Hugo in Florida wondered: “In the US, we hear that Christmas is celebrated in Japan widely, but more as a commercialized holiday. What have you observed and how are the celebrations actually made in Tokyo as a whole?”
I would hesitate to say that Christmas is really a “celebration” in Japan. More than a commercialized holiday, it’s holiday-themed commercialism. Like in the US, Christmas motifs are used for store decorations and advertising campaigns, but in Japan the displays lack any deeper significance. Some people are very cynical about the commercialization of American Christmas, but in addition to increasing profitability, the hubbub also adds excitement to an event that’s already full of meaning for us. We would still celebrate Christmas even if all the commercial aspects suddenly disappeared; in Japan, that would never happen because the outward show is all there is.
Additionally, with the exception of the small native Christian population (less than 1%), I am pretty sure most people think the Christmas story is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Japanese people are mostly non-religious, but Japanese culture is very syncretic when it comes to religious celebrations. Blessings at a Shinto shrine as a baby, marriage in a Christian(ish) ceremony, then Buddhist funeral rites can perhaps be considered a traditional lifecycle in Japan. Because of this, I actually really enjoyed teaching Christmas at public schools. The administration was open to teaching the religious aspects of the holiday, and there were no worries about offending anyone because no one believes anything anyway.
When Japanese people do celebrate Christmas, most do so with the conviction that they are following traditional Western holiday customs. They are sincerely surprised to learn the following:
Christmas dinner doesn’t include a trip to KFC.
Kentucky Fried Chicken was the first American fast food chain in Japan and therefore introduced the country to Christmas as it is commercially celebrated for the mass market. This was also possibly Japan’s first encounter with Santa Claus, in the form of Colonel Sanders statues dressed up like the jolly old elf. In the days just before Christmas, lines of people waiting to order their “Christmas Packs” wind around every branch of the restaurant.
Christmas is a day for family on December 25th, not a date night on the 24th.
Japanese people actually celebrate Christmas Eve, not Christmas, and it’s an evening specifically for people in love, not just any old loved ones. Significant others rendezvous to exchange sentimental gifts and make out. So Christmas is more like Valentine’s Day, although I’m not really sure how fried chicken is romantic.
No American has ever heard of a “Christmas cake”.
All good Americans know that cakes are for birthdays (except Jesus’s). The Christmas cake is one of the highlights the holiday for Japanese Children though, especially since gift-giving is usually limited to those with romantic attachments.
Additionally, many trendy areas in Japan have special Christmas light displays called “Illuminations”. Here are photos and a video of the Illumination at Roppongi Midtown by my house.