Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; commonly celebrated holidays in North America and Europe but only recently have gained popularity in Japanese society. For a country more than 2000 years old and well set in its ways, why is it that Japan has started to suddenly gain holidays so quickly?
Of all these holidays, Christmas has the longest standing history as it was first brought to Japan in the 1500’s with the arrival of the Portuguese and Christianity. As history shows, Japan has had a love-hate relationship with Christianity since the early days and, therefore, Christmas as a celebration has made a comeback only within the past several decades. It was due to a successful advertising campaign of one particular jolly fat man that brought Christmas back into the mind of the “modern” Japanese consumer. Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Nagoya first in 1970. That same year, KCF and other foreign fast-food chains opened at the World Exposition in Osaka. KFC’s foreign novelty; its “Americaness” helped to drive its popularity throughout Japan. In 1974, KFC made itself unanimous with Christmas in Japan with its even-now successful, “kurisumasu ni ha kentakkii” (basically meaning Kentucky for Christmas) campaign.
Even before the Colonel made his Christmas debut in Japan, there was another company trying to make a buck on modern holidays. On Valentine’s Day in 1958, the Japanese chocolate maker, “Mary’s Chocolate,” sold a whopping 3 bars of chocolate that day, making a total of 170 yen. Since this almost complete marketing flop, Mary’s began a long-lasting partnership with department stores like Mitsukoshi and Isetan in an attempt to boost sales. In the 1950’s, Japan was hungry not for chocolate per se, but for all things western; Jazz, movies, bob hairstyles and the concept of romantic love (Japan used to be a country of arranged marriages). This included holidays celebrated in Europe and the Americas, like Valentine’s Day. During the next few Valentine’s Days, Mary’s Chocolate, Morinaga chocolate, Fujiya and other companies started to advertise to the new “modern” Japanese female consumer.
If you aren’t convinced yet, here are a couple other facts – Mother’s Day as we know it now started in 1949 and Father’s Day followed several years later.
Halloween has been the latest of non-Japanese celebrations to make it big in Japan. In 1997, Disneyland held a special one-day Halloween event that proved to be extremely successful. Ever since, Halloween has become a mainstream mid-fall marketing point for cosplay costume companies, snack companies, department stores, bars, and clubs. The reason why Halloween was so late to the money-making party is multifaceted and still relatively unclear. One possible reason is Halloween’s dark and spooky origins. Another reason might be the strong domestic reaction Japan had to the shooting of a Japanese exchange student studying in America, Yoshihiro Hattori, in the early 90’s. Yoshihiro was shot trying to find a Halloween party which may have promoted an anti-Halloween wave in Japan.
In short, Western holidays in Japan are about companies filling their pockets, but it’s not completely about that cheddar. Companies were only able to make money because Japanese society as a whole readily accepted western customs; it was a combination of timing, a cultural open mindset, and good marketing strategies. With an ever more tolerant society, what new foreign custom will make its way into Japan next?