Christmas in Japan is quite different from the Chrismas celebrated in most countries in which the population has a large percentage of Christians or a Christian heritage. Only 1/2 of 1% of the Japanese population is estimated to be Christian, with the majority of Japanese being tolerant of all faiths: Buddhism, Christianity, Shinto, etc. In spite of this, the Japanese are great lovers of festivals and celebrations, including Christmas.
December 25th is not a national holiday in Japan, although December 23rd, which is the birthdate of the present emperor, is. Although it is not an official holiday the Japanese tend to celebrate Christmas, especially in a commercial way. The Japanese celebrate Christmas Eve by eating a 'Christmas Cake' which the father of the family purchases on his way home from work (or his wife does in the case where he has to work on Christmas Eve). Stores all over carry versions of this Christmas cake and drop the price of it drastically on December 25th in order to sell everything out by the 26th. This has resulted in a rather interesting expression in which young girls are referred to as a 'Christmas cakes': marriageable until their 25th birthday and requiring heavy discounts to get married after their 25th birthdays.
In recent years, thanks to the marketing prowess of the folks at Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Christmas Chicken Dinner has become quite popular. Many Japanese even make reservations for their "Christmas Chicken" ahead of time. People line up at their outlets to pick up their orders. As a result of KFC's brilliant advertising campaign, most Japanese now believe that Westerners celebrate Christmas with a chicken dinner instead of the more common ham or turkey.
Christmas Eve has been hyped by the T.V. media as being a time for romantic miracles. It is seen as a time to be spent with one's boyfriend or girlfriend in a romantic setting, so fancy restaurants and hotels are often booked solid at this time. It is often also a time when girls get to reveal their affections to boys and vice versa. Because of this, extending a girl an invitation to be together on Christmas Eve has very deep, romantic implications.
Christmas presents are exchanged between people with romantic commitments as well as close friends. The presents tend to be 'cute' presents and often include Teddy Bears, flowers, scarves, rings and other jewelry. Christmas cards are also given to close friends.
Christmas presents tend to be things which are cute and sometimes slightly expensive because of the relationship to the person to which they are given to. More obligatory year-end presents are given during this season as well to people who have done you a favor during the year, however, in contrast to Christmas presents, they are given between companies, to bosses, to teachers, and family friends. These presents are known as 'Oseibo' and are generally things which are perishable or which wear out quickly for which the price can readily be checked because of the system of 'on' and 'giri' (loosely translated obligation and reciprocity). These presents are usually purchased at department stores so that the recipient can check the price and return something which relates to the scale of reciprocity.
For the more elderly couples, many hotels host dinner shows featuring major singers, actors, and actresses. Tickets to these shows, due to the season, are very pricy.
The Christmas season comes during the month of the year-end parties. Company groups, hobby groups, sports groups, etc. often book a section of a restaurant to have drinking parties, known as 'bonenkai' [forget the old year parties]. This phenomena leads to streets, subways, and trains full of people in varied states of intoxication during this season.
Christmas lighting and displays are often up at the end of October and this year many stores have displays featuring Teddy Bears. There is also a trend developing for make-it-yourself presents.
The New Year's holidays, which constitute the main holiday season for the Japanese, come closer to the American-European idea of assembling family and friends. Christmas seems to be closer to the Western concept of St.Valentine's Day.
Copyright 1997, Revised 2006. Billy Hammond