Christmas as a concept is young one in Japan, having only existed for the last few decades. It shows its shiny youthfulness in being a time spent spreading and sharing happiness with one another, bearing no current connection to religion with so few Christians in Japan – well under 3% of the entire populace, in fact. Instead, the opportunity to celebrate the giving season is leapt upon and enjoyed in all its twinkly lights and kitsch.
Japan’s Christmas is so far removed from the western idea of the holiday that the 25th itself is eclipsed by Christmas Eve. This is the time for giving gifts to only very special loved ones, showing thanks for all their kindnesses and sharing how you feel – especially if they’re the one you’ve been dreaming of all year. It’s a day for couples to get cosy and spend a glamorous evening at a classy restaurant, with the expense of the gifts exchanged sometimes a heavy hint towards true feelings.
Hetalia’s Japan would perhaps be cynical and tell you it’s all about driving the onslaught of Christmas sales towards the ditzy couples. But in Recovery of an MMO Junkie, Moriko’s insistence on finding a crystal rose for her guildmate Lily is the genuine and immaterial bud of a blossoming romance (at least on her part). Even though Moriko is unsuccessful and forced to give Lily a distinctly non-crystalline mini-rose, it’s still the thought that counts for most. The magic of the starlit night is in the air, and Lily is happy to have been given a gift in friendship.
While the lovers are off gallivanting, the temptation on most others’ minds is fried chicken. KFC for Christmas Eve has become its own tradition since a master stroke of an advertising campaign ran in 1974, proclaiming ‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ (‘Kentucky for Christmas!’) as though this was the most obvious choice in the world. This glorious bit of demi-Engrish supposedly came about after a foreign KFC customer said he was having chicken for Christmas, because there wasn’t so much as a turkey leg to be found in Japan. For this reason you’ll see folks in RINNE, Is the Order a Rabbit? and even a certain Index scoffing chicken on Christmas, in a reflection of the reservations made weeks in advance to ensure families can get their hands on their Christmas KFC. This is now so ingrained that many Japanese believe we do the same in the west.
Another case of Christmas-food-though-not-as-we-know-it is the Christmas cake. Japan’s rendition is not the stodgy fruit cake that weighs down our turkey-stuffed stomachs. Character cakes are commonplace, with anime all the way from One Piece and Evangelion to Love Live! and Madoka Magica being enshrined in sugary white. But otherwise, a simple sponge cake will come elegantly iced with whipped cream, strawberries and perhaps a tiny Santa.
Speaking of the jolly old chimney diver, it’s thought that Santa Claus may well have been so closely adopted because of his resemblance to an equally rotund Buddhist deity. Hotei is the god of contentment, abundance and happiness, and also the patron of children. His cheery face and profound gut is universally recognisable as the Laughing Buddha, immortalised in many a tacky figurine and Chinese restaurant. Known to bring gifts in the New Year, his key connection to Santa may be the cloth bag he carries on his back, Ho Tei meaning ‘cloth bag’ in Japanese. He carries his fortune for the poor and devout with sweets for the children, and like the man in red he knows all, sometimes depicted with a third eye in the back of his head.
Then again, if Azumanga Daioh is to be considered a reliable source, he could have been Chiyo-chan’s father all along. Who’s to say? Wherever you go, Santa-san is a man of great mystery.
The west and Japan do agree on one thing, however; that Christmas must always be topped by a tree. The Christmas tree, like the holiday itself, was introduced to the country by Christian missionaries in the 20th century, though neither took root until post-World War II and the American occupation. Japan’s first Christmas tree that we would recognise was lit in Ginza in the year 1910. Before that, they would be decked not in baubles and tinsel, but with tiny fans, paper lanterns and origami animals; a notable difference from the twinkling pine the girls of Yuru Yuri dream of finding love beneath.
Though this time of year in Japan is all sweetness and fairy lights now, it has a bloody history in the first few decades after the faith was introduced. Once 16th century missionaries brought their religion to Japan, many Catholic Christians were arrested, tortured and killed, considered a threat to the Buddhist Shogunate. But by the 20th century, churches were better established and the post-WWII occupation sparked new obsession with all things American. Considering the lingering shadow of war, it’s easy to see why the Japanese developed a fondness for the sentiments of peace and goodwill. Today, those feelings are still the cornerstones of a Japanese Christmas.