Though Christmas has only become widely popular in Japan in recent decades, its roots go back several centuries. It was first introduced by Catholic missionaries in the mid 1500s. Beginning with the expulsion of missionaries in 1587, however, Christianity was banned throughout Japan during the Edo period and the public practice of Christmas ceased.
For the next 250 years small groups known as Kakure Kirishitan, hidden Christians, continued to meet underground. Persecution was severe and any who were detected during that time were executed for their faith.
Christianity and Christmas reemerged at the beginning of the Meiji period which lasted from 1868 to 1912. By the turn of the century, Japan had become a leading manufacturer and exporter of Christmas ornaments. It was through this industry that the average Japanese gradually became exposed to the western concept of Christmas. Though I wasn’t aware of the fact until now, chances are that many of my Christmas ornaments back home in Canada were made in Japan.
Christmas in Japan is very much a commercial endeavor. In the 1930s, stores began to popularize the celebration by having special sales and, as at home, Christmas decorations appear immediately after Halloween. During World War II, the use of English loan words was prohibited so, for a time, Christmas became known as seitansai, which literally means “holy birth festival” but once the ban was lifted, the term Christmas regained popularity.
Not a national holiday in Japan, Christmas is celebrated as a purely secular event. Adult students often tell us that they like Christmas but they always hasten to add “but we’re not Christian”. When I asked one class why they celebrate the birth of a god if they don’t believe in him, they told me that it’s because Japanese people love festivals and decorating. How true that is!
Though many Japanese do enjoy celebrating Christmas, it is vastly overshadowed by New Years which has much greater significance here. If Christmas fell at some other time of year, it might have become much bigger than it is. Devoted mainly to children, Christmas often involves decorating, gift giving and a special meal. Turkey is not usually eaten. Instead, chicken tends to be the meat of choice. In fact, many order a special meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken! I’ll bet that’s a Christmas tradition that wouldn’t go over very well in most North American homes! Japanese Christmas cake is also very different from ours. Unlike our heavy fruit cakes, it’s a delicious sponge cake with whipped cream filling and topped with fresh strawberries. Definitely delicious!