Japanese Christmas KFC and Santa on a Cross In Ginza

I often find the western press writing about Japan to be ill-informed, snide and just plain wrong. There is a large amount of western looking down the nose of our society and culture and either making out Japan is a totally alien place that exists separately from the rest of the world and is unfathomable and kooky, or else descends into anti-Japanese hatred stemming from a war that happened 80 years ago and is not the fault or responsibility of anyone alive today.

Christmas makes for easy pickings for western journalistic hacks: Japan is not a Christian country, only one percent of the country is Christian, and Christmas is a holiday mainly for couples. It is a romantic day, and not even a national holiday. Children go to school, the world carries on, and the Love Hotels run specials for the lovers to rent out by the hour. Rabbit hutch apartments, living with parents and fast paced Tokyo life are not conducive to having private time, hence Love Hotels being somewhere that perfectly ordinary couples run to for an little space. Because Japan is not a Christian country there is no history of carol singing, going to church, no baby Jesus stuff at all. Santa seen crucified in the window of a Shibuya department store has me holding my sides laughing, but has the moral arbiters of western taste showing their readers all the shocking things they get up to in the land of the rising sun. After world war 2, an attempt at assimilating western traditions led to a Ginza department store (one of the fancier parts of Tokyo), put a display up in the window featuring a crucified Santa.

It was a misunderstanding. After all, who can blame the nascent modernizing Japan for looking at the west and going ‘kami stuff huh? Something to do with Santa, a cross, and cakes’…Japan has never been too welcoming to western religious excesses, thank the kami! They are born Buddhist, marry Shinto and die Buddhist. Their Gods have fox heads and 9 flaming tails, or transverse space waiting to meet up with each other again. Apart from divine winds seeing off Genghis Khan from Japan’s shores, the Japanese treat all this kami (gods and goddess) stuff with extreme suspicion. The feared Tojo actually saved 20,000 Jewish people, but it is Christmas today and I am not up for that fight or argument.

I’ve seen multiple articles on how Japan eats KFC at Christmas. This is a fact. Christmas KFC is a tradition in Japan, whose Christmas traditions only stem from after WW2 when the country was forced into contact and cultural exchange with the outside world. They do not have long held Judeo-Christian traditions and hang ups. Japanese cooking is not done on ovens. Even now Japanese kitchens do not have full sized built in ovens. The most they get is burners, a fish grill, and perhaps a small toaster oven, or a combination microwave. Japanese cooking does not require an oven and there is rarely room for one anyway. You simply cannot buy an oven in Japan, and the only ones you can buy are tiny, countertop and not big or strong enough to handle cooking a turkey. Japanese people just do not eat turkey, nor do they have room or the equipment to cook one. Enter KFC. In 1974 they were struggling to make their fast food chicken popular, and ran a ‘Chicken for Christmas’ ad campaign, with a santa-hatted colonel. It was ridiculously successful. Christmas in Japan has two essential food elements – strawberry shortcake and fried chicken. Yakitori places, KFC, grocery stores, and other outlets that do some form of chicken in the year, have a sign up period before christmas where you can order your pre-cooked chicken. Japanese kitchens can’t even manage to roast a whole chicken. I tried. It involved cutting up the chicken into pieces, cooking that first. Cover. Cook the potatoes. Cover. Roast the veg. Reheat everything. Hours of work, with a tiny toaster oven to produce a roast dinner that I never got a taste of. Anyone who doesn’t want to lose their minds just does what the rest of Japan does, and orders either KFC or some other version of fried or roast chicken, ready cooked and waiting to take home on Christmas day to be eaten immediately.

Christmas cake is another Japanese marketing hit – a Japanese baker wanted something other than heavy fruit cake for christmas, after the western influence introduced cake as a christmas thing. He tried French shortcake, but didn’t like the heavy biscuit, so replaced it with castella cake, added cream and strawberries, and there you have it! A shortcake minus the shortcake, a barrel of KFC and a very Japanese Christmas.

The west likes to homogenize everything. The true Japanese festive period with their own long held traditions is over new years, or Shogatsu. That is when Japan parties, has time off for family and celebrates the dark days of winter in their own way. Japanese christmas is for couples. Kids go to school, parents to work and the world goes on. It simply is not their thing. Like Halloween it got marketed to Japan, they picked what they liked out of it, put their own spin on it and go on their merry way, being Japanese…not American. There is no need for outrage or gawping at another country not being America. There is no need to mock and be horrified. Japan rejected Christianity. Good for them. Japan does things their own way and I suspect always will. There is a certain charm and honest commercialism about the season in Japan. They saw christmas through their own lens and made of it what they will. It never felt like Christmas over there…because it wasn’t. It was just another ‘holiday’ made to sell things like chicken and strawberry shortcake, and that honesty is refreshing.

Me, I miss it sometimes. Not the horror of what happened to me, but Japan, doing its own thing and smiling politely as the rest of the world wants them to be more American, whilst never ever giving in and doing just that. You have to admire their strength. Meanwhile I am having my quiet day. Ill eat some nice food, make another pot of tea, and remember walking through Tokyo with my two little children, looking at the store Christmas trees, because my husband would never buy one, and drinking hot chocolate together. Love. Family. Childhoods which have passed into memory. Christmases past. The one that is here to be got through as best I can, but no fried chicken and strawberry shortcake for me. Those days have long past and won’t be seen again.


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