Cross Cultures – Holidays in Japan and America

All this month on my radio show Haisai English we’ve been playing Christmas music and talking about the differences and similarities between the American and Japanese holidays.  The overall theme we’ve found is that in many ways, Christmas and New Years are flipped between the two countries.

Christmas in Japan

In Japan, like many holidays, Christmas is promoted by stores as a way to sell products.  Just as the Japanese version of Valentines’ Day was essentially created by chocolatiers, PR firms promote the ideals that will best sell their products.  No one does this better than, of all places, KFC.  KFC’s campaigns are so effective that many Japanese assume everyone eats chicken on Christmas.  They dress up their Col. Sanders statues from November and have special holiday sets.  They even teamed up with All Nippon Airways to serve KFC on some flights.

When I talked to various guests about their views of Christmas in Japan, many talked about how its a time for couples to give presents and go on dates.  While there are decorations, and each year they grow more popular, they are still vastly limited (compared to the all out decorations in America) and usually just at stores or restaurants.  There is also little connection between religion and Christmas here.   Often, Christmas parties are tied in with bonenkai, a popular part of the Japanese office and work culture.

Sound familiar?  Maybe not for Christmas, but how about New Years?  In America, New Years is often a time for friends and dates rather than family.  People ring in the new year with noise and fun, just as Christmases in Japan tend to be more for friends than family affairs.

New Years

DSCN1917New Years in Japan and Okinawa are far more solemn events than American New Years.  It is a time for families to join together, eat traditional foods, and visit shrines (the religious element). Instead of Christmas Turkey or ham, families in Japan eat special boxed meals prepared in advance called osechi.  Instead of cookies, they often make mochi.  Just as presents are given for Christmas in the West, Japanese children often receive gifts (of money) on New Year’s day from their relatives.

While the traditions are certainly separate between different cultures (they’re different even  between families in the same cities), there are definite similarities that help lead to a better understanding of both holidays.