How Christmas became big in Japan, despite only 1 per cent of the population being Christian

To the casual observer, Christmas in Japan at first seems not that much different from how the event plays out in Australia and other western countries. Christmas-themed knickknacks, snacks, and foodstuffs debut at stores immediately after Halloween from November 1.

Shops produce catalogues in the lead-up to the event promoting Christmas fare and news of special sales. Swedish furniture conglomerate IKEA sells Christmas trees and Nordic decorations, while department store lobbies across Japan feature meticulous displays and festively festooned firs.

Japan's embrace of all things Christmas — albeit in a commercial and secular fashion — is somewhat remarkable given that approximately only 1 per cent of Japanese people identify as Christians.

The celebration was first introduced to the country by Jesuit missionaries back in 1552 during a time of great social upheaval. But the event is not a national holiday, nor is it considered a time for families to get together and bond over an elaborate home-cooked meal. That pastime, alongside visits to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, takes place over the new year period.

Most importantly, Christmas in Japan means December 24, given that both December 25 and 26 are considered normal work or school days. For some non-Japanese residents and mixed families, this has taken a little time to adjust to — or not.

For Australian Sarah Greaves, 50, operator of a bespoke tourism service that introduces visitors to Japan, what lies "beyond Shibuya", there are other, ongoing reminders of Christmas "at home" such as "losing the Whamaggedon competition" or "being Mariah-ed on Day 3." But during her tenure at a former international company, she recalled eyebrows being raised because she wanted to take the day off work to celebrate.

Children are also expected to attend school and join in o-soji end-of-year-cleaning activities in preparation for the next year. For many non-Japanese and bicultural children living in Japan, it's no surprise that a chance to skip out on this local practice is looked upon favourably.

Christmas Eve's sway is that it is a romantic date night for couples. Exchanging gifts, dining out at restaurants (at the high-end, that's generally a pivot to French or Italian cuisines), seeing extravagant light displays and visiting a love hotel are usually on the cards.

In what seems to be a search for the "next big thing" in Christmas celebrations, European-style Christmas markets have also seen a rise in popularity with both couples and families. Some markets lean toward performances and entertainment, while others sell gifts and even offer ice skating, but all offer European-style traditional beverages and foods.


Japan's adoption of Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas menus in the 1970s has seen much media fanfare. Less known is the recent popularity of other fast-food options, such as pizza. Not to be outdone in the marketing stakes by KFC, American pizza chain Dominos in 2016 devised a "campaign" where reindeer would deliver their Christmas pizzas in wintry areas throughout the country. The so-called initiative "failed."

There's also a particular kind of Christmas cake — a Victorian-like sponge and strawberry shortcake mashup — decorated with whipped cream and strawberries that gained popularity in the wake of World War II. The increasing availability of ingredients such as flour, butter and sugar signalled Japan's booming prosperity, and it's no coincidence that the cake's red and white celebratory colours resemble those of the Japanese flag.

For Tokyo resident, Aska Nagai, 47, the cake is considered a festive menu staple and a nostalgic reminder of growing up. "When I was a child, Christmas time meant eating 'special Western food'. At home, we always had mashed potatoes, meatloaf and onion gratin soup, with a shop-bought Christmas cake or one my mother made. We also invited neighbourhood friends to join us. During junior high, I was sometimes invited to a Christmas pot-luck party event for my English class, where we ate KFC, Christmas cake, and drank 'Chanmery', a non-alcoholic party champagne created especially for children. As an adult, I've had more opportunities to spend time with friends, but I'm more invited to home parties than attending formal dinners."

For those in search of traditional Christmas fare, IKEA comes to the rescue, again, with a "Swedish Christmas dinner" on offer at its in-store restaurants. Five-star hotels have long provided sumptuous feasts with all the trimmings, with some even offering takeaway options. High-end local ingredients such as Ise lobster and Wagyu beef often appear on menus.

Also making an appearance in the lead-up to Christmas and beyond are "Illuminations", a Japanese descriptor for festive Christmas LED displays. While the light displays are ubiquitous, the rise in popularity of the art collective Team Lab has seen a gradual introduction of sophisticated digital choreography, projection mapping and other technologies to some illumination events. Mostly held outdoors, many public art illuminations are free, while others incur a charge, especially if held at a theme or other park.

Coinciding with end-of-year work parties, Christmas is also a time to catch a live show or concert and celebrate the closing of the year, according to Tokyo-based music writer and record label owner Ian Martin, 43.

"The music scene is a community, where the separation between artists and audience is often blurred, so live events around Christmas and new year are a space for them to celebrate the end of the year together as a community in much the same way that workplaces and other social groups do," he observed.

In that sense, Christmas in Japan is not that unlike Christmas elsewhere after all.