How Christmas in Japan is Celebrated: Unique Traditions & American Imports

There are two things you’ll see at Christmas in Japan that might make you do a double-take: Colonel Sanders as Santa and gorgeous cakes at convenience stores. This post discusses unique traditions started by KFC, 7-Eleven and Disney, and shares our experiences spending the holiday season in Kyoto and Tokyo.

Let’s start with how Christmas is celebrated in Japan, which differs from the United States and Europe since only around 1% of the population in Japan is Christian. Of course, Christmas has become as much of a commercial and symbolic holiday in the West as it has a religious one. Over the course of the last several decades, the Japanese–and American brands operating in Japan–have imported the non-religious components and infused them with a flavor all their own to form new traditions.

As more of a festive and commercial holiday, decorations including Christmas trees, ornaments, and lights are put up throughout the country and families go shopping before Christmas much like in the United States. You’ll see stores and shopping districts get into the spirit, with gorgeous displays.

In Japan, the main event is December 24 instead of December 25. Christmas Eve is often celebrated more than Christmas Day, with . Christmas Eve being thought of as a romantic day for couples and lovers–resembling Valentine’s Day in many ways. Young couples like to go for walks to look at the Christmas lights and have a romantic meal in a restaurant. If you don’t have a date on Christmas Eve, you may not want to be out in public, as Japanese couples–especially younger ones–are out and about and the air is imbued with romance.

The Japanese celebrate the Christmas season in general by holding informal Christmas parties. Fried chicken is the go to meat for most people. It’s usually accompanied by Christmas cake, which is traditionally a round sponge cake beautifully decorated for Christmas. The Christmas cake or “kurisumasu keki” is sold practically everywhere. This dessert is light and spongy with whipped cream filling and frosting, topped with red strawberries or other fruit.

While available elsewhere, what struck us the first time we spent Christmas in Japan is that these cakes are available for advance order from the country’s top three convenience store chains – Lawson, Family Mart, and 7-Eleven – and the ones sold there are absolutely gorgeous. Starting a couple months in advance, you’ll spot window advertisements (often with idol groups or other celebrities) for the Christmas cakes and in-store fliers for the various cake options.

As mentioned above, this is traditionally a light sponge cake topped with whipped cream and topped with strawberries. Strong emphasis on traditionally. During our years visiting Japan, we’ve witnessed a wider and wider variety of options being offered, and you can now preorder practically anything you can imagine–from a Yule Log to ice cream cakes to a variety cake (each slice is a different style of cake) to a cake shaped like Santa Snoopy.

Here’s the official site for 7-Eleven x SEVENTEEN – Special Smile Christmas for 2023 that showcases both the advertising campaign and the various cakes available along with prices. It’s in Japanese, but it’s almost entirely visual–we’d recommend taking a look!

Even before the cakes on that 7-Eleven page, you’ll notice a variety of fried chicken being sold for pre-order. As mentioned above, this is the other cornerstone of Christmas meals in Japan. When discussing Japanese holiday traditions, KFC inevitably comes up. The origins of Kentucky for Christmas is disputed, and the stuff of legend. One thing that’s agreed upon is that its genesis was clever marketing.

The unofficial history of this is that it began with Takeshi Okawara, manager of Japan’s first KFC. The man who brought Colonel Sanders to Japan says the now-beloved tradition began with a lie. His story has varied a bit over the years, but the ‘fun’ version is that Okawara was hired to dress as Santa-san and handed out fried chicken for kindergarten Christmas parties. In so doing, he danced around and made up songs about Kentucky Christmas and fried chicken.

Western Christmas had already gained traction in the late 1960s when Japanese people began enjoying Christmas as a seasonal event, hosting parties at home after local confectionery companies started promoting the aforementioned sponge cakes and sweets for Christmas. At first, the celebrations were just for entertaining kids; cities did more to celebrate with theater shows and displays. This increased with each passing year as Western pop culture introduced more Christmas traditions to Japan.

One thing missing from the equation was food. Okawara promoted fried chicken as a substitute for traditional Christmas turkey, which thanks to Hollywood, the Japanese knew was eaten for Christmas in the United States. Selling chicken and sides together in Christmas-themed “Party Barrels” and decorating his store’s Colonel Sanders statue as Santa-san brought in tons of customers and saved his store.

Word got out about the Kentucky for Christmas “Party Barrels” and broadcaster NHK interviewed Okawara and asked if KFC for Christmas was a common custom in the United States. He said yes. “I still regret that, but people liked it because it was something good from the U.S. or European countries,” he told Business Insider.

KFC Japan says that Okawara’s story isn’t quite accurate. According to company, it started 4 years after KFC came to Japan. In 1974, they launched the first KFC Christmas campaign, selling a bucket of the famous fried chicken along with a bottle of wine and suggesting it be used for a Christmas party that wasn’t just for kids, but also adults.

In this telling, the idea came when a foreign customer who visited KFC in Tokyo on Christmas and lamented that he could get turkey in Japan, so he had to “celebrate Christmas with Kentucky Fried Chicken.” This remark was used as inspiration to launch the first Christmas campaign and its tagline: Kentucky for Christmas.

Regardless of which version is accurate–or if there’s a bit of truth to both–the nationwide Kentucky for Christmas marketing campaign was a smash success. KFC for Christmas quickly became a tradition across Japan that lives on to this day.

Since its original launch, KFC Japan’s Christmas campaign has continued to evolve over the years to include Colonel Sanders statues dressed in Santa attire outside restaurants across the country and Christmas-exclusive menu items like a premium roast chicken and chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms.

KFC Japan starts advertising and taking preorders and reservations for its holiday specials as early as late October to get the country excited for the upcoming Christmas season. The famous party bucket also changes each year, featuring different side options, a new festive bucket design and comes with a commemorative plate inside.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are when KFC Japan sees their highest sales of the entire year, with December 24 being the busiest day of the year – ten times busier than KFC Japan’s annual average. Those who don’t preorder their party buckets weeks or months in advance will encounter lengthy lines to score an order. Every Christmas, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families get their holiday meal from KFC. Judging by the ubiquity of fried chicken sold at convenience stores and virtually everywhere else, tens of millions more are eating fried chicken elsewhere.

Here’s the official site for Kentucky Christmas 2023. This site is also in Japanese, but again, it’s entirely visual. It’ll give you an idea not just of the fried chicken buckets on offer, but also the sides, desserts, and ‘premium series’ (some of which looks similar to what Western households eat for the holidays).

Bringing all of these Japanese Christmas traditions together and adding even more Americanized and distinctly Disney flair are Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. Being huge Disney fans and former Tokyo Disney Resort Annual Passholders, we’ve spent a ton of time in both parks during the Christmas season.

The thing that struck us the most our first time visiting Tokyo Disneyland at Christmas was the popularity of the date nights. Everything else was fairly familiar–decorations, character, costumes, seasonal entertainment, and attraction overlays all happen at Disneyland in California, too. What doesn’t happen is guests getting dressed up in classy outfits–often punctuated by a novelty Disney character hat. (Nothing quite like seeing a guest in a sport coat or gorgeous dress, wearing a plush Toy Story alien on their head.)

Both parks are incredibly popular during the holiday season, but this dynamic is even more noticeable at Tokyo DisneySea. Since it first opened, Tokyo DisneySea has been marketed in Japan as the more mature foil to Tokyo Disneyland, aimed at adults and the older population. This is evident in some of the beautiful marketing the park has used over the years in Japan.

We’ve partaken ourselves, doing a romantic dinner at Magellan’s (the best restaurant in a park with great restaurants), followed by a dusk ride on the Venetian Gondolas, catching the Broadway stage show, Big Band Beat, and a romantic nighttime stroll from the Arabian Coast through Cape Cod, the American Waterfront, and Mediterranean Harbor. It just oozes Christmas spirit.

In addition to the holi-date component, you’ll also find traditional foods–chicken and cake–through Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea. The always-popular chicken food carts are even busier in November and December. The Alice in Wonderland-themed Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall sells a gigantic ‘unbirthday cake’ in the style of a Christmas cake.

As mentioned above, there’s also the entertainment. This has changed considerably since 2019–the last “normal” year at Tokyo Disney Resort. Typically, there are attraction overlays (Haunted Mansion Holiday and others), a parade, stage shows, and more. For this Christmas, only a portion of that is happening–but we expect a return to normal for Christmas 2024. Our posts about Christmas at Tokyo Disneyland and Christmas at Tokyo DisneySea showcase what that looks like.

It’s a similar story with Christmas at Universal Studios Japan, which each year breaks its own record for “the World’s Most Illuminated Tree” — a crown it earned from the Guinness Book of World Records. Universal Studios Japan also decorates its Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Super Nintendo World, among other lands of the park, for Christmas.

Tokyo Disneyland isn’t the only place that does lavish decorations for Christmas. Throughout Japan, you’ll find brilliant illuminations! Shopping malls, restaurants, public parks, and even major streets have incredible light displays that really add to the festive atmosphere.

Technically, many of these are not for Christmas, but rather, for winter. Some of them start in November and continue through February. Many don’t reference Christmas at all, and keep the imagery more broad–snowflakes, critters, presents, etc–rather than Santa Claus and Christmas trees.

We’ve done dozens of these illuminations, with our favorite by far being the Kobe Luminarie, Japan’s Wonderful Winter Illumination. As with so many others, that isn’t technically a Christmas light display (and will be shown in January 2024, so the timing no longer matches up, either), but the Italian archways and prior proximity to the holiday in December imbued the display with Christmas spirit.

There are, of course, countless illuminations in Tokyo and other major metros. We’ve spent most of our time in Japan at Christmas there and in Kyoto, where there are also numerous illuminations in November and December. Most of those are centered around fall colors at temples, but increasingly, they’re happening at gardens and don’t center around autumn foliage. Instead, there are projection mapping and other lighting effects.

For us, “home” during Christmas in Japan is Kyoto. A few of our month-plus stays in the city have been around Christmas, and we’ve developed our own holiday traditions in Kyoto.

None of these are anything worth mentioning from a planning perspective, that is, unless you want to watch a high school a capella competition or art fair or visit Kobo-san Market (you shouldn’t–while memorable for us, it’s definitely not the best way to spend limited time in a city with so much to do).

Most of our best Christmas-specific memories in Kyoto are simply being there. Sitting on the steps of Kyoto Station watching a concert–or standing in the empty concert area and watching the stairs. Walking down Shijo and Kawaramachi streets to enjoy the lights and decorations. Wandering the big downtown department stores like Takashiyama and Daimaru to see their displays and hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers.

By the time the heart of Christmas season rolls around, most of the temple illuminations that began for fall colors season are over. However, there’s also Hanatoro in Arashiyama. This illumination is not Christmas per se, but it’s festive and well-timed.

Our first time spending Christmas in Kyoto, we were dead-set on buying a tree to make our extended stay flat feel like home. After considerable time spent looking, we finally found a small tree at a store near Kyoto Station. We decked it out with Country Bear Jamboree plushes we had purchased from Tokyo Disneyland and added a string of battery operated lights.

To this day, I can still look at that photo and be instantly transported back to that very cold December in our poorly-insulated apartment with an underpowered heater. We had to purchase heavy sweatshirts and pants for sleeping, but we wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. Our late night walks at Fushimi Inari followed by stops at the nearby Lawson for individually-portioned Christmas cake and daily ramen dates were magical.

We forged several new Christmas traditions on that trip that we revisit each time we’ve returned to Japan for the holidays. Most of them have nothing to do with how Christmas is celebrated by the Japanese; some aren’t even unique to Japan–and we now do them at home, too. In the end, that’s what the season is all about–being together with family and friends, taking traditions and making them your own to celebrate as you wish. Bringing this full circle, that’s really the story of Christmas in Japan as a whole, too. Happy Holidays.

If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.

Your Thoughts

If you’ve done Christmas in Japan, what was your experience? Did you have the ‘traditional’ Kentucky Fried Chicken or convenience store cake for Christmas? Visit any theme parks for the holidays or see the winter illuminations? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

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