Generic Christmas image
Photo: Andrej Safaric/Dreamstime

Tokyo Q&A: How does Japan celebrate Christmas?

With KFC fried chicken buckets, strawberry shortcakes and romantic dinner dates – not necessarily in that order

By Taryn Siegel
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If this year is your first Christmas in Japan, you might be a little surprised (or even confused) at some of the traditions you witness. Even though only about 1 percent of the Japanese population are Christian, Christmas is still a pretty big deal over here (as you may have noticed with the plethora of Christmas markets and stunning illuminations dotting every corner of Tokyo). But the Japanese have their own spin on Christmas that doesn’t include any religious affiliations. We’ve broken down the three most important Japanese Christmas traditions and where they all came from.

KFC Christmas Japan
KFC Christmas Japan
Photo: Korn Vitthayanukarun/Dreamstime

KFC for Christmas

While elsewhere around the world, Christmas dinner usually means a fat roast turkey or a nice holiday ham, in Japan it’s all about the Colonel. When the first KFC opened in Japan in 1970, the store manager Takeshi Okawara (who would later go on to become the CEO of KFC Japan) had a sudden flash of inspiration during his sleep one night (as the story goes) – a Christmas ‘party barrel’. At that time, Christmas dinner in Japan was sort of ill-defined, and turkey was (and still is) extremely hard to come by. To Okawara, the party barrel filled a nice void. In 1974 the concept went national with the campaign ‘Kurisumasu ni wa, Kentakki’ or ‘Kentucky for Christmas.’

The idea went over like gangbusters and today an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families will sit down to a hearty feast of KFC on Christmas Day. The ‘party barrels’ have been redesigned as ‘Christmas dinner packages’ (much classier), and every year these holiday sets make up a whopping one-third (!) of KFC Japan’s annual sales. If you’re thinking about joining in the tradition this year, just be warned: this is no joke. If you want ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ you better order your package weeks in advance, or be prepared to queue up for hours at your local KFC.

Strawberry cake generic
Strawberry cake generic
Photo: Rawlik/Dreamstime

Christmas cake: the sweet taste of success

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.

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Romantic dinner generic
Romantic dinner generic
Photo: Sergey Rasulov/Dreamstime

Christmas Eve is the Japanese ‘Valentine’s Day’

For most Japanese, Christmas Eve is an even bigger deal than Christmas Day. Over here, Christmas Eve is the most romantic day of the year (yes, outstripping Valentine’s Day, which they also do). Couples will book a fancy Christmas dinner (perhaps some restaurant with an open fire to cosy up by) and then follow it with a nighttime stroll to take in some illuminations.

The history on this one is a little bit harder to place. Some say it’s because Christmas is a time for love and joy, so why wouldn’t you spend it with the one you love? But others say you can trace it back to 1982 when the Japanese hit ‘My Lover is Santa Claus’ came out and topped the charts. These days, this song is the Japanese equivalent of ‘Last Christmas’ or ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ – in other words, you can’t escape it all December long.

More of your Tokyo questions answered

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