Christmas in Japan is an interesting blend of American tradition with a Japanese marketing spin on them. Originally introduced to Japan by Christian missionaries, Christmas never caught on as a religious holiday (only 1% of the population self identifies as Christian). But after WWII, the Christmas tradition came to represent a sparkly commercial version of American prosperity.
The Power of Christmas Marketing in Japan
The juxtaposition of Christmas right before New Years, a major Japanese holiday, facilitated the ease with which Japan adopted Christmas in its own way — a fun, light-spirited, romantic season, full of fantasy and excitement. In typical fashion, Japan has made Christmas its own tradition with a very visible theme — shopping and dining.
Winter is one of the biggest sales seasons in Japan and Christmas sales work well as a marketing vehicle for shops to clear their seasonal inventory. Over the last decade, the Christmas marketing fever has really taken off.
How did we get here? Let’s walk through a tale of Japanese Christmas past to review one of the craftiest marketing campaigns in Japanese Christmas history — Kentucky for Christmas.
The Tale of Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (Kentucky for Christmas)
Once upon a time, in 1970, the manager of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan, Okawara, awoke from a dream at midnight with a brilliant Christmas marketing idea. Having overheard a couple of foreigners talking about how they missed turkey at Christmas, Okawara dreamt about offering a special fried chicken “party bucket” exclusively at Christmas. By 1974, the campaign had gone national, solidifying a new Japanese Christmas tradition, and Okawara’s career. Today, the tradition is so popular that families in Japan have to pre-order Kentucky Family Christmas packages in November to be picked up at Christmas.
The Tale of Kurisumasu Keeki (Christmas Cake)
Even older than KFC for Christmas is the traditional Japanese Christmas cake. Hailing from the post-WWII era, the round white sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries is an ingrained Christmas tradition in Japan. The Christmas Cake represented an American-style Christmas in a struggling post-war era in Japan where Christmas was the most tangible symbol of American prosperity. Families would get together and share a Christmas Cake on Christmas much like Americans had Christmas dinner. Today, you can find all kinds of cakes promoted in bakeries everywhere around Christmas time.
Christmas markets in Japan grow yearly
There has been a boom in Christmas markets over the last decade with traditional European themes and brilliant illuminations near healthy shopping areas. Traditional Christmas fairs, crafts, and live events draw holiday revelers and shoppers alike.
Here are some of the more popular Tokyo Christmas markets to be held this year:
Roppongi Hills: Tokyo’s oldest Christmas market in Roppongi Hills was designed to recreate the largest Christmas market in the world in Stuttgart, Germany. Over 700k LED lights make up the stunning Keyakizaka Street illuminations.
Tokyo Christmas Market: Held in Shiba Park this year, Tokyo Christmas Market sports a 14-meter tall Christmas pyramid allegedly imported from Dresden City, Germany.
Yebisu Garden Place: Over 100k LED lights decorate a 10-meter tall Christmas tree illuminating a French-themed Christmas Marché. It’s monstrous “Baccarat Eternal Lights” chandelier and ice skating rink are a big romantic draw for couples.
Tokyo Skytree: Skytree will present over 500k lights and special Christmas displays over its Christmas market.
Christmas Illuminations at major stations and shopping areas
Illuminations spring up all over Japan during Christmas. In Tokyo, you can find them near major stations and shopping areas.
Marunouchi, in front of Tokyo station, is sporting 1 million LED lights. Shinjuku Lumine and Terrace City illuminations are woven between shopping and dining areas. Harajuku’s Omotesando shopping street also joins with 90k gold LED lights thread among the trees lining the street. Along the Meguro River, 420k pink LED lights are hung on the Sakura trees between Gotanda and Osaki.
These especially appeal to couples, as Christmas in Japan is thought of as a romantic holiday for lovers more than a family holiday like in the West.
Christmas in Japan is a marketers’ dream
While Christmas shopping and gift buying isn’t as ubiquitous in Japan as it is in the West, what started as something fun for children and a present exchange for couples is swiftly becoming a new norm. As Christmas commercialism reaches new levels annually, many Japanese are now buying Christmas presents for family and friends each year.
Blended with the traditional Bonenkai (end of year drinking parties) period, Christmas in Japan is a festive build-up to the New Year. Friends get together to shop, drink, eat, and party. Couples date on Christmas Eve, considered one of the most romantic times of the year. And children wait for Santa to bring gifts. While Santa may not necessarily come down the chimney (of which there are few in Japan) he is considered a type of happy magical ghost that appears with gifts and treats.
This giving aspect of Christmas, while transformed in perfect Japanese fashion, has not merely survived Japan’s appropriation of the Christmas spirit, but thrived. And, in keeping with Japanese style, Christmas in Japan tries to outdo itself every year. Christmas season in Japan will continue to be an inviting opportunity for creative marketing.
When it’s Christmas in Japan, anything that heightens the perceived Christmas spirit counts.