The holidays are finally here! Gather around the Christmas tree for some Kentucky Fried Chicken and cake!
Wait a minute… KFC and cake?
That’s right, Christmas in Japan is a bit different than what you may be used to.
There are some parts that resemble a traditional Western Christmas.
And then there are the parts that make クリスマス（くりすます）— Christmas a very special time of year in Japan.
So read on and learn how Japan celebrates the holidays! Plus, grab some phrases you can use to spread holiday cheer.
Celebrate Japanese Christmas! Fun Facts and Essential Vocab for a Meri Kurisumasu
Japanese Christmas: How Is It Different from a Western Christmas?
KFC and cake aren’t the only differences. Keep these facts in mind the next time you think about the holidays in Japan!
Japanese Christmas Is a Secular Holiday
Don’t expect to be able to wear your pajamas all day if you’re in Japan for Christmas—December 25th isn’t recognized as a national holiday like it is in the United States and other parts of the world.
Instead of waking up to hot cocoa and a whole day of binge-watching movies on Netflix, people are still going to work and school as usual.
Santa Claus Looks a Little Different
No one’s leaving out milk and cookies for Old Saint Nick. It’s more common to see people dressing up for Christmas parties.
So who’s the holiday ambassador?
Well, Santa still appears on most holiday merchandise and promotional material, but a prefecture’s マスコット（ますこっと）— mascot is the one that gears up in holiday swagger and visits everyone!
KFC and Cake Are Holiday Essentials
Forget the turkey and candy canes, Japan adopted ケンタッキー（けんたっきー）— Kentucky Fried Chicken and ケーキ（けーき）— cake as the symbols of Christmas.
This crispy choice originated in 1974, when Takeshi Okawara, a KFC employee, started the slogan:
“Kentucky Fried Chicken For Christmas!”
From there, the phrase became the ho! ho! ho! of Christmas in Japan.
If fried food isn’t your thing, try something sweet. Around this time of year, Japan has got plenty of sweets to satisfy your sweet tooth!
Cakes are very common during the holidays, especially スポンジケーキ（すぽんじけーき）— Sponge cake.
Japan also has a knack for making their delicacies stand out as part of their 可愛い文化 （かわいいぶんか）— cute culture, so you can’t pass a window without seeing some mouth-watering food.
Be warned, though: many of these are actually サンプル（さんぷる）— samples or fake food meant to draw in customers.
Christmas Is Like Another Valentine’s Day
Christmas is all about love.
In addition to celebrating Valentine’s Day on February 14th, Japan also celebrates its own version of Valentine’s Day, known as ホワイトデー（ほわいとでー）— White Day on March 14th.
But when it comes to romance, Christmas takes the cake!
This is because Japan sees Christmas as the symbol of romance, as shown in this retro Japanese Christmas commercial compilation by Japanese Railway (JR) Lines.
Japanese Christmas Traditions for a Memorable Celebration
Christmas is a great time to visit Japan because of the many holiday-themed tourist attractions offered. If you find yourself celebrating Christmas in Japan, here are some activities you can get involved in:
Seeing Christmas Lights
One of the biggest draws of the holiday season in Japan is イルミネーション（いるみねーしょん）— Christmas light decorations. These dazzling lights fill many streets and corners of Japan. They’re hard to miss! One of the most recognizable decorations is Osaka Castle. It’s mesmerizing to see in person if you ever get the chance.
Tokyo Disneyland is another great example. In addition to lights, they even host parades and activities that you can enjoy. It’s not like Disneyland in the United States, which you have to plan ahead for. Tokyo Disneyland is actually very accessible and people go there regularly by train.
So tag along with a friend or even just do some sightseeing by yourself! And while you’re at it, visit some traditional sites like Japan’s many shrines and temples.
Visiting Temples and Shrines
年末詣で （ねんまつもうで）— visiting shrines and temples at the end of the year is a good custom for bringing good fortune. Around this time of year, many individuals and businesses alike are swarming Japan’s historical locales for good luck going into the New Year.
Some common practices that people do at temples include wishing for luck, blessing their homes and families and purifying bad thoughts and habits.
Because temples and shrines play a huge part in Japanese culture, visiting is also a big part of celebrating another big holiday: the New Year. (More on that later.)
Experiencing the Holidays on TV
If you’re not interested in going out (or if you’re not in Japan), stay inside and watch some TV! Japan has got plenty of holiday specials that they broadcast in the spirit of Christmas.
And if you’re inclined to snuggle up with a nice Christmas flick, try watching a classic movie with Japanese subtitles.
Another way to feel like you’re in Japanese for the holidays is to look at some of the Japanese Christmas commercials that aired in the last few years. Yeah, there’s a couple of KFC commercials in there, but watching these is still a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese!
Japanese holiday TV doesn’t end on December 25th, either. For the New Year, NHK hosts the 紅白歌合戦（こうはくうたがっせん）— Red and White Singing Competition. The colors almost remind me of Christmas but the focus is on celebrating the New Year with song. It’s worth watching online if you have access!
Listening to Japanese Christmas Music
Even though Christmas is an imported holiday, Japan has a ton of incredible Christmas music to wake up your holiday spirit. Here are some of the best and most famous Japanese Christmas songs:
Someday, A Merry Christmas by B’z, a popular rock duo.
Christmas Song by back number, a well-known power rock trio.
Merry Christmas by BoA, the “Queen of K-pop” who’s also popular in Japan.
Dear…again by Kohmi Hirose, although she’s most known for her “get down” song, Promise.
Merry Christmas by Bump of Chicken, one of Japan’s most iconic ジェイ・ロック（じぇい・ろっく）— J-rock bands.
Here’s a list of Christmas carols in Japanese if you want even more practice.
Japanese New Year: Japan’s Essential End-of-year Holiday
The way Japan celebrates お正月 (おしょうがつ）— The New Year has plenty of customs that you’ll want to know.
Unlike Christmas, the New Year is a national holiday. In fact, businesses usually close from the first of January until the third to honor the New Year. Much thought and effort goes into preparing for the home to wish for a happy New Year.
Japan follows the lunar calendar. It’s not uncommon to see decorations in the form of the New Year’s Chinese Zodiac. In Japan, one’s zodiac, similar to one’s horoscope, says much about their personality. Of course, it also ties into how lucky they’ll be in a given year.
Here are some of the basics of celebrating the Japanese New Year:
New Year’s Is a Holiday for Partying
Everyone loves throwing 忘年会（ぼうねんかい）— year-end parties, Japan included! From offices to schools, people are gathering to have fun and exchange gifts.
You may even get the chance to hit up some カラオケボックス（からおけぼっくす）— karaoke boxes! It’s a very nice experience that can involve giving and receiving gifts.
Be sure to practice with Japanese music throughout the year, so that if you find yourself in the limelight on New Year’s, you can whip out your awesome karaoke skills and wow your friends.
The First Temple or Shrine Visit of the New Year Is Special
Many New Year’s traditions are intended to welcome good fortune for the New Year. One of those traditions is 初詣（はつもうで）— the first visit of the year to a shrine or temple.
This custom usually involves tons of people gathered around to celebrate the year ending and a new beginning.
There’s No Naughty or Nice: It’s About Being Lucky!
Superstition has deep roots in Japanese culture, so be on the lookout for auspicious signs.
You know the typical image of a cat with its paw going up and down? That’s a 招き猫（まねきねこ）— beckoning cat. Many businesses use this for good fortune.
People also keep a book to record which temples and shrines they’ve been to. This little book is known as a 御朱印帳（ごしゅいんちょう）— a booklet with letters bearing the scarlet shogun seal. Most aren’t very expensive can run up to ￥2500 (the equivalent of roughly $25.00). These are usually available for purchase at any shrine or temple.
If you ever find yourself in Japan, especially around this time of year, look into purchasing one for the memories.
On New Year’s Eve, temples also ring the bell 108 times. This is known as 除夜の鐘（じょやのかね) — the New Year’s Eve bell. Monks ring it to purify bad spirits and prepare for a good year.
People Cherish the Custom of Exchanging New Year’s Cards
年賀状 （ねんがじょう）— Japanese New Year’s Cards are a special way to practice writing Japanese. Brush up on writing kanji by writing thoughtful cards to your friends.
There are a variety of phrases to use for writing New Year’s cards. A good thing to note is that the Japanese postal system works a little differently from the U.S. one. If you want to send out a card, this visual guide is extremely helpful.
I’ve sent many postcards to my host family in Japan, and they always appreciate the effort I put into writing out the kanji! If you’re in Japan, consider getting a 判子（はんこ）or 印鑑（いんかん）— seal stamp. You can get one custom made in your name for a small price. I always sign my 年賀状 with my stamp and it makes me feel so official!
Yummy Japanese Foods Help Mark the New Year
Who doesn’t love Japanese food? You’ll want to get acquainted with some of the words for delicious food in Japan if you ever plan to go.
If you’re in Japan during the holidays, you’re in for a special treat in the form of お節料理（おせちりょうり）— traditional Japanese New Year’s dishes.
This collection of traditional Japanese food can be purchased at department stores but many families take the time out to prepare these wonderful meals:
- 大根（だいこん）— pickled radishes, 海老（えび）— shrimp and other ingredients are beautifully arranged in 弁当（べんとう）— lunch boxes. These are more savory than sweet, and they’re a delicious way to celebrate the New Year. Eating these will bring you good luck!
- One of the most common meals is the 年越しそば（としこしそば）— New Year’s buckwheat noodles. There are different recipes and variations for preparing the noodles. They usually include tempura flakes or 蒲鉾（かまぼこ）— fish paste.
The main purpose of having noodles at the end of the year is to bring good luck. While you can get them a from a restaurant or noodle shop, eating them with friends and family tastes even better.
And, of course, you can’t miss out on 和菓子（わがし）— traditional Japanese sweets. These sweets are an aesthetic delicacy! They not only look great but they also taste amazing:
- 餅（もち）— Japanese sticky rice balls are made by repeatedly beating rice. This delicacy is known for its neutral and nutty taste. You don’t have to make mochi, which can take a lot of preparation to make properly. There are plenty of stores where you can buy mochi that’s already been prepared and decorated for you.
- 乾菓子（ひがし）— Japanese dry sweets are also good luck charms commonly eaten at the end of the year. They come in many different colors and packages.
There are many more types of Japanese sweets! I’ve used this very well-organized recipe website on numerous occasions to make Japanese food that I missed after my study abroad ended. I highly recommend it to those who want to bring traditional Japanese meals to their kitchen!
Holly Jolly Japanese Holiday Phrases You Should Know
If you’re going to spend the holidays in Japan, you’ll want to know how to spread some holiday cheer in Japanese! Here are some essential phrases to get you started:
Greetings and Well Wishes
Here are some common Japanese phrases you can use to wish others a Merry Christmas:
A shortened way to say: Merry Christmas!
Have a Merry Christmas!
This phrase is French for Merry Christmas. Japanese is full of 外来語（がいらいご）— loan words from other languages. You may see this one on signs and promotional materials around the holidays.
For New Year’s, you might use these phrases instead:
Happy New Year!
You can add ございます to this phrase depending on the person you’re talking to in order to express politeness.
A shorter, more informal way to say: Happy New Year!
A shortened way to say: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Lit. Please treat me well this year too!
Humbly wishing you a Happy New Year.
This is a pretty polite way to speak and will probably be seen written instead of spoken.
For more general well-wishing, you can use:
Happy Holidays! (This is another loan word from English.)
Enjoy the holidays! (This has a similar meaning to “Happy Holidays!” above, but uses Japanese rather than the English loan word.
You’ll see New Year’s wishes written as:
Lit., “Spring Begins”
Why do the Japanese mention spring so much? Spring is known as the time when 桜（さくら）— cherry blossoms are in bloom. This represents a new beginning.
Until 節分（せつぶん）— the coming of spring, people often prepare for turning over a new leaf. It’s not unlike New Year’s resolutions in other parts of the world.
Essential Phrases for Shopping
What are the holidays without 買い物（かいもの）— Shopping?
お土産 —（おみやげ）— Souvenirs are flying off the shelves around this time of year, and department stores are always busy.
Here are some phrases you can use when trying to purchase something:
How much is this?
Can I pay with a credit card?
Do you recommend any gifts for XX?
(You can replace the circles with 彼女 —（かのじょ）girlfriend, 彼氏 —（かれし）boyfriend, 家族 —（かぞく）family, 友達 —（ともだち), etc.)
Do you have this in a different color?
Do you have this in another size?
Or, if you need to return something, use:
I have a receipt.
Can I have a refund?
Can I exchange this item?
This product is damaged (has damages).
This product is broken.
This is the wrong size.
There’s a stain here.
Phrases for Giving and Receiving Gifts
Christmas is a wonderful time to show gratitude for those you’ve built relationships with throughout the year.
Saying thanks doesn’t have to be limited to ありがとうございます— thank you!
Why not learn some phrases related to giving and receiving 贈り物（おくりもの）— gifts?
It might be a good idea to go over some basic 敬語（けいご）— polite language too! Here are some phrases you can use:
I thought you might like this so…
This isn’t much but…
I hope you like it…
In the spirit of Christmas (here’s a gift for you).
Please accept this small token of gratitude.
Words of Love and Affection
Again, Christmas is the perfect time for expressing affection. If you want to get sweet on that special someone, you might as well do it in Japanese!
Just being here with you makes Christmas fun!
I want to be with you always!
Whether we’re together or apart, I’m always thinking of you.
Our love is the perfect Christmas present.
There’s no gift greater than love.
And if you’ll be going out a lot, maybe Santa can give you enough confidence to ask someone out!
Take some time this December to explore some of these Japanese holiday traditions. It’s a great way to learn more about Japanese culture and spread holiday cheer at the same time.
And wherever you plan to be for the holidays, you can make learning Japanese a part of it. Remember, Santa is a polyglot and he knows if you’ve been slacking on your language studies!