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‘Tis the season for grumbling about cultural differences, but does it have to be?

Japan absolutely loves Christmas. As a matter of fact, with holiday decorations up all over Japan, Christmas almost seems to have become as much a part of Japanese life as cherry blossom viewing parties in the spring.

Of course, expats and overseas visitors are acutely aware of the fact that Christmas is an imported holiday. What’s more, Japan’s yuletide festivities don’t quite sit right with all of them, which leads to some common complaints from foreigners in Japan about how the country celebrates Christmas.

1. It’s a form of westernization

Most people who chose to move to or travel in Japan were attracted by the promise of experiencing authentic, Japanese culture and society. As such, they’re not particularly overjoyed at images of Santa and Christmas trees overrunning the urban landscape every December. Some might even go so far as to suggest the rise in popularity of Christmas in Japan, coming shortly after the end of World War II, reflects a loss of self-respect towards the country’s own traditions stemming from its defeat by the American military.


Westerners don’t actually hold the amount of cultural clout in Japan that would be needed to pressure the whole country into celebrating something the native population doesn’t care about.

▼ If they did, more companies would shut down so that people could watch the Super Bowl, which airs on a Monday here due to the time difference.

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There aren’t any major Christmas events that are singularly spearheaded by foreign organizations, so the large-scale celebrations really are planned by, and for, Japanese people. Even Tokyo Disneyland, a popular Christmastime destination, is owned by a Japanese company, Oriental Land.

And while the idea of celebrating the holiday was initially a foreign concept, in many ways Japan puts its own unique spin on how to go about doing so. Instead of December 25, Christmas Eve is the primary focus, and it’s held to be the most romantic night of the year (it’s also one of the most difficult to find a vacant love hotel room on). You can also be sure that just about everyone in the country will be eating fried chicken and strawberry shortcake at dinner, two dishes that, delicious as they may be, don’t have any particular connection to Christmas in the West.

In other words, it’s an oversimplification to say that Japan is purely substituting another culture for its own by getting into the Christmas spirit.

2. It’s commercialized

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Retailers across Japan put up decorations and dress their sales staff in Santa caps or other Christmassy garb, and all in the pursuit of convincing you to drop a few more yen than you really need to.


It’s not like Christmas isn’t commercialized in the West too. As long as it’s a holiday with giving presents as one of its central activities, it’s going to be impossible to uncouple Christmas and commerce, unless you’re giving everyone hand-knit sweaters and home-made fruitcakes.

▼ Or fruit socks, which probably taste just about as good.

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Still, this aspect of the holiday is especially irksome to some expats in Japan, since the country shows so little resistance to consumerism even under normal circumstances (certain vocal detractors/famous anime directors notwithstanding). Before you start looking for a foreign currency exchange counter to slam your fist on, though, bear in mind that Christmas shoppers in Japan buy gifts for far fewer people than their western counterparts. Among adults, gift exchanges are generally limited to romantic partners, and maybe a small, generic gift for a party with friends or coworkers. Kids, too, usually get just one gift from Santa, who in Japan tiptoes into their rooms to leave their gifts by their pillows while they sleep.

Tally it all up, and even people with children aren’t likely to purchase more than a half-dozen Christmas gifts, which pales in comparison to the lengthy list of many western shoppers.

3. No one cares about the real meaning

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Christmas in Japan is all about fancy dates or fun parties. There’s plenty of talk about how to dress, where to go, and what to eat, but hardly a peep about compassion, peace, and the other underlying sentiments tied to the holiday’s religious origins.


It’s true that Christmas in Japan is an entirely secular holiday. Take a stroll through Tokyo in December and you’ll see hundreds of images of Santa, yet not a single nativity scene. But even in the West, Christmas has evolved to include a sizeable non-religious component.

If you live in a city, work in a company, or attend a school with a moderate amount of diversity, odds are you’ve engaged in some sort of Christmas celebration with people who weren’t devout Christians, and some may not have had any sort of religious faith at all. I’m willing to bet that didn’t spoil the party, though, or in and of itself keep you from forming a little stronger bond than you had before.

Even that secular goodwill, though, can feel scaled down in Japan. Unlike in the West, where society encourages people to be a little more considerate and forgiving around this time of year, the idea of doing something kind for others at Christmas doesn’t really extend beyond one’s immediate social circle in Japan. But before you shake your head in exasperation at Japan for this lack of selflessness, ask yourself how much thought you give to such matters on New Year’s Eve.

The roles of Christmas and New Year’s Eve are almost completely opposite in Japan and the West. So while Japan takes a moment to engage in some lavish revelry on Christmas Eve, the end of the year is the time for reuniting with extended family, as well as reflecting on the kindness you’ve received from others during the past 12 months. It’s customary to make a New Year’s visit to a shrine or temple in order to pray for the health and happiness for yourself and others, and many people in Japan chose to do so at the stroke of midnight, right as the new year begins.

So remember that while Japan may not concern itself with particularly profound ponderings on December 24 or 25, it’ll get to them on December 31 and January 1. And if you’re dead-set against people having any fun at all at Christmas, there’s this book you might want to check out.

▼ Come to think of it, it doesn’t have any religious elements either.

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Top image: Sozai Bank via Pya
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