Japan doesn’t really do religion in the same way the West does. The land of the rising sun, predominantly a shinto/buddhist nation, is also increasingly a land of rampant religious apathy. It’s pretty common to hear elderly folk complain quite vocally about how uninterested the youth of today are in ancient traditions, even though almost every Japanese person regardless of age or religion knows the rituals for entering and praying at the many, many, many shinto shrines and temples. They’re extensive, I’m not sure there could be much else to learn.
Japan’s Christian population is pretty small, but not one to be out-done on consumerism, this hasn’t stopped everyone embracing the commercial side of Christmas and truth be told, Japan’s take on Christmas is pretty unique. Here are some things you might not know about Christmas in nippon!
1) No Rest For The Merry
The Japanese have a lot of national holidays littered throughout their work calendar, but Christmas Day is not one of them. In fact, November through January can be one of the busiest periods of the year for most companies, as they prepare for the new fiscal year beginning in April. Best not to ask what your Japanese friends have planned for Christmas, because it most likely involves sitting at a desk and pretending to work.
2) Let There Be Light
The arrival of winter in Japan means several things. Hot coffee and cocoa return to the vending machines, scarf sales skyrocket and portions of every district in every city in the country endeavor to burn through the yearly-electricity-useage-estimates of several small nations by lighting up their parks with enough LEDs to inadvertently summon the Batman. The illumations, irumineishon in phonetic katakana, are actually pretty beautiful and tend to get more elaborate every year as each district tries to outdo the others. If you’re planning on visiting one, be prepared to slog through hoards of people, as these attractions are usually hugely popular, particularly on Christmas Eve, which brings me comfortably to my next fun fact.
3) Christmas Is For Lovers
Christmas Eve in Japan’s big cities is practically a couples only event. With Valentines Day relegated to an excuse to buy chocolate (and the reciprocal White Day in March an excuse to buy cookies), lovers are left without a national holiday to make everyone else feel uncomfortable about. Enter Christmas Eve. Boyfriends are expected to buy a gift for their sweethearts, and most couples venture out to one of the aforementioned illuminations. When I say most, I mean probably, literally all, as getting to actually see an illumination on Christmas Eve is an exercise in futility and frustration. I guess it’s romantic if you’re into inevitably touching everyone in your immediate vicinity. Which you might be, I guess.
4) Kentucky Fried Christmas
The Japanese have a tendency to understand western food up to a certain point and then just stop. I liken it to a child learning to play their first song on a piano and deciding then and there that that’s the absolute extent of the piano’s possibilities. At Christmas, they’ve collectively decided that, seeing as Turkey is tricky to get here, chicken is close enough, and as chicken goes, fried chicken is pretty hard to beat. Families usually go to KFC or another fast food chain on Christmas Day for dinner, and in some of the busier places, you’ll actually have to reserve a table to have any hope of getting that delicious monstrosity anywhere near your face. It could be because most Japanese apartments don’t have ovens, and the houses that do have ovens don’t have ones big enough for a Turkey, but who knows? Not me. And certainly not them. I’ve asked.
All in all, Christmas is pure spectacle here. Not that it’s much better anywhere else these days mind, so if all you’re after is the gifts and the glow, Japan is the place for you. Or if, you know, you really like fried chicken.