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How the Japanese spend the Xmas holidays
Foreign observers wonder why the Japanese love Christmas so much. After all, the reasoning goes, only 1% of the population is Christian. The fact is that though the Japanese are often portrayed as working bees who don’t know how to enjoy themselves, they certainly love to party, and Christmas offers a unique opportunity to have fun with family and friends.
Christmas may not be a national holiday in this country, but this does not stop the Japanese from enjoying all the things that are associated with it, such as giving gifts, enjoying seasonal decorations and Christmas music and carols, having special meals, and for some people, even attending mass, if only for experiencing an exotic and – for most Japanese – inscrutable religious ceremony. What they don’t do is exchange Christmas cards since they have their local version, nengajo or New Year’s cards, that every year are delivered to houses all over Japan on January 1st by an army of part-time postmen specially recruited for this purpose.
As Christmas is usually a working day, many people party with friends in the evening or go home and celebrate with their families. According to a recent survey of Japanese men and women who were asked who they would spend Christmas with, a great majority (60%) answered "family." As for how to spend Christmas, "relaxing at home" was by far the top choice (66%).
In a November 2005 survey of a total of 474 Internet users (single men and women living in Tokyo and three other prefectures) aged 20 to 39, about 70% of the surveyed answered that they wanted to spend Christmas with their partner. On the other hand, in 2006 the Internet research company DIMSDRIVE surveyed women in their 30s on how they spend Christmas, and 43.5% responded that they were planning to have a party at home.
Since the 1930s, Christmas has been a day for those who have partners to dress up, spend time with them, and exchange presents. In 1931, it was reported that many restaurants welcomed unmarried "unfortunate young people” by selling "one-yen" Christmas dinners (approximately 3,000 yen in today's market).
Christmas’s association with romance was further boosted in the 1980s (the extravagant boom years of the so-called Bubble Economy) by a couple of hit songs, Yamashita Tatsuro’s “Christmas Eve” (1983) and Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (1984). Yamashita’s single became a standard Christmas song when it was used in the railway company JR Tokai's "Christmas Express" commercial (1988). This long-selling hit is listed in the Guinness World Records, and its sales never fail to spike every Christmas season. A TV drama with the same title was broadcasted in 1990, though it curiously did not include that song. “Last Christmas” is one of the ten best-selling songs by a foreign artist and has been covered by many Japanese artists including Matsuda Seiko in 1991 and EXILE in 2003.
Check out this video if you are interested in 1980s Japanese fashion and hairstyles.
Other popular songs are Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994), Matsutoya Yumi's "Koibito ga Santa Claus" (My Lover Is My Santa Claus) (1980), and “Shiroi Koibitotachi” (White Lovers – “white” as in snow) (2001) by Kuwata Keisuke of Southern All Stars fame. Interestingly enough, most of these songs are about longing, missed encounters, heartbreak, or unrequited love. One song, for instance, is written from the perspective of a man reflecting on the happy times he has spent with a past lover, and reflecting on how often we fail to appreciate things until they are gone.
Around the world, Christmas is synonymous with food and partying, two things the Japanese never fail to appreciate. In 1931, for instance, the Hochi Shimbun, a now-defunct newspaper, reported the following scene:
- (Boy A) I'm sorry, but what are you two doing all alone?
- (Girl A) Mind your business!
- (Boy B) Why don't we have dinner together?
- (Girl A) What an impudent!
- (Girl B) Ah, that’s fine as long as you guys are going to pay.
- (Boy A and B) OK!
The article concluded that “In all of Tokyo, 12,300 turkeys are sacrificed for a merry Christmas and sadly killed.”
When it comes to food, every country has its own traditions that even differ depending on a particular region, and though turkeys feature prominently in the above article, the Japanese have recently developed their own unique eating habits. In the United States, for instance, the custom of eating ham and turkey is widespread, and many people eat pies and ice cream, while Italians eat panettone, pandoro or other sweets that are only available during the Christmas holidays. In Japan, however, it is customary to eat chicken on Christmas. And not just any chicken, mind you, but Kentucky Fried Chicken.
According to the company website, a successful advertising campaign in the early 1970s made eating at KFC around Christmas a national custom, and even today, its chicken meals are so popular during the holiday season that stores take reservations well in advance.
In 2018, former KFC president Okawara Takeshi told Business Insider’s Japanese edition how he helped create this new tradition – and establish KFC as one of the leading fast food chains in Japan – through some creative thinking and a lie. In 1970, when the first KFC store opened, it struggled with sales as passers-by were confused by the red-and-white striped decoration and English sign and couldn't tell what the store was selling.
Then-store manager Okawara was trying to come up with ways to boost sales when one day in December, a mission kindergarten near the store asked him if he would like to play the role of Santa Claus because they wanted to buy fried chicken for Christmas and have a party. The event was so successful that other kindergartens asked him to organize a Christmas party for them.
Okawara decided to make the most of this new idea. His next move was to dress the Colonel Sanders doll in front of his store as Santa Claus. After all, to a lot of confused Japanese, the Colonel looked a little bit like Santa. Then he went a step further, promoting fried chicken as an alternative to American turkey dinners. As his efforts had made the news, Okawara was interviewed by NHK. Asked if fried chicken was really a common Christmas custom in the West, he lied and said yes. "I still regret that decision,” Okawara said, “but a lot of people seemed to like fried chicken anyway, so..."
There are alternative stories about how KFC came to monopolize the Christmas market. According to Yum! Brands, the American fast food corporation that operates KFC globally, expat customers who during Christmas time were missing their Yuletide turkeys, observed that fried chicken was the next best thing for spending a half-decent holiday.
Whatever its exact origins, the canny Okawara passed the word on to the higher-ups, leading the company to launch its surprisingly successful “Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) campaign in 1974. In the end, Okawara's decision to combine KFC with Christmas took the chain from near bankruptcy to great success and he went on to be appointed president in 1984.
Even today, celebrities such as actress Ayase Haruka appear in TV commercials and other ad campaigns to promote KFC’s hugely popular Party Barrel as early as late October. Company officials say that KFC records its highest sales volume each year on Christmas Eve. The stores are so busy that even back office staff, including the president and other execs, head out to the frontlines to help on this day.
Indeed, for many people in Japan, Christmas Eve is even more important than Christmas Day. This is also partly true for children. This is because Christmas falls during the school winter holidays. Therefore, Christmas events at kindergartens, nursery schools, and elementary schools are held earlier.
In any case, you cannot call it Christmas if you don’t eat a cake, and even in this case Japan has taken a different path. While Western countries enjoy fruitcakes, Yule logs (Swiss rolls), and sweet breads, Japan’s typical Christmas cake looks and tastes very different.
The history of Christmas cakes in Japan dates back to 1910 when the confectionery maker Fujiya was founded. They became popular when Fujiya began to sell them in Ginza, Tokyo’s central commercial district, in 1922. At that time, Japan was going through massive waves of Westernization. Members of the wealthier classes, in particular, had a strong penchant for Western culture in general and enjoyed Western-style desserts as a delicacy. Being a Western-style dessert, the Christmas cake was associated with the idea of Western modernity and social status and became a major hit when it was commercialized and became more affordable to the general public.
In modern Japan, the typical Christmas cakes are sponge cakes usually coated with whipped cream or buttercream and decorated with sugar-crafted Santa Claus, Christmas trees, strawberries and chocolates. However, in recent years, manufacturers have begun to play with different shapes and styles and a variety of Christmas cakes can be found across the countless numbers of confectionery stores in the country. Also, in some parts of Japan and South Korea, Christmas cakes are lit with candles, like birthday cakes. Also, in Japan, it is customarily eaten on the night of Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day.
In any case, whatever their shape and look, Christmas cakes today have established themselves as an essential element of the Christmas celebrations in Japan and symbolize, here as in the West, the act of sharing a good time with family and friends.
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