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Christmas in Japan: fried chicken and Jesus

CMS missionaries Adam and Helane Ramsay work in church ministry in the Japanese city of Chiba. Helane shares what Christmas is like for their family in a nation with little exposure to the message of Jesus but lots of fried chicken. 

Christmas in Japan 

A boy and a girl stroll through the city hand in hand on a chilly night, looking at the Christmas lights. They stop for a kiss in front of the giant Christmas tree, and maybe take a selfie. She’s brought fried chicken and he has a strawberry sponge cake. They exchange gifts. The perfect Christmas.  

Christmas in Japan is not a public holiday. Our kids have been to school on Christmas Day at least twice, taking a lunch box with some Christmas ham in it and little strawberry marshmallow Santas. Adam shopped for presents on Christmas day one year. There are carols, decorations, sales, cake, fried chicken and special drinks at Starbucks, but very little mention of our Saviour, God’s gift to the world. 

Ministry exhaustion at Christmas 

Churches work very hard throughout December with carols services, kids’ events, pageants and concerts, trying to give as many people as possible the opportunity to hear about Jesus at Christmas.  

Some have nicknamed this season, Kurushimimasu, a mash up of the Japanese words for Christmas and suffering, because of the immense load that ministry and church families bear at Christmas. As a missionary family we aren’t immune from this stress. The challenge is balancing the work of ministry at Christmas, while making this a special time of celebration for our family.  We try to have a Christmas party at our home as well as a party for our son Albert, whose birthday is Christmas Eve. We also connect with our families back in Australia on Christmas Day. It can leave us a bit unravelled by Boxing Day. But I expect we are not alone in this experience. 

The unfamiliarity of Christmas and Christian faith 

Japanese people have had very little exposure to Christian faith, or to the biblical meaning of Christmas. In the west, our culture is steeped in Judeo-Christian history, ethics and motifs, but here in Japan, Christianity is alien and strange. We were once sharing about Christmas and Easter with a Japanese friend, and she was staggered to hear that both events were about the same person. We want her to hear the whole story and wrestle with how the delightful story of baby Jesus could go through the agony of Easter and out the other side; and why it would even be necessary.  

“Pray for us, and for Japanese Christians, and for our friends. We want them to be curious enough to look more deeply into the questions that Jesus’ grand entrance raises, and to go in search of satisfying answers.” 

In pre-COVID times, we held a Christmas event at a secular venue where believers and non-believers would be present. We were hoping it would be an excellent opportunity for evangelism until it was made clear to us by the owner that no religious literature was to be given out. We were on our toes, wondering what God might do through us given this limitation.  

When we met with the manager, who is Japanese, he said, “But you need to include some kind of explanation about Christmas, we Japanese have no idea what it’s about even on a cultural level.” We were able to present the Christmas story alongside our carols and, in God’s kindness, many conversations were sparked about what Christmas is actually about.   

Pointing to Jesus at Christmas 

As a family, we work hard on decorating our home for Christmas. We light up our window, which is on a main street, to try to lighten people’s mood as they walk home past our house. We have a nativity scene set up in our entrance way and people pick up the characters one by one and wonder at the unlikely mishmash of wise men, shepherds, angels, animals and a baby. We try to include friends in our Christmas traditions like putting up the tree, decorating the gingerbread house and eating the Christmas ham. Our hope is that we can generate more and more curiosity, that we can show our friends that Jesus really is a big deal to us, praying that he’d become a big deal to them too. 

Pray for us, for Japanese Christians, and for our friends. We want them to be curious enough to look more deeply into the questions Jesus’ grand entrance raises, and to go in search of satisfying answers. Pray that we’d be ready to talk about Jesus, and to point to the hope that he brings.  

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Only a tiny proportion of Japanese are Christians, and many have never heard of Jesus. There are opportunities to serve in Japan in many different areas of ministry including supporting churches and student ministry. Contact your local CMS branch to start a conversation about serving in mission.