By Jessica Hutchison
Japan has a lot of unique holidays. From O-Bon to Children’s Day to the Emperor’s Birthday, it can be a bit hard for a foreigner to keep track of all of them. But there are a few that the Japanese have adopted from Western culture that we can kind of understand. Kind of.
The thing is, even though the Japanese celebrate a lot of the same holidays that we do (at least, Americans do), they do it in a different way.
So I’m here today to explain some interesting differences in how the Japanese celebrate some familiar holidays.
One thing to note first is that some of these holidays are rooted in Christianity. That’s pretty normal for America and other Western countries, but Japan is far from a Christian country. Most people claim to be Buddhist, and Shinto has a prominent influence too. But not so much with the Christians.
It’s a bit interesting to see how they took these Christianity-based holidays and took the Christianity out of them.
Let’s start with the most obvious Christian holiday.
Are you counting down the days yet?
In the U.S., Christmas is HUGE. Pretty much everyone loves Christmas. If you’re Christian, it celebrates an important religious event. But even if you aren’t Christian, it’s a time to gather with family, relax and take a break from work, eat a ton of food, and–of course–exchange gifts!
Christmas in the U.S. gets a little crazy. Every shop becomes Christmas themed. Airports are packed with people going home for the holidays. You literally cannot go anywhere without hearing all of those Christmas songs that have been on the radio for over fifteen years. People dressed as Santa stand outside grocery stores collecting for charity. Everything is red and green. Everything.
You guys know what Christmas is like. It’s insane. But I’m here to tell you what a Japanese Christmas looks like.
And it’s KFC.
No, this isn’t an ad. This is the truth. The well-known American fried chicken restaurant is in Japan, but it only matters on one day of the year: Christmas.
I have no idea how this tradition started, but boy is it a tradition. Everyone wants to eat fried chicken on Christmas. Some restaurants that don’t usually serve fried chicken will have special ads for their once-a-year fried chicken special. You can get it in any conbini. Fried chicken is everywhere.
Gone are the traditional hams and takeout Chinese food of American Christmas dinners. Bring on the homestyle drumsticks and biscuits (on a side note, KFC biscuits are really weird in Japan). I mean, I’m not complaining. Fried chicken for Christmas has become my new tradition because fried chicken is delicious. But it seems like KFCs in Japan are left practically abandoned every other day of the year.
The other food staple of a traditional Japanese Christmas is Christmas Cake. This is a thing. It’s actually called Christmas Cake.
This is just a basic sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries. It’s pretty tasty, and you can also purchase one anywhere in your desired size. Whether you are feeding your whole family, or you are hanging out in your pajamas all night with your cat, there’s a Christmas Cake for you.
My second Christmas in Japan was probably my favorite. I was teaching an English class on Christmas Eve, and my neighbor had recently started attending. After class she came over to me and my friend and asked us if we had bought a cake yet. When we told her no, she dragged us to the nearest conbini and bought us fried chicken and chocolate cake (all the Christmas Cake was gone by then). It’s really the go-to Christmas feast in Japan.
Another interesting thing about Christmas in Japan is that Christmas Day doesn’t matter. Everything happens on Christmas Eve. I got a nice little shock when I saw the mail guy out and about on Christmas Day. But then again, it’s not really a holiday there. Just a fun day.
It’s also not a family day. It’s a couple day. I once asked a high school girl I met if she was excited for Christmas. She said no, telling me that she didn’t have a boyfriend. Apparently, you don’t really exchange gifts unless it’s with the person you are dating. So Christmas Eve is a big date night in Japan.
Japan still has Christmas decorations all over the place. You can find your fair share of lit trees and tinsel, but it is definitely more subdued. Honestly, people are more excited for New Year’s the next week.
So let’s move on to our next holiday.
It might be surprising that Valentine’s Day is a pretty big holiday in Japan, but it is very different from what we expect.
In the U.S., Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love, whether with your significant other or with your friends. This is the biggest date night in America, and you better book that restaurant in advance if you really want to impress your lady. The stores are filled with pink and red bears and heart-shaped boxes full of mediocre (at best) chocolate. It’s all a bit much, but it doesn’t last long.
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is just half of a process.
Valentine’s Day is a day for girls to give boys chocolate. If a girl is really dedicated, she’ll make the chocolate herself. She gives the chocolate to her friends and coworkers (which is called giri-choco, or obligatory chocolate). But she’ll save that super special, super amazing chocolate for the guy she likes. If she’s already dating this guy, it’s not too nerve-wracking. But sometimes girls will use this chance to confess their love to their crush.
And then they get to wait.
Because a month later on March 14th, White Day rolls around. This is the day where boys can return the gift-giving. Usually they’ll give white chocolate (it is White Day after all), but the gifts seem to vary more. So if Hana-chan confessed her undying love to Yuuji-kun, this gives him a chance to respond.
I think this variation is pretty great. I like that it’s a bit more involved and thoughtful than just throwing heart boxes at each other. Plus, isn’t the idea of homemade chocolate so much more fun? I mean, have you tried Valentine’s Day chocolate recently? Hard pass.
Alright, on to our last holiday.
This one is interesting, mostly because I didn’t expect to encounter it at all in Japan. But I did. Also I have a funny story about Halloween that I’ll get to.
So obviously, this one isn’t huge in Japan. There aren’t really store displays put up, no one trick-or-treats, and costumes don’t happen. It’s a normal day in Japan.
But I was still invited to a Halloween Party?
These are sometimes put on by people who are a bit more aware of American culture, and the ones I went to were pretty fun. There was candy everywhere and everyone dressed up. Japan has a lot of great ghost stories, and seeing a 6-year-old girl dressed as Sadako and running towards you is absolutely terrifying.
Japanese culture festivals in high school often have a sort of “haunted house” room, so they would make those too. They really know how to do creepy, I’ll give them that.
But outside of these rare parties, Halloween kind of doesn’t happen. A friend of mine at one party dressed up as Zoro from One Piece, green hair and everything. He decided to go to the store just to mess with people, and he got the dirtiest looks from people there. Even though it was Halloween, how dare he go to a respectable establishment with green hair?
Trick-or-treating is also not a thing. But here’s the funny story about that. So a while back there were some foreign kids in Kobe who wanted to trick-or-treat. It went alright for them until they accidentally knocked on the door of the yakuza headquarters (basically the Japanese version of the Mafia). The guy who answered the door was super confused and gave them ten bucks to leave.
Eventually, they figured out what trick-or-treating was, and thus the strangest yakuza tradition was formed. Yakuza are all about helping the neighborhoods around them, so they decided to throw a halloween party for the kids in the neighborhood. Every year the kids come by and the yakuza guys will hand out candy. This is real.
A couple years ago they had to cancel it because of some tensions between their factions. In 2017 they said they would cancel it again, but it ended up being a huge prank and they held it anyways. Sometimes I wonder if these guys are even real, but I’m sure we’ll write more about the yakuza in a future article. There’s something to look forward to.
Anyways, these are probably the three most popular American holidays in Japan. One of my favorite things about Japan is how they can take any foreign concept and spin it to become totally Japanese. They keep the spirit of these holidays while adapting them to their culture.
So when these holidays come around again, don’t be afraid to try out some Japanese traditions. I love eating fried chicken for Christmas, and every White Day my husband still manages to surprise me with a present (because I always forget about White Day).
It’s fun to look at holidays through the lens of another culture, and it can create some fun new traditions for you.