Despite less than 1% of the Japanese identifying as Christians, Christmas is still widely celebrated throughout the island nation. One of the most rooted Christmas traditions is cake. Anywhere you go during Christmas time in Japan, the cake will always dominate the scene. This particular dessert is made of round sponge layers covered with whipped cream, and with strawberries between the layers and on the top. Throughout the years, the strawberry cake has become a beloved holiday treat on the island nation, not only because it’s delicious, but also because it is associated with prosperity.
But why do the Japanese eat cake for Christmas and when did this tradition start? The story of the Christmas cake is intertwined with Japan’s economic recovery after its defeat in World War II. Christmas made its first appearance in Japan in the 16th century, when Portuguese Christian missionaries arrived in the Asian country. However, at that time the holiday was celebrated by just a few people. Only around the 1870s, Christmas started spreading in its present commercial form. In those years, several Tokyo stores began selling imported greeting cards and decorating the store windows with Christmas ornaments. Consumerism was on the rise, but it abruptly stopped again as Imperial Japan entered World War II. During the war, the country had to deal with numerous food shortages and the slogan “luxury is the enemy” became very common throughout the entire country.
Even before the war, Japanese treats were divided into two categories. The first group includes Wagashi, which are traditional Japanese sweets, normally made of bean paste and just slightly sweetened. The second category includes the so-called yogashi, which indicate Western sweets, such as chocolates. Yogashi were a symbol of wealth and status. However, during World War II, they became impossible to find on the island, mainly because in 1944 the Japanese government ended the distribution of sugar. After World War II, the United States occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. During that period, Japan’s economy began recovering and the national standard of living rose. Sugar consumption increased and several types of yogashi gradually became available again. In particular, chocolates that were given by American soldiers symbolized the highest level of wealth. According to anthropologist Hideyo Konagaya, consuming sweets became a sort of achievement and a way to space out from the past misery.
The Christmas season became an opportunity to celebrate Japan’s new economic prosperity and the mix of Japanese and Western culture. Soon, several Christmas traditions became popular on the island, such as giving toys to kids. But Japan adapted the holiday to its cultural context, and added to this holiday unique features that are not found anywhere else in the world, such as eating cakes! The cake became popular thanks to Japanese confectioner Fujiya Co. Anthropologist Konagaya explains that the cake takes its meaning from its shape, ingredients, color, and decorations.
Its round shape recalls other traditional Japanese desserts, such as the popular mochi. Additionally, in Japan the combination of red and white is considered auspicious, exactly like on the national flag. Finally, strawberries, cream, butter, and sugar were considered expensive goods, and thus symbolize economic prosperity.
Today, Christmas is a major event among Japan’s industrialized society. Family Christmas gatherings do not center around dinner, as in the Western ideal, but they are rather focused on a mutual partaking of a Christmas cake. The Christmas cake has become so popular that there are even two Emoji for it. However, despite the Christmas cake having become so popular in Japanese culture, Christmas itself has not. In fact, Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan and it is celebrated more like Valentine’s Day in the West, and it’s normally a romantic day for couples.
One last curiosity: All Christmas cakes get discounted after Dec. 25. This fact has created an unfortunate Japanese slang “Christmas cake,” which is used to refer to an unmarried woman who is over 25 and thus, considered to have reached her “best before” date.