Family, Food, and Fun: The Holidays with a Different Twist in Japan and the U.S.
There are many holidays that the U.S. and Japan have in common, for example: Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day. All three of these holidays have become deeply entrenched in the culture of each country, and while technically the same, the way people celebrate these holidays in each country can be quite different.
Christmas is very popular in Japan even though Christians represent less than one percent of the population. Decorations such as Christmas trees, ornaments, and lights are put up throughout the country and families go shopping before Christmas much like in the United States. Unlike in the U.S., in Japan the main event is Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day.
Many Japanese celebrate Christmas by going on dates or holding informal Christmas parties. Chicken is the go to meat for most people, including some popular fried chicken offerings. Another item most Americans would probably be unfamiliar with is Christmas cake, which is usually a round sponge cake topped with Christmas decorations, as opposed to the fruit cakes that are often given as gifts in the U.S.
New Year’s, or oshogatsu in Japanese, takes the place of Christmas as the more family orientated holiday in Japan. New Year’s in Japan is actually a collection of events spanning the four days from December 31 to January 3. Traditionally, families prepare osechiryori, a collection of celebratory dishes that represent longevity, good luck, and health by December 31. Nowadays, osechiryori can be bought from stores as well. These dishes are then eaten over the following days.
On New Year’s Eve a special kind of soba, or buckwheat noodles, are eaten. These noodles are called toshikoshi soba, which literally translates as year-crossing soba, although there is some regional variation in the kind of food eaten, such as udon in Shikoku. Throughout the day families can relax and enjoy themselves doing things like playing games and watching NHK’s Kohaku Uta Gassen, or “Year End Song Festival,” on television. At Midnight temple bells across Japan are rung 108 times. This event is called joyanokane and is broadcast live on television much like the Times Square Ball Drop in New York. If you live near a small temple or in the countryside you may even be able to line up to ring the bell yourself.
Sending out nengajo, or New Year’s greeting cards, is also very popular in Japan, much like the popularity of Christmas cards in the United States. On New Year’s Day families begin opening these cards while enjoying the meals, osechiryori, they prepared the day before. New Year’s Day is also when families begin visiting shrines for hatsumode to pray for good luck and safety over the course of the year. Some of the most popular shrines receive millions of visitors through the end of January.
Unlike in the U.S. where Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers and both men and women exchange gifts of various kinds, Valentine’s Day in Japan is when women given men chocolate. This may seem one-sided, but men have their chance to reciprocate one month later on March 14, which is known as White Day.
Aside from the normal varieties of dark, milk, and white chocolate there are also different kinds of Valentine’s chocolate differentiated by who you are giving them to. One kind is giri choco, or obligation chocolate, which is given to coworkers and acquaintances. Another is honmei choco, which literally means “true feelings chocolate” and is given to the person you have romantic feelings for. Other kinds of chocolate include tomo choco, or chocolate for friends, and gohobi choco, which is chocolate that you give yourself.