Christmas food in Japan

by Esme Curtis20 December 2022

Despite the lack of Christians in Japan, Christmas is a very popular commercial holiday in the country. However, many of the foods and activities that Japanese people have come to associate with Christmas are quite different from ones you find in the UK. We take a look at how Japanese people eat and celebrate at Christmas.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Esme is the Recipe Editor at Great British Chefs. She particularly loves Chinese and Japanese food and owns far too many cookbooks.

Christmas decorations can be found everywhere in Japan throughout December and November. From Christmas trees to snowmen, Japan goes all out for the festive season. Even Christmas markets have begun to spring up in Japanese cities over the years, selling chocolates, snow globes and other trinkets.

However, despite their enthusiasm for the holiday, less than 1% of Japanese people are actually Christian. Although Christianity arrived in Japan in 1549, it was banned from 1614 to 1873, and the religion has never become widespread. However, this hasn’t stopped Christmas from becoming a major commercial and romantic occasion in Japan over the past seventy years. Just as Valentine’s Day has long since lost its connection to honouring St. Valentine, Christmas in Japan is not really associated with Christianity at all. In fact, Christmas in Japan is a lot closer to Valentine’s Day than you might expect.

For young Japanese people, Christmas is a romantic holiday. It’s typically spent going on dates with your partner and, just as with Valentine’s Day, there can be some awkward social pressure to couple up in time for Christmas Eve. On the 24th, restaurants fill up with couples enjoying a fancy dinner together, and exchanging small gifts. While children get excited about Christmas presents and Christmas cake in Japan too, it’s not nearly as much of an exclusively family affair.

Another big difference between Japanese Christmas celebrations and British ones is that by the 25th, it’s all over. Supermarkets and shopping centres quickly switch over to New Year’s decorations, and take down their trees and statues of Father Christmas.

What’s on the menu

The food that people eat in Japan on Christmas Eve and throughout the festive season is likely to be quite different to the food you’d typically find on a Christmas table in the UK. The Japanese Christmas dinner, whether cooked at home or enjoyed at a restaurant, is generally a combination of different pan-European dishes. Unlike in the UK, there isn’t a strict list of dishes which have to be on the dinner table for the big day. In fact, Christmas meals can vary hugely; roast beef is very common, but so is pizza.

One food tradition that does feel particularly Japanese, is sculpting food into Christmas-themed objects. Salads are arranged into wreaths and studded with ham rosettes, while strawberries and cherry tomatoes are turned into miniature statues of Father Christmas. One of the most popular edible Christmas creations in Japan are mashed potato Christmas trees, which are often decorated with broccoli and are truly a sight to behold.

KFC at Christmas

Fried chicken is an extremely popular choice in Japan for a Christmas meal, but KFC doesn’t quite have the same hold on the nation that turkey does on Brits. A 2017 report of 1260 Japanese households by Kitchen Diary found that fried chicken was actually the third most popular dish to eat at Christmas.

For families who don’t want to buy KFC, Christmas dinner is a great excuse for adventurous home cooks to have fun trying to make new European dishes. Much like in the U.K., Japanese food lovers use the holiday as an excuse to splash out a bit on expensive ingredients like a joint of beef or cheese, and maybe show off a little to try and impress their partner. While certain dishes are more popular than others - like roast beef and fried chicken - the Japanese Christmas menu is much more of a free-for-all than in the west and might include everything from French onion soup to paella.

Strawberries over Sprouts

Similarly, while having a Christmas cake is very popular in Japan, Christmas cake doesn’t mean just one thing as it does in the UK. Instead, the term is used to refer to any cake, tart or cheesecake eaten to celebrate Christmas. For most Japanese bakeries in the lead up to Christmas, pretty much anything can be called a Christmas cake: matcha and kinako flavoured chiffon cakes, French apple tarts, and Hokkaido cheesecakes are all fair game. The Hikarie department store in Shibuya even launched a range of bright orange and purple ‘Neon Noel’ cakes in 2022.

Ironically, one of the only things you’re not going to find labelled as Christmas cake in Japan is fruitcake. Although German Christmas baking is quite popular in Japan (stollen, for example, is fairly well known), British Christmas baking is not. You’d be hard pressed to find a mince pie in most Japanese cities, let alone a Christmas pudding. However, if you happen to be in Tokyo for the festive season and want a taste of something familiar, you’re in luck. There is a British bakery near Tokyo Tower called Mornington Crescent, which stocks Christmas cakes and Christmas puddings galore.

There is, however, one cake which is synonymous with the term Christmas cake in Japan: strawberry and cream cake. Strawberry season runs from around November until April or May in Japan, and so strawberries are seen as a cold weather food. This has led to them becoming a staple of Japanese Christmas. Adorable strawberry Santas and strawberry-topped cakes and tarts abound, all decorated with snowmen and Christmas trees. The Japanese-style Christmas cake - made with layers of genoise sponge, whipped cream and huge, whole strawberries - was invented in the early 1900s, when a Japanese baker started selling cakes inspired by a strawberry shortcake he’d tried in the US. This is why the Japanese Christmas cake is often called “strawberry shortcake”, despite being different from the scone-based dessert of the same name.

The cake became popular with wealthy Japanese families after World War II. Butter, cream and fresh fruit were near non-existent in Japan during the war, where any food - let alone luxury items - had become increasingly scarce. Their availability in the 1950s, even at great expense, was a huge novelty and they quickly became a highly coveted item. Despite the cake’s sombre origins, it has long-since lost its associations with war-time deprivation, and is now seen as an indispensable part of Japanese Christmas tradition. For most people, the cake is much more closely associated with their childhood, than their nation’s history.

While Japanese Christmas foods are quite different from their British counterparts, it’s easy to see why they’re so beloved in the country. And if you fancy trying something new this year - or just want an excuse to enjoy some fried chicken - why not try doing Christmas dinner, Japanese-style?

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