Celebrating Thanksgiving in Tokyo, Japan

“What do you mean you don’t have canned pumpkin? How can an international food store not have canned pumpkin at this time?” I ask the staff at my favorite international shop. Thanksgiving is only a few days away, and I always make pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.


“I’m so sorry!” the staff bows her head multiple times as she apologizes profusely. “But it’s a seasonal product only, so we don’t carry it anymore.!”


“Well yeah, duh,” I think quietly to myself. “This IS the season! It’s almost Thanksgiving, and soon after is Christmas!” I’m frustrated, but I calm myself down and ask politely. “What do you mean? Isn’t now the season for pumpkin? Did it sell out already?”


“No, we only sell pumpkin in October,” she explained, still bowing her head. “For Halloween.”


“What...”


I stare blankly, confused by what I just heard. Pumpkin… is “ONLY FOR HALLOWEEN??” Of course, I remain calm, but inside, I can’t believe what I heard. What about Thanksgiving and Christmas? How can you have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner without a pumpkin pie for dessert? Doesn’t Japan also know and celebrate Western holidays recently? So how can they not know about pumpkin pie?


I thanked the staff woman for her help and left the store defeated. This was definitely going to make an interesting story when I spoke to my family back home later on. 


A few days later, I told this story to one of the Japanese staff at the school I taught at. Luckily most of the staff there were pretty Westernized themselves, so I thought they would understand my viewpoint. Turns out, they also believed pumpkin was only for Halloween! What kind of strange world was I living in?


Now I was curious. I had to ask the teachers there if Japan was so Westernized to the point that people knew all about Christmas and Halloween, how come they didn’t know anything about Thanksgiving? She explained to me the reasons why.

 

Though many Japanese are aware of American Thanksgiving, they know very little about what the celebration entails. This is because while other Western holidays are celebrated in many other countries (Christmas, Halloween), Thanksgiving is technically a “strictly American” holiday, based on a specific historical event. I guessed that this fact, paired with little knowledge of American history, was probably the reason why the holiday may have been less attractive in terms of celebration. (Which makes sense, when you think about how many other less global, historical holidays from other countries that we know of but don’t celebrate.)


It also turns out, as I was unaware of at the time, Japan just so happens to have their own Thanksgiving, too! Which also happens to fall very close to the same date as our American holiday, and explains the overlap.

rice-farm-japan

Japanese Thanksgiving is called Kinrou Kansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日), or “Japanese Labor Thanksgiving.” It is similar to ours in the sense that it centers around gratitude, but for a different historical reason. This holiday came about from a harvest festival that was celebrated annually from as early as 660 BC through the Meiji Era. The festival, Niiname-sai, means “Rice Festival,” and was based on the tradition of the Emperor dedicating the first fresh harvest of the year to the gods and tasting it himself. 


The Japanese continued the tradition every year, celebrating on November 23rd. However eventually, as the people and technology evolved, the holiday itself did, too. No longer an agricultural society, the traditions changed with the times and it is now celebrated as a day of giving thanks and showing appreciation to laborers and people who work hard, rather than the fall harvests. It is also a nationally observed holiday in which schools and government offices are closed, and people spend their time enjoying a well-deserved rest rather than working, or partying like their American counterparts.

 

The coincidence of it being held so close to our own American version does bring some benefits to the Westerner celebrating abroad who do want to keep the spirit, as we can use that day off to celebrate as well (since Japan doesn’t observe American Thanksgiving, which changes in exact date year to year.)


And while we still celebrate our gratitude with extravagant feasts and festivities representing the harvest, it can be a challenge to find your favorite festive foods due to the lack of availability. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.


The first thing to be aware of is what foods are not readily available (such as the canned pumpkin from before) so you can plan ahead, learn where certain items are stocked, and shop early (like buying canned pumpkin in October). And with a little research, there are many international markets around Tokyo that you can also explore and find items such as cranberry sauce, ingredients for a casserole, and yes, even turkey! (Another rare sight in Japan). And if you’re lucky enough to live near a Costco, then you’ll be even more in luck!

https://www.tysons.jp/smokehouse/
(T.Y. HARBOR offers a Thanksgiving menu in Tokyo)

If you don’t feel up to the cooking though, but still want to celebrate with a good old-fashioned American Thanksgiving meal, there are establishments around the city that serve Thanksgiving meals, including turkey, such as at T.Y. HARBOR. Here is a great guide from Best Living Japan. You will need to call in advance to make a reservation. 


The good thing about being in Japan for Thanksgiving is that you have more options than you think. Recently some Japanese have adopted a more Western view due to the high population of Americans, and sometimes join the festivities by hosting potluck parties. If you don’t know anyone hosting a party, you can plan ahead to throw a party yourself. If you don’t want to hassle yourself with the cooking (and dreaded dishes afterwards), you can make a Thanksgiving dinner reservation at a participating restaurant. And if you decide that you don’t really want to do anything at all, then you can celebrate it in the traditional Japanese Labor Thanksgiving Day fashion, and spend your holiday indoors, enjoying a leisurely day of rest and relaxation.

Written by: Krystle Suzuki

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