry Christmas and all that!


  1. w0000
    merry christmas!

  2. Sounds like you'll have an excellent christmas despite not being in the motherland ;) Hell, I wouldn't mind spending christmas in front of a huuuge tv with lots of alcohol and the girlfriend...

  3. Oh I know I'll have a good time, though I really wouldn't mind some turkey. And I'm not sure if the wife would appreciate me hanging out in front of the telly with a girlfriend. Alcohol is sorted, though. Drinks cabinet already filled to bursting. Woohoo!

  4. so its nearly christmas 2007, and you will be lucky to find a Wii in stock before the big day... Not even has them on their site!!! If you (or your children) really want one to play with on Christmas day then fear not, i have found an internet bingo game which has got seven of these (plus a whole load of other cool prizes) to give away in the weeks leading up to Christmas. All you have to do is sign up and play on game of bingo for money on any day during December (2007)... Eyes down please!!

  5. I found this really amusing as I'm spending this Christmas abroad in Japan! I've only spent one other Christmas overseas and that was in London (I'm originally from Aus) and the cold, lack of being able to go play sport outside, or be at the beach eating fresh seafood, or be at home with four different types of meat lined up on the table- wasn't so fun afterall. We're renting a house in Nozawa Onsen. Luckily an Aussie fellow owns the house and has stocked the house up with some traditional Christmas breakfast treats- eggs and ham! We of course will have plenty of alcohol duty free and my Mother is packing decorations, a tiny tree, and the six of us each have a mini stocking each. Lame, but it will do! We will be in Tokyo for New Years and staying in Asakusa- which you've slighty scared me knowing there will be millions coming to pray in that area! Ha... what an experience, I can't wait!

  6. I am a yellow journalist for a foreign newspaper but I've got my own blog, and I am writing in my next entry about your ideas... I think they are youthful and I would like to use the same structure that you did. 23jj