In keeping with the holiday season, this time we want to delve into the role of religion in Japan and explain whether and how Christmas is celebrated in Japan.
Religion in Japan
Christianity is not a major religion in Japan”, so most holidays and rituals are connected to Japanese religions such Zen-Buddhism and the Shinto religion, which is overwhelmingly practiced in Japan.
Shinto, which can be translated as “the way of the gods/spirits”, is an ancient animistic religion that posits that mountains, rivers and other places are all inhabited by their own spirits, i.e., a deity with greater or lesser power.
Like Buddhism, Shinto is not a monotheistic religion but has a complex hierarchy of deities. Since these deities, or Kami in Japanese, can positively and negatively influence one’s own life, rituals must be observed in order to appease them.
Religion in daily life
However, many Japanese are very pragmatic when it comes to religion and sometimes follow customs from other religions too, especially if these rituals are associated with a practical benefit (like the promise of good luck or happiness). Before a university exam, for example, you will often pray at a Shinto shrine in hopes of securing divine support. For other aims, you might go to a Buddhist temple.
Many Japanese would say that they are not religious. However, if you ask more closely, it turns out that almost all Japanese come to pray at a Shinto shrine on January 1st.
Since this New Year’s ritual serves to ensure the blessings for the new year, one might assume the following point of view:
“I’ve been following these customs since I was a child. Who knows if there really are gods, but to be on the safe side I will of course continue to participate in these beloved traditions…”.
Rituals like this play a very large role in everyday Japanese life and are usually followed without much questioning.
Christmas time in Japan
Christmas is also celebrated in Japan, although the percentage of Japanese Christian among the total population is only around 1% as most Japanese are Shintoists and Buddhists. In Japan, however, it is not a decidedly religious festival, but a seasonal occasion during many shops are adorned with Santa Claus imagery as well as Christmas trees and stars.
For all non-Christian Japanese, Christmas Eve does not bear importance in the sense that was the birth of Jesus. Therefore, December 25th is not a holiday either but instead completely different traditions have developed.
Here is one example, the Japanese associate Christmas with things like a romantic dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
Many families, but also couples, flock to the KFC branches during this time to order out, recently lots of Christmas-themed meals with sparkling wine and chocolate tarts.
In Japan, Kentucky Fried Chicken makes about 1/3 of annual sales around Christmas Eve.
The reason for this, to a Westerner’s view possibly unusual tradition, is an advertising campaign from the 1970s with the slogan “KFC at Christmas!”.
Christmas wasn’t particularly celebrated before, but this slogan caught the Japanese imagination like wildfire and thus the connection between fried chicken and the happy holiday was forged in the Japanese public consciousness.
To this day, in Winter there is a lot of TV advertising for KFC with a Christmas theme.
Due to its popularity, you might have to reserve a table a few weeks in advance or face long queues if you want to eat at KFC with your loved ones.
What about gifts?
At the end of the year, smaller gifts and beautifully designed cards are offered to colleagues or the teachers of one’s children to thank them for the help over the past year. However, this is owed less due to Christmas in the Christian sense than more to a strong Japanese obligation to maintain interpersonal relationships.
One more thing…
Of course, all cultures borrow from other religions.
A Japanese expatriate that attended a JCO session recently remarked that she was a bit shocked when a local hardware store offered small Buddha statues for the garden, probably as an alternative to the garden gnome. These lay spread out in a big heap and bore with a neon-colored price tag stating “Special offer! Now only € 5.95 ”.
It goes to show how traditions of faith can be viewed with different outcomes under different cultural lenses.