American Holidays in Japan

With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it always makes me wish I were living in Japan again, where the guys don’t have to worry about what romantic thing we need to do for our significant others—because the girls make the first move on Valentine’s Day. In Japan, the girls buy the chocolate for the men. And we don’t have to reciprocate until a month later on “White Day”. Confused? Don’t be—it’s actually kind of…uh, sweet. Valentine’s Day gives the girls a chance to show their crushes how they really feel, when they may normally be too embarrassed to do so. In addition to buying chocolate for their true loves, however, the girls are unfortunately on the hook for buying for their bosses or colleagues—the “obligation chocolate”. And the obligation-giving continues on March 14th for the men, when they’re expected to repay the Valentine’s Day gifts with chocolate gifts of their own, on White Day. Oh, those evil candy manufacturers, who started this ingenious holiday! Even though “White Day” is strictly a commercial money maker, I love the Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition of the girls taking the initiative!

The Japanese love to adopt our national holidays—they’re not always celebrated in the same way, but they do a pretty good job. And it’s always in good fun.

What’s Christmas like in Japan?

There’s no way Christmas would have the same religious significance in Japan the way it does here. It’s estimated only 1% of the population is actually Christian. But Christmas is a joyous time, and Japanese people love gift giving, so it seems pretty natural. The main symbolic gesture has always been the traditional “Christmas Cake”, usually topped with all the decorations, like plastic Santas, trees, reindeer and ornaments. And happily, that rude association with unmarried women being past their expiration date (25, as in December 25) and being called “Christmas Cakes”, is no longer taken seriously. Especially when more women are in the workforce and the marrying age is probably closer to 29.

Another phenomenon is the KFC® Christmas, a brilliant marketing angle invented years ago by a Japanese executive at Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan. He simply started promoting his chicken in Christmas themed barrels, getting his inspiration from the traditional holiday turkey dinners in the U.S. The idea that “Christmas is for Kentucky” caught on, and now standing in long lines to pick up KFC® has become synonymous with the season. Who woulda thought it? The Colonel is the most famous personality during Christmastime. And well deserved, that Japanese executive eventually became the CEO of KFC® Japan.

Halloween is picking up steam

Indeed, this very American holiday becomes bigger every year in Japan, and much like its popularity as an adult holiday here, Halloween in Japan is an excuse to dress up and be someone else. It makes sense that it would catch on in Japan, where cosplay first started. So when they start making costumes, they go all out. It also helps when all the major theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan get on the bandwagon and start to feature the holiday in a big way. It used to be a scattering of American ex-pats dressing up and going to bars and nightclubs to be gawked at by curious onlookers—but no more; the dressing up part has been completely adopted by Japanese pop culture. The only thing missing is trick or treat—that part of the tradition doesn’t look like it’s going to assimilated anytime soon.

And what would Halloween be without controversy? Apparently at Universal Studios Japan last year, their new attraction, called “Tatari: Curse of the Living Doll”, drew letters of protest from the Japanese Doll Association, for using dolls that were donated to the park by a shrine. The association wasn’t keen on how the dolls were being represented as objects of terror, even though it was in the spirit of Halloween. Guess what? Dolls are creepy enough sometimes. These little ones are pretty scary with the right makeup!

Japan has pretty much made these holidays their own. Americans might say they’re copycats, and they certainly started that way, but after all these years the celebrations have evolved into something distinctly Japanese.

Images: Valentine art, Christmas cake, KFC, Halloween costumes, Tatari doll

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About Bert Tanimoto

Oldish father of two youngish kids. Zojirushi enthusiast and professional writer. California resident with roots in Hawaii and Japan. Classic rock, popcorn movies, audio books, spam, sushi and cone filtered coffee. Guilty pleasures include donuts and pop bands like ABBA and Wham!.

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