Merikuri! Christmas in Japan: Exploring Traditions Old and New

Merikuri! Christmas in Japan: Exploring Traditions Old and New

Said to be the most wonderful time of the year, Christmas is a holiday celebrated around the world, known as a time to get together with family and friends, and a time for giving. Despite not being a public holiday in Japan, and despite only 1–1.5% of the population identifying as Christian, Christmas is a very big deal in Japan commercially, with a plethora of stunning Christmas decorations and illuminations decking the streets and malls, as well as Christmas-themed merchandise, limited-edition packaging, food, and much more. 

However, if you’ve ever spent Christmas in Japan, you may have noticed that some of their traditions are quite different, while others add on to the magic of the season. Let’s have a look at some of them:

 

① Fried Chicken, The Christmas Meat of Choice

Fancy fried chicken for Christmas? Only in Japan!
Fried chicken for Christmas dinner? | Photo by photoAC

To most non-Japanese, one of Japan’s stranger Christmas traditions would be eating fried chicken, specifically Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), for Christmas dinner. For most of the world, the typical Christmas meat of choice would be a juicy roast turkey or a leg of sweet ham. But in Japan…it’s fried chicken from KFC. How did this come to be? 

Turkey meat is not common in Japan, so in the 1970s, KFC launched a marketing campaign to sell fried chicken buckets for Christmas, with the slogan “Kentucky for Christmas” (クリスマスにはケンタッキー Kurisimasu ni wa kentakkī). The campaign was a success, and the slogan remains well-remembered to this day. 

 

Colonel Sanders as Santa Claus!
To add on to the festive cheer, during the Christmas period, you’ll often find statues of Colonel Sanders decked out in jolly Santa outfits | Photo by Carissa Loh

Did you know? It is estimated that around 25% of KFC’s annual sales comes from the one-week Christmas period alone! Even in November, more than a month before Christmas, KFC stores are already taking reservations for Christmas orders. If you don’t manage to reserve your chicken in advance, expect to wait hours on Christmas Day to get your bucket. 

 

② Christmas Cake = Strawberry Shortcake

A typical christmas cake in Japan
A typical Christmas cake in Japan is strawberry shortcake | Photo by photoAC

Another somewhat strange Japanese Christmas tradition? Christmas cake  (クリスマスケーキ). To most of the Christmas-celebrating world, when we hear the words “Christmas cake”, perhaps chocolate log cake comes to mind, or fruit cake filled with dried fruits, or even a gingerbread house. However, in Japan, “Christmas cake” is synonymous with strawberry shortcake―a light sponge cake covered with whipped cream, topped with sweet, fresh strawberries, and sometimes decorated with sugar figurines of Santa or snowman figures―and you will find stores everywhere selling strawberry shortcake or some variation of it. Just to emphasise the extent of this culture, you can even find Christmas cakes at convenience stores (コンビニ konbini).

 

Christmas cakes in Japan
Christmas cakes at a bakery in Japan | Photo by Carissa Loh

It is said that the tradition of strawberry shortcakes for Christmas started after World War II, when Western desserts were considered a luxury and symbols of prosperity. The white of the whipped cream and the red of the strawberries are also colours of the Japanese flag, so people felt good buying them. Nowadays, even though Japanese bakeries sell Christmas cakes in other flavours like chocolate, or with fruits other than strawberries, strawberry shortcake still reigns supreme and remains the cake of choice.

 

③ Wonderful Winter Illuminations Everywhere

Winter illuminations in Japan
Clockwise from left: Christmas illuminations in Tokyo, Osaka, and Sapporo | Photo by photoAC

This next one is not really a tradition, but more of a staple of Christmas in Japan. One of the best things about Christmas (and winter) in Japan is the multitude of fairytale-like illuminations that light up at night. Winter nights are long and dark, but these colourful and beautiful illuminations are sure to lift your spirits and put you in a jolly mood. 

From city streets and parks, to shopping malls, major railway stations, and amusement parks like Disneyland in Tokyo and Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki, you can look forward to stunning illuminations and fantastic festive decorations during the Christmas period.

 

④ Christmas Eve As A Day For Couples

Christmas eve as the most romantic night for couples
Christmas Eve is a night for lovers | Photo by photoAC

To most of the world, Christmas is a time for family and friends, with many people spending the holidays going back home to see extended family. However, for young people in Japan, Christmas Eve is a day for couples! Considered by many to be the most romantic day of the year, beating even Valentine’s Day, Christmas Eve is a day to spend with your lover, going out on a fancy dinner date and taking an evening stroll to admire the illuminations. 

Whether by choice or by circumstance, there’s nothing wrong with spending Christmas alone and enjoying time with yourself, but did you know that in Japan, there’s a special term for lonely, single people on Christmas Eve? Kuribocchi (クリぼっち) is a combination of kurisimasu (Christmas) and bocchi (being alone). However, with a growing kuribocchi market, in recent years, many popular fast food restaurants like Lotteria, Burger King, and even a rice bowl chain have started offering kuribocchi meals.

 

⑤ Charming Christmas Markets

Christmas market at Hakata, Fukuoka
Christmas market at Fukuoka’s Hakata Station | Photo by Carissa Loh

Christmas has gained popularity in modern times, and in many major Japanese cities, you can find European-style Christmas markets being held from late November to late December. Of course, these Christmas markets are usually surrounded by uplifting illuminations in the evenings, and some even have stage performances. 

Just like their European counterparts, Christmas markets in Japan usually have a food section featuring hearty snacks and alcoholic beverages to warm you up in the night, as well as a retail section, where you can browse many unique and handmade Christmas gifts to pick for your family and friends. 

 

‘Tis The Season of Giving at JAPAN RAIL CLUB!


Christmas time is here at JAPAN RAIL CLUB!

Speaking of gifts, have you picked out a Christmas present for that special someone? Why not consider gifting your loved ones a subscription of JAPAN RAIL CLUB’s Omiyage Snack Box? Our snack box is perfect for those who are itching for a taste of Japan’s seasonal snacks, which come from various parts of Japan that have been exclusively handpicked by our hardworking Christmas elves, I mean staff, over at JR East! 

Whether you’re spending Christmas alone, with your partner, or with family and friends, Christmas is the season of giving and sharing! Subscribe today with promo code CITRUSOFF12 to enjoy a festive S$80 off in your next 12-month subscription and receive this month’s “Merry Citrus” Omiyage Snack Box—a wintery selection of citrus and seafood snacks that will surely remind you of winter in Japan! Meri kuri!

Meet the author

Carissa Loh

Having visited all 47 prefectures of Japan, Carissa's next goal in life is to ride all of Japan's sightseeing trains and climb all its 100 Famous Mountains. Sounds like a dream? Check back in 50 years.

Hungry for more?

Get on track with our monthly offerings of exclusive snacks from all over Japan!

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