Christmas in Japan means feast of fried chicken and cake
By David Higgins
Anyone who has not lived on Okinawa long enough to celebrate Christmas the traditional Japanese way yet might be in for some culture shock over how this ‘western’ holiday has come to be celebrated here.
First, Christmas is a special day to step out for a fancy dinner, but not on Dec. 25th. It’s all about celebrating on Christmas Eve. December 25th holds no real significance in Japan while all of the excitement takes place on Dec. 24th.
Most foreigners envision Christmas dinner spent at a table surrounded by family and loved ones indulging on mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, fresh bread and of course the ‘piece de resistance,’ the turkey.
In Japan, families indulge on a table spread of fresh fried chicken. You might be thinking that there has to be something special about the fried chicken recipe but you would be remiss. Brace for the barrage of KFC ’24 piece bucket’ flyers to be stuffed into your mailbox during the week prior to this endeared holiday.
‘Why do Japanese people eat KFC fried chicken on Christmas?’ is probably your next question. Considering how easily so many of our other holidays have become commodities, it should not be a surprise to learn that this was all a marketing ploy created by KFC in 1974. Turkey has never been readily found in Japan so the ‘next best’ became the chicken.
The first advertisements to hit the streets were for ‘Chicken and Wine for ¥2,920’ which was pricey for the mid-seventies. Colonel Sanders bears a very strong resemblance to dear old Santa Claus when decked out in his finest holiday fare, and it quickly became a marketing hit that lured droves of Japanese customers into the beloved KFC fast food chain outlets. Catch phrases like “Christmas = Kentucky” that were paired with catchy jingles on TV commercials cemented a union between KFC and Christmas, which would forever be ingrained into Japanese culture. This phenomenon was actually what jumpstarted the popularity of American fast food chains in Japan.
After indulging in your bucket of Christmas fried chicken you may be wondering what’s for dessert. Since Christmas is not synonymous with one specific dessert, the dessert of choice in Japan became cake. In Japanese bakeries, this time of year means that bakers are working at top capacity to fill the demand for orders of Christmas cake the families place for Dec. 24th.
The popularity of the Christmas cake harks back to the Confectioner Fujiya Co.’s creation during the 1950s, which consisted of a light sponge cake covered with whipped cream and decorated with strawberries. This type of cake has become the Christmas cake staple, advertised alongside buckets of chicken in holiday flyers from every supermarket, food outlet and fast food chain.
Japanese were captivated by the ‘cool’ factor of traditional western Christmas and have adopted and repackaged it as their own. The act of gift giving happens between children and adults, and parents are willing to spend on average, about ¥7,200 for these gifts. For adult partners, they are willing to fork out on average ¥13,100 for a gift.
If you have lived in Japan long enough, all these differences in culture do not maintain the same shock value until you find yourself spending Christmas Eve and Day as you would on any regular work day, knowing that your loved ones in your home country are gathered to celebrate. This is when you really miss all the Christmas traditions you had experienced since you were a child. But do not dismay, as there is nothing like a hard drink, bucket of chicken and a strawberry topped cake to cure the Christmas homesick blues.