Explore Japan’s delightful, unexpected twist on this traditional holiday.

It’s that time of year: the halls are decked with boughs of holly, plastic baby Jesus is cozied up in your neighbour’s front yard, children are jostling for presents under the tree and mistletoe kisses are in the air. For most North Americans, Christmas is a family-centred spiritual holiday with an ample side of shopping, along with some obligatory Santa Claus-style cosplay. But if you’re in Japan on Christmas, get ready for a whole different kind of celebration.

Only a tiny fraction of a fraction of the Japanese population identifies as Christian—most Japanese identify to varying degrees as Buddhist or Shinto—so you’ll be hard-pressed to find any carolers or nativity scenes. Despite this, Christmas in Japan comes with much fanfare, plenty of festive decorations and the warm, fuzzy spread of happiness. However, the defining characteristic of Christmas in Japan is not religion, but romance. Long considered a holiday for couples, Christmas Eve is a day for Japanese lovers to dress up, have a fancy dinner and enjoy the atmospheric view of evening lights, especially in the big city. Any fan of Japanese dramas has seen the classic Christmas scene where the main couple gets together after a dramatic conflict, or confesses their love for each other at long last.

Christmas in Japan is more romantic and reciprocal than Valentine’s Day (when women are obligated to make or buy chocolate for the men in their lives, including co-workers). Rather than saving the major celebrations for Christmas Day, Japanese ladies and gents spend Christmas Eve giving each other gifts, and they have to make dinner reservations months in advance at fancy restaurants, which offer special holiday menus. But if the Japanese aren’t coupling up at chic restaurants on Christmas Eve, they’re savouring the iconic, at-home Japanese Christmas dinner: Kentucky Fried Chicken. That’s right, Colonel Sanders, not Santa, is the white-haired man making magic happen in Japan on December 24. But even KFC diners need to call a week inadvance—andthenwaitin long lines to pick up their order.

When the Japanese are done with that finger-lickingchicken dinner, they partake in a delicious, classic Christmascake.Christmas cake is a little bit like North American strawberry shortcake, but the quality will blow your corner grocery’s baked goods out of the water. Starting with a light vanilla sponge cake topped with airy swirls of whipped cream frosting, these tasty treats are decorated with plump red strawberries and slivers of chocolate, then cheerfully adorned with holiday messages. It wasn’t long ago that these treats had an oppressive symbolic power. There was a popular saying that a woman over 25 was like a Christmas cake after December 25—stale and undesirable. Luckily, this distasteful connotation has become passé in recent years, leaving us with only the sweet justice of women who have their cake and eat it too.

Know the Christmas DOs and DON’Ts


Japan’s adaptation of Christmas is an affectionate ritual that fits with the spirit of love and togetherness we associate with this Christian shindig. If you’re celebrating in Japan, here are some tips:


DO reply on Colonel Sanders

KFC puts out a very special menu for Christmas Eve, so get your butt over to the franchise chicken shack.


DON’T  skip work

Christmas isn’t a national holiday, so you’ll just have to dream about that hot date while you handle the boss’s paperwork.


DO love the one you’re with

If you have a secret crush, tonight’s the night for you to kokuhaku: to confess your feelings to the apple of your eye.

Illustrations by Chieko Watanabe