Hanukkah in Japan – Celebrating Family Traditions

Hanukkah approaches – it’s November, after all. Leaves are changing and the days grow visibly shorter with every passing, dark evening. I’m thinking about latkes, those crispy potato pancakes, and taking out our menorahs.

I’m also recalling that time our eldest daughter, barely aged two, scared the living daylights out of me.

Don’t set fire to the tatami!

This is the memory: My husband is gone for this night of Hanukkah. It is just my girl and me enjoying dinner and whatever goodies I’d readied for her to unwrap. First, we light the candles, chanting the melodic blessing. We move away from the menorah and move on to dinner, or so I think.

She is trying to be helpful. She is helping us celebrate this Festival of Lights. I reach for a fork or whatever and BOOM. She is standing over me with a lit, thick candle. Her little hair hovers over the flame, chubby two-year-old-fingers grip the torch as she stands so close, I think I can combust.

“MOMMY. HERE.” Right next to my eyes, my little eyebrows. Hot wax could drip on her hand. My heart is dipping and diving.

I speak exactly the way you would talk to a recent two-year-old with a weapon. Cajoling. Calm. Fear dripping.

The floor underneath us is brown and dry grass woven into tatami. In other words, it can BURN. This is just one of hundreds of Hanukkah in Japan memories.

Celebrating a festival of faith takes faith sometimes.

Going it alone

Save the months advancing and days cooling, there really are few visual reminders here in Japan for Hanukkah. Japan has no red and white Target superstore or Bed Bath and Beyond with glowing endcaps promising merriment and Hanukkah candles. No special Build-a-Bear Hanukkah edition.

Frankly, the ball is in our court. No businesses cater to me over here. We are carving out a legacy of going after the things that are lasting.

We have friends who have absolutely never heard of Jews or Torah, not of my American-Ashkenazi upbringing. Certainly not latkes or dreidels or any history of Judas Maccabe, the Hammer. Anything we mention or show is new.

We are clear about how we want to do Hanukkah as a family each year. We light our candles and expect ripples of miracles. Maybe only I do. The kids expect presents and sweets and fun.

Hanukkah in Japan

Finding Hanukkah supplies

Take this rudimentary list for Chanukah prep:

It is not a one-stop undertaking. NO. Obtaining each thing is a major scavenger hunt.

  • Hanukkah candles
  • Gelt (chocolate coins with gold wrappers for playing with the dreidel)
  • Wrapping paper, gift bags, festive tissue paper, decorative bows
  • Tablecloths and other party stuff

You can bet none of this is at our Japanese grocery mart. That’s all separate from actual food, too.

Shopping for Hanukkah gear becomes a real search, but not in a “might as well, it’s here” sort of way. The search and the creating, as well as the celebration, is connected to meaning. Some years it is my mother who sends us something. Another year it is a dear family friend on a business trip here in Tokyo. She packs my children and me blue and white pendants spelling out:



Our kids, now age 7, 4, and 1, will help me decide and plan what we need. Living in a place where we are a minority requires planning if we are to honor and celebrate that part of us. We’ll make lists. I’ll ask them to help me problem-solve and brainstorm. If we want sufganiyot, those delicious jelly-filled doughnuts, what will we need?

Shall we ask Grandma to send candles to fit our hanukia? We make sure we have enough; no running out for more should a few break. Living abroad and celebrating feasts and festivals strengthens my resolve. If I am doing these things, I must really care. It is not so easy or casual.

My hope is that every aspect of this festival and others is meaningful and fun to our children. I hope they feel encouraged, not put-out. I hope they feel warmed by eight nights of flickering glowy candlelight. Wherever they go, I hope they take ingenuity and gorgeous memories of fun with them.

I hope they remember not to light candles or a whole torch of flame on highly-flammable tatami mats.

How do you keep up family traditions?

How do you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or other winter holidays? What makes it difficult and how do you overcome that?

Perhaps you are far-flung yourself, wanting to connect your children to a far-off time and place. Today’s the day. This season is for all of us. Simply dig in. No matter how scarce a certain ingredient may be. No matter, just begin or start again. Certainly, the daughter who waved that lit candle would cheer you on.

Related Posts:

Hanukkah for Kids

Multicutural Holidays in December

Hanukkah is Not Jewish Christmas

And be sure to check out this sweet origami Hannukah garland and have fun with an easy Hanukkah-themed slime recipe!

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I am an American who has made her home in Japan for close to 15 years. I lead creative writing camps and mentor young authors! A writer, myself, I often write about heritage, food, and raising bicultural kids in Tokyo.

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