First things first, is there even such a thing as Christmas in Japan?
Well, Santa also comes to Japan (kind of).
But if by “Christmas” you mean the whole family gathered around the tree, hanging gold and red decorations while drinking eggnog, cheesy romances on TV all day long and present shopping schedule spread all over December, then I’m sorry to tell you that, no, there’s nothing close to that in Japan for Christmas.
Truth is, the Christmas holiday here looks a bit more like Japanese New Year’s celebrations, when people go back to their hometowns, families get together, everyone cooks delicious seasonal food together and eats おせち料理 (おせちりょうり – specially prepared New Year’s food) together. Small kids receive small amounts of money in cute envelopes.
No big surprise here though, Christmas is Christian, and if you know Japan even just a tiny bit, you already know that there’s no deep Christian heritage, but only a fairly sporadic and recent connection between the country and this religion.
For the Japanese, Christmas is also a bit like Valentine’s Day, and couples often go on dates on Christmas Eve. The most surprising part of experiencing Christmas in Japan is probably the fact that all the decorations—Christmas trees in malls, Christmas decoration corners in supermarkets, special lighting setups in public places, etc.—literally disappear overnight between December 24th and 25th.
You wake up on the morning of Christmas and…yikes!
This little culture shock aside, Christmas in Japan is quite beautiful.
9 Christmas Carols in Japanese for Singing, Celebrating and Learning!
Music is a good alternative to traditional learning, and karaoke can be a major source of inspiration for all Japanese learners.
Even if film and literature remain foolproof methods, traditional songs are unexpected and fun ways to enlarge your vocabulary, practice your speaking ability, and last but not least, deepen your cultural bond with Japan.
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“きよしこの夜” (きよし この よる – Silent Night)
Although the religious dimension of this song may actually not seem obvious to many Japanese, it definitely is a classic there as well.
For Japanese learners, these lyrics are a great occasion to understand traditional sentence breakdowns.
Let’s have a look at the third strophe, for example:
恵みの みよの 明日の光
きよし この よる みこの えみに
めぐみの みよの あしたの ひかり
Silent night, holy night
Son of God love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth
Rejoice! This is a prime illustration of typical Japanese syntax. Not only is that helpful to build you own sentences, it also shows very clearly where to naturally pause when reading or speaking. Yep, I’d bet you’ve heard your Japanese teachers tell you that particles are key.
“ジングルベル” (じんぐる べる – Jingle Bells)
Above is the traditional version that all Japanese children grow up hearing and singing at Christmastime.
Below is another, slightly kookier version that I think is worth a watch.
How classic is “Jingle Bells”?
It’s as much a classic in Japan as it is anywhere else where Christmas is celebrated.
Well, the language in the Japanese is utterly classic too, which means that singing this Christmas carol will help you catching a more natural flow when speaking (even if what you say later does not involve any bright spirit or sleighing).
The good news is that karaoke can take you one step closer to sounding like a native speaker.
“おめでとうクリスマス” (おめでとう くりすます – We Wish You a Merry Christmas)
Vocabulary isn’t exactly the strong point of this one—it’s all pretty simple and straightforward—but it gives the perfect illustration of the grammar pattern “Verb+ように〜しましょう,” which is used to express an objective and the corresponding action.
to bring happiness.
Practice with this song, and keep this structure somewhere in your head!
“クリスマスの１２日” (くりすますの じゅうににち – The Twelve Days of Christmas)
Counter words are one of the most annoying things Japanese grammar brings to all Indo-European language native speakers.
The mere idea that you have to add some small word between a figure and what you’re counting, paired with the fact that there’s a long list of those depending on the nature of the things (and concepts, and days, and people, and…) you’re counting frequently makes this point somewhat frustrating.
After listening to this song, you’ll know how to count people, days, and birds too.
“サンタが町にやって来る” (さんたが まちに やってくる – Santa Claus Is Coming to Town)
Two things to remember from those lyrics.
さあ。This interjection is often translated in English by “here we go”, which illustrates its conclusive nature.
On the other hand, ねえ used at the beginning of a sentence, is a very common interjection, as you can see in “Santa’s coming to town”.
Be careful, when you combine these two (さあね or さあねえ), the meaning changes to express hesitation or helplessness, something that would be closer to “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.”
The next part of our Japanese Christmas carol collection features traditional (and some not-so-traditional) selections popular within Japan.
“あわてんぼうサンタクロース” (あわてんぼう さんたくろーす – Santa Claus Is in a Hurry)
Apart from being one of the most cheerful Christmas songs ever, “あわてんぼうサンタクロース” also happens to be a priceless source for onomatopoeia and an excellent illustration of how to use them.
One example is with りんりんりん. The answer is given in the lyrics, since this strophe mentions bells. りんりんりん…can you hear the bells, now?
What’s interesting here is that it shows that onomatopoeia are not used only by themselves, the way you’d use “ding ding” in English.
In Japanese, they’re often combined with the corresponding verb to reinforce its meaning. This also means that in many cases, it’s easier to understand their meaning, precisely because they’re used in conjunction with a verb that you may know, or at least that will show in the dictionary when you search it.
“クリスマス・イブ” (くりすます・いぶ – Christmas Eve)
This isn’t just any Christmas Eve carol, this is 山下達郎の”クリスマス・イブ” (やました たつろう の”くりすます・いぶ”) or Yamashita Tatsurou’s “Christmas Eve.”
For any true fan of modern Japanese music, the importance of this distinction is self-evident.
For everyone else, huge classic alert! This particular version of this song has been endlessly remixed, covered, rearranged and sung by countless other singers and bands as a tribute since it was released in 1983.
Play the first notes to any native Japanese speaker above the age of twenty-five, and they’ll deep dive into nostalgia. If you’re lucky, they may even start singing along.
This selection is great for singing along and improving your fluency with some relatively easy-to-learn lyrics. It features mostly simple sentence structures and a not-so-broad range of vocabulary, allowing you to focus on enjoying singing along and boosting your Christmas cheer.
However, this is a genuine cultural landmark for several generations of Japanese, which is always worth adding to your fundamental knowledge in terms of civilization (easier to remember than the imperial calendar breakdown, right?).
“いつかのメリークリスマス” (いつかの めりー くりすます – One Christmas)
I can’t resist romance shows during Christmas time, and I bet I’m not the only one. This song is the same as those love story series, only turned into Christmas-themed music (sigh).
Besides being heart-soothing, it features examples of the following Japanese grammar patterns:
- Nominalization — “君がいなくなること” (きみが いなくなる こと – losing you)
- Simultaneous actions — “灯を見ながら” (あかりを みながら – watching the light)
- “Verb+と” conditional — “プレゼントを見せると” (ぷれぜんとを みせると – when I showed you your present)
- Appearance expressed with 〜そう — “幸せそう” (しあわせそう – looks happy)
- …and so many other basic yet crucial grammatical points!
If you master each of the grammar patterns by singing this song, then you’ll be able to express plenty of emotions and actions.
“メリクリ” (めりくり – Merry Christmas)
If you don’t know BoA yet, you need to fix that ASAP, because this Korean pop singer has been famous in Japan since the beginning of the 2000’s.
Most Japanese people older than her or around her age (namely in their late twenties and above) know the chorus of this classic carol by heart, and are likely to get fairly emotional when it starts playing.
From a linguistic point of view, the best part of this song is that she actually sings long (therefore complex) sentences compared to most pop music hits where it is generally very simple (not to say simplistic).
Take this line for instance: “どこかで辛いことや淋しさにぶつかっても、君想うこの気持ちに正直でいると誓うよ。” (どこかで つらいことや さびしさに ぶつかっても、きみ おもう この きもちに しょうじきで いると ちかうよ。)
Translation: Even if painful things and lonely things collide somewhere, I swear that I’ll be honest about the feelings I feel for you.
If you’re anywhere between intermediate and advanced, it would be a good exercise to give it a try and translate the whole song.
The titles above are merely a few ideas among thousands of other possibilities, but represent a good starting point.
Who knows, it may also be your first step into the powerful world of Japanese song lyrics!
Graduate in media and language studies, Raphaëlle lived three years in Japan and is now back in France where she’s been teaching Japanese and English at undergrad and graduate levels for five years. Also a fashion addict and fitness enthusiast, she’s currently learning her sixth language. Get to know her on Twitter: @matchalattewdrb
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