Next on the Christmas to-do list in Japan, after you’ve put in your KFC order, is to reserve your Christmas cake. Japanese Christmas cake (always strawberry shortcake, with perhaps some chocolate santas or snowmen on top) is so ubiquitous come December that you can literally find it anywhere – bakeries, grocery stores, even convenience stores. This one actually has a bit of an interesting political history to it.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the economy was ravaged and the population was struggling immensely. Food was scarce and sugary sweets especially were an untasted luxury for most. The American Occupation forces led the effort to rebuild Japan, and the sweets they would sometimes hand out seemed like a little window into future splendour and prosperity. As anthropologist Hideyo Konagaya put it in a 2001 paper on the subject, ‘Sweet chocolates, above all, given by American soldiers epitomised the utmost wealth Japanese children saw in American lives.’
As the concept of Christmas gradually crept in during those post-war years, the economy also rebounded with almost unfathomable success. With its previously-unattainable ingredients now available everywhere, the Christmas cake became a symbol that Japan had finally ‘made it’. The strawberry shortcake was chosen as the favoured cake because its red and white colours reflect those in the national flag.
So while American children are lining up for Santa and requesting everything from toy cars to PlayStations, the Japanese will take a moment to reflect on their own wealth and good fortune with a more humble display – a quiet family feasting on Christmas cake.