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How is Christmas not ‘Christmas’?

Explaining things that are foreign is difficult 😵

One of the best strategies to quickly explain things is to use analogies. For example:

1️⃣  Japanese baths are deeper and made more for warming up in. It’s more like an American jaccuzi.

2️⃣  In Japan, going out for drinks (and food) with colleagues has similar functions to Americans hosting parties at their homes.

3️⃣  Many Japanese people view Halloween in the same way Americans (without Chinese heritage) view Chinese New Year.

💡Analogies are often translations of concepts.

Analogies get the ball rolling even if they are not perfect.

Analogies highlight similarities that are not always obvious.

To translate concepts well, you have to be familiar with both the “source” and “target” cultures. It’s not just a matter of knowing foreign word equivalents.


<<About “source” language and “target” language in translations>>

In the translation world, people talk about the “source” language and “target” language.

The “source” language is what you translate from and the “target” language is what you translate into.

For example, if you have a document in English you need to translate into Japanese,

the source language = English 


the target language = Japanese.

The golden rule in the translation industry is that you always translate into your native language. Most mistranslations I’ve seen are usually a result of the translator misunderstanding the source document.


Culture is much broader than language. Fewer people tend to know exactly what ‘culture’ is.

Unlike languages, there is no dictionary of cultures that can help you “translate” between cultures. And so people often mistakenly resort to linguistic translation as a substitute. 

Why is this a mistake?

Let’s see what happens when you translate the English word “Christmas” straight into the Japanese word kurisumasu (Christmas).

Japanese people appear to celebrate Christmas on December 25, just like in other countries. But in a country where less than 1% of the population is Christian ⛪, the celebration does not have the same significance.

  1. Christmas in the US can be pretty religious for some people. In Japan, the religious significance is mostly lost.

  2. American Christmas = big family occasion. Japanese Christmas = chance for lovers or friends to get together for a year-end party.

  3. Christmas Day is a federal holiday in the US. Not in Japan.

  4. Christmas in the US has a long tradition. Not in Japan. It only started being celebrated by the general population between the 1980s and 1990s.

  5. Common foods in Japan for Christmas: Chicken 🍗 and Christmas cake 🍰.

(Chicken became a staple because of KFC’s successful campaign in the 90s.   The Christmas cake is also a result of successful marketing by Fujiya, a major sweets company.)

So which holiday translates better culturally?

👉 Japanese New Year🎍 celebrated on January 1 every year.

  1. New Years is when people travel back home to spend time with their families.

  2. People often visit shrines and temples the night of December 31 and the morning of January 1 to wish for good fortune in the new year.

  3. New Year’s Day (Jan. 1) is a national holiday in Japan. Private and public organizations, including schools, usually remain closed at least until January 3rd.

  4. New Year’s comes with many traditional, and often regionally specific practices.

So you can see why analogy can translate more powerfully than a straight linguistic translation.

The tricky part is, this analogy doesn’t work for everyone.

For one thing, not everyone who lives in the US is American.

Also, not everyone who lives in the US celebrates Christmas as their own holiday.

Likewise, not all people living in Japan are Japanese nor celebrate the Japanese New Year as their own. (But, this is not widely acknowledged in Japan.)

To make truly accurate analogies, you really have to know both the “source” and “target” cultures….and to whom you are talking.


Need to figure out how to get through to your Japanese client or partner?

I would love to help you come up with a solution!

Schedule a 20-minute chat:

Email: miyabi[at]  **Don't forget to replace the [at] with @

Call: +1-858-256-5137



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