Japan’s Holiday Season


As you may recall, last year around this time we set off for a whirlwind tour of Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima.  If I remember correctly, we never got around to writing up a proper post of some traditions of the Japanese holiday season.  This school year I’ve been tutoring at lunch and last week one of my students prepared a report (in English, of course) about various customs and traditions surrounding , primarily, Christmas and New Year’s.  Here are some highlights.


Christmas in Japan is a largely secular holiday focusing on gift giving and spending time with family.  Along with Halloween it’s becoming more commercially popular each year.  Surprisingly one of the biggest traditions is eating KFC for dinner on Christmas Day.  Recently a coworker of one of our friends said “If you want KFC on Christmas, you better get up early and order it in advance.  Otherwise, you’re out of luck.”  Afterwards families usually eat some sort of Christmas cake.

Children who receive gifts on Christmas usually have their presents set next to their bed while they sleep rather than underneath a Christmas tree.

New Year’s Traditions

New Year’s is easily Japan’s biggest holiday of the year.   My student told me it is common to thoroughly clean one’s house on New Year’s Eve in order to feel clean within yourself as you prepare for a new start.  Once the work is done, it’s time to relax.  Before and for a brief period after World War II, children would often spend New Year’s playing with tako (a kite made out of paper and bamboo), koma (a kind of spinning top), and haigoita, a sort of badminton-like game where the winner gets to draw a picture on the loser’s face.  It was also common to build kamakura, a sort of igloo-like snow house for recreational use.

Nowadays people find other ways to spend freetime during the holidays.  Shopping is probably the most popular activity as many businesses advertise special end-of-the-year deals.  I imagine it’s similar to Black Friday in America after Thanksgiving, but with less stampedes.

But there’s much more to New Year’s than consumerism.  Obviously it’s a time for family and renewal.  Sometime between the 31st of December and the 3rd of January, most people in Japan take time out to visit a temple where they offer a bit of money and say a prayer.  It’s also common to send New Year’s postcards in the mail to family and friends.  However my student told me that younger people tend to send text messages over their phone rather than take the time to mail postcards.  As communication towers and satellites are bombarded with messages, it can sometimes take several minutes to send your midnight New Year’s greeting through your phone.

Puns of Good Fortune

Many symbols of New Year representing good fortune and happiness stem from puns.  Tai (sea bream) is popular because it is in season and it is a pun on the word medetai, which my student told me means “happiness.”  Similar puns exist for a vegetable called konbu and apparently ebi (shrimp) is served because of pun involving the word for “longevity.”

Also, if you have a dream simultaneously featuring Mt. Fuji, hawks, and eggplant, it is very good luck.  The reasoning again is because of puns.  “Fuji” sounds like “buji” which means “safe.”  Hawk is taka and means clever and strong.  Nasu (eggplant) is a play on the word for accomplish or success, also pronounced nasu.

My student told me about other aspects of the holiday season like decorations and food, but it’d be better to wait and explain that stuff when we have pictures available.  Perhaps in the weeks to come we’ll show you what mochi cake, noshi, and kadomatsu look like.  In the meantime, enjoy Christmas, New Year’s, and the other holidays of the season.


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2 Responses to “Japan’s Holiday Season”

  1. Hanna Says:

    Really interesting! Thanks Taylor! I’d like to experience Christmas somewhere other than here at home sometime.

  2. sarah austad Says:

    Your holiday blog was interesting. Congrats on the Go tournament! Your skills are improving.

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