Almost every year, around this time, I can guarantee that I’ll hear “but the Japanese don’t celebrate Christmas” at least once. And almost every year I explain why this is not the case.
The best explanation or place to start, without going into too much detail, is that Japanese Christmas is celebrated like the UK’s New Year and Japanese New Year is more like the UK’s Christmas. However, whereas both Christmas and New Year are national holidays in the UK only New Year is in Japan, meaning that for many Christmas is just another day at the office and some students will still go to school.
In Japan Christmas is celebrated predominantly by couples, so there can be a lot of pressure to find a date, and not on the day itself, but on Christmas Eve. Restaurants and streets become crowded with people on dates, with many couples going to see what the Japanese call “illuminations.” Illuminations usually start about a month before Christmas and can be found in the centre of cities and at many train stations. There is usually a kind of theme to the lighting display, which is made by decorating trees or other structures, with plenty of places to take pictures. Some shopping centres also get in on the act by putting up Christmas displays, but as far as I know there are no Santa’s grottos.
Despite the fact that Christmas is regarded as a holiday for couples in recent years more and more University students have begun to celebrate it with friends and hold parties, where gifts are exchanged. Although, these are becoming popularly exchanged in a similar way to Secret Santa. A group of students decide to hold a party, set a gift limit and then everyone must go out and purchase a gift at no more than the limit, the gifts are then used as prizes during a game. Each time a person wins they choose a gift, until everyone has one.
The food associated with Christmas is also quite different. Although, according to one of my friends, more and more restaurants are beginning to offer a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, a recent tradition in Japan has been to eat fried chicken (yes, what has largely been regarded as a rumour is true) and Christmas cake. In fact fried chicken is so popular it is possible to pre order it from KFC in the form of various meals, some of which include cake. The cake however, is not the traditional fruit and brandy cake with marzipan and white icing but sponge cake with thick icing, among other types.
Of course many people still give gifts and cards at Christmas, but having visited many stores around this time Christmas cards vie for space amongst New Year negajo (a type of postcard sent to friends or business associates), as well as envelopes for otoshidama (a gift of money typical given to children in a small envelope at New Year). So despite people celebrating Christmas and some with young children putting up a Christmas tree, the real focus is upon the New Year.
In Japan traditionally people travel back to their hometown at least twice a year. Once in August for Obon, to celebrate and remember their ancestors and at New Year to welcome it and celebrate with family. It is also at New Year that small businesses send gifts to each other, these take the form of boxes filled with various food stuffs, usually luxury items.
Almost as soon as Christmas is over, if not before, families prepare for the end of the current year and the start of the new one. One of the most essential symbols of the New Year is Kamigami mochi, or ricecakes. It is two round pieces of mochi, the bottom one larger than the other, with an orange placed on top. The one in my friend’s house was a plastic replica and contained mochi. We opened it up on New Year’s Day and ate the mochi out of it.
Mochi is also eaten as part of ozōni, which is a clear soup containing a piece of mochi (either round or square depending on region) as well as other ingredients, for example carrot or onion, again depending on the region.
Ozoni is served as part of osechi, which is a set of special dishes made just before New Year and packed into boxes. It is designed to last two or three days, as traditionally it was a time of rest and celebration. Each dish that makes up osechi has a special meaning. Two examples are prawns, which represent long life due to the way the prawns curve over and the long beard they seem to have, and sweet black beans or kuro-mame which represent health. In years past osechi was prepared at home by mothers for the family but nowadays it is becoming increasingly common to pre order osechi from various department stores or supermarkets instead.
Another food which is associated with New Year is toshikoshi soba, although it goes by many other names too. It is the last dish of the previous year and may be eaten for dinner on New Year's Eve or at midnight as it turns New Year, or even on New Year's Day. The soba, or buckwheat noodles, can be eaten in a number of ways and depends on the individual and their tastes. The noodles are consider lucky and the longer they are the better as this symbolises long life. They may also be eaten because they are easy to break and this represent the leaving behind of misfortune from the previous year.
On New Year’s Day itself it is important to be up early, or at least early-ish. The day at my friend’s house starts with drinking tosa sake. It is a type of sake to which herbs are added and it tastes medicinal in flavour. It is poured from a vessel which looks a little like a teapot into the top tier of three shallow sake plates. Each person in the family sits before the head of the family, who pours the sake for them and once given they must take three small sips. The order in which people in a family do everyday things, like taking a bath, is important in Japan, but on New Year’s Day it becomes even more important and the order is very strict. The Father goes first, then the Mother, then children in age order, from oldest to youngest, and finally any guests.
Finally, it could be argued, that the most important parts of New Year’s Day is to visit a shrine. Although, with huge crowds I’ve been assured that it is ok to visit a shrine on one of the first three days in January. Usually people queue to pray to the kami, or God, and get an omikuji, or paper fortune. At Buddhist temples the bell is rung beginning before midnight on New Year’s Eve and ending just after the clock strikes midnight. Some are closed off to the public and the monks ring the bell 108 times to represent the 108 vices that Buddhists believe exist in the world and to absolve people of their impure desires and sins from the previous year. Others are open to the public and people can queue to ring the bell in small groups.
Christmas in Japan is gaining in popularity and is becoming more widely celebrated, although the way in which it is celebrated differs markedly from the way we in the UK are used to. Whilst some traditions such as Christmas lights and giving gifts have been adopted, they have also been adapted and changed. As you can probably see the focus at this time of year in Japan is on the New Year, which has a long and rich history of traditions, some of which are begging to change slightly. A lot of work goes into preparing for New Year and it takes several days, as the house should be fully cleaned before the New Year. Although Christmas will no doubt gain in popularity in the coming years I can never see it becoming quite as big a deal as it is in other countries.
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year!