Christmas traditions in Japan are certainly very unique. In a country where only 1% of the population is Christian, it is not an official holiday, and is largely a secular event. A mix of clever marketing campaigns, and influence from other countries has created an interesting concoction of how Christmas is celebrated today in Japan.
Whilst in most countries Christmas is celebrated as a family event, for some in Japan it is positioned more akin to Valentines Day, where love-up couples enjoy romantic candlelit dinners at fancy restaurants. Despite this Christmas is still enjoyed by the general public, and food plays a major role in its celebration.
‘Tis The Season For Fried Chicken
A roast bird is a mainstay on the Christmas table in most countries, but in Japan its greasier, crunchier, naughtier friend gets centre stage – fried chicken. Every year various fast food chains such as Mos Burger and Lotteria, and even convenience stores including heavyweights Family Mart, Lawson, and 7/11 battle it out to get their chicken onto the tables, and into the bellies of Japanese revellers. Advertising starts early, and from November large banners showing delectable looking fried chicken surface, and pre-orders for special Christmas chicken come in, much like the Yuletide tradition of ordering that chicken or turkey to roast.
Though there is a lot of fried chicken competition, the king of all is KFC, and so it should be as the US fast food company’s aggressive Japanese marketing strategy in the 1970s is what led to the tradition we see today. On Christmas Eve, lines to get into Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants spill out onto the road, with many waiting in the freezing cold to pick up their pre-ordered buckets of Colonel Sanders finger-lickin’ good chicken.
Orders for the KFC Special Christmas Dinner feast, often consisting of a Christmas Colonel themed bucket of chicken, salad, a cake, and Chammerry, a kind of faux champagne, start several weeks in advance. The menu also completely changes to a special Christmas themed menu, with more luxurious premium items on offer. Dining-in is also much less common, as most people collect family-sized, large meals to bring home to their hungry families – 3.6 million families every year to be exact.
The tradition of KFC for Christmas in Japan stretches back to the 1970s. Takeshi Okawara, the manager of the first KFC in Japan, and later CEO of KFC Japan, came up with the idea of marketing a ‘party barrel’ to be sold on Christmas. The ‘Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii’, or ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ advertising campaign was a huge hit, and forever cemented the tradition. Even now KFC continues to run ads depicting happy Japanese families huddled around a bucket of chicken, and Colonel Sanders is often shown outside stores dressed in Santa costume.
Though this seemingly commercialised tradition is very different to that of other countries, where home-cooking is prioritised, with no time spent in the kitchen and delicious fried chicken to devour, it may be an easy tradition for some to get onboard with.
In many Western countries, Christmas dessert is associated with boozy, fruity, nutty, and dense pudding, pies or cakes. However, in Japan when it comes to Christmas dessert ‘Kurisumasu Keki’ or ‘Christmas Cake’ reigns supreme. Unlike its heavier Western cousins, Japanese Christmas Cake is a light sponge cake most commonly decorated with ripe strawberries, whipped cream, and cute decorations like fondant Santas.
Pretty much every bakery in Japan will be selling these in the lead up to Christmas. As they are traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve, after the 25th prices are slashed as shops try to get rid of the seasonal desserts. The Christmas cake tradition is so ingrained in Japan that there was even a term coined in the 1980s referring to unmarried women over 25 as ‘Christmas cake women’ – a clearly sexist and outdated term that has since fallen out of favour.
Germans know how to do Christmas right, and that much is clear with countries around the world hosting German-themed Christmas markets. Japan is no exception, and in fact the Japanese have a keen interest in German food culture, with Oktoberfest being held every year in many cities. Tokyo hosts several outdoor Christmas markets every year, the largest being the Tokyo Christmas Market in Hibiya Park, which actually has the backing of the German Tourism Association.
Here visitors can get a taste of authentic German and other European-style cuisine such as German-style sausages, goulash, sauerkraut, and drinks such as hot wine, and German beer. The Market goes all out, with decorations even being flown in from Germany. This year a 14m high Christmas pyramid was imported straight from Dresden for the festival.
Of course every family’s Christmas is different, and some Japanese forego the fried chicken for some more elegant sushi, or don’t celebrate at all. Though Japanese Christmas food traditions are quite quirky and may be odd to those outside the country, there’s no denying that they make people happy and bring them together.