Ah…Christmas. Upon hearing that word, you can’t help but think of a crackling fireplace, snow gently falling towards the ground, and a succulent roast turkey (unless you’re from Down Under, in which it’d be a sizzling barbie, the great Aussie sun beating down your back, and all manner of fresh seafood – prawns, of course; not shrimp).
Approximately 1 percent of Japan’s population is Christian; and Christmas isn’t recognised as a national holiday there. So is there really enough to write a post, much less a food-related post, about this?
Turns out Christmas is celebrated quite readily in Japan. It’s not celebrated like in Western cultures. As they are apt to do, the Japanese have developed their own unique Christmas customs that they follow with much aplomb and zeal – many related to food, like any good holiday. It is the most recognised, popularised, and integrated festival of foreign origins.
Christmas doesn’t have much religious connotations, except for perhaps, that 1 percent who are Christians. However, it does hold a lot of historic and cultural meaning. Christmas was popularised after WWII. At this time, it represented America – the country Japan strived to emulate. The Japanese were restrained so much during WWII that afterwards, when Japan’s economy surged in the 1960s and 1970s, discretionary spending and frolic was rampant. It was an expression of newly-found wealth, self-confidence, and confidence in the Japanese economy. During this time an exodus from rural areas into metropolitan cities, the extinction of the generational family structure, and the acceptance of all things Western meant that some traditional festivals and customs were being supplanted by modern, Western ones. Retailers heavily marketed these new Western holidays, appealing to Japan’s newly found consumerism and individualism. What was marketed though, were often not traditional Western customs associated with the holiday. Rather it was what made the best monetary business-sense; hence why Western holidays in Japan – Christmas, Valentine’s, Easter – are for the most part, commercial (much like how Australian retailers are trying to push Halloween here – a personal pet peeve), and why they have unique Japanese customs.
There are three main customs of a Japanese Christmas. And all of them tie in with food. These are:
- Christmas Cake
- Christmas Eve dates
An integral part of any Japanese Christmas is a Christmas cake, particularly an ichigo-shootokeeki (いちご ショートケーキ strawberry shortcake) – a sponge cake layered with fresh whipped cream and strawberries, garnished with strawberries. During Christmastime, every corner shop will sell this cake. It is so iconic that there is even an emoji for it.
What is interesting is that this cake hold a lot of historic and cultural meaning. The round shape is a nod to traditional Japanese sweets (和菓子・わがし) and to the Shinto shrines (anything round is associated with shrines). The white of the whipped cream is likened to the white of rice – the holy grail of staple foods in Japan. The colour red is believed to repel evil spirits. However it is the combination of white and red that is the most auspicious, as this is the colour combination on the Japanese flag.
The History Behind the Rise of the Christmas Cake
During WWII the Japanese were subjected to strict food rations, particularly with foreign ingredients such as sugar and butter, and the government discouraged unnecessary spending with the slogan “luxury is the enemy” (贅沢は敵だ・ぜいたく は てきだ). In 1944 the Japanese government ceased its offical sugar distribution, and by 1946 the average consumption of sugar per capita was 200 grams per year (in comparison, average consumption was 13 kilograms in the 1930s to early 1940s).
After WWII and Japan’s loss, the economy was in dire straits. Food shortages were common, even more so for sweets. During the postwar US Occupation (1945-1952), American soldiers would sometimes hand out sweets from the US, which were viewed by the Japanese as the epitome of luxury and wealth. They ignited a desire for wealth and Americanisation; as such, sweets were one of the catalysts that propelled the recovery of Japan’s economy. As the economy surged and prosperity began to return to people, sugar consumption increased. Manufacturers filled the shelved with mass produced yougashi (洋菓子・ようがし Western-style sweets) like caramels and chocolate. By 1956, average sugar consumption per capital was 12.9 kilograms.
The combination of the desire to Americanise, eat sugary foods, and to spend on luxuries was the perfect opportunity for marketers to introduce Christmas into Japan. It was brought as a way to celebrate Japan’s economic prosperity. The Japanese were exposed to the ‘picture-perfect’ US Christmas, which depicted bedecked trees, Santa, and cake (albeit fruit cake). What entrenched the concept of the Christmas cake was the fact that it was easily adaptable to the Japanese palate and culture (re the previous discussion regarding the symbolism of the cake’s shape and colours).
Evolution of the Christmas Cake
The first version of the Japanese Christmas cake was iced with buttercream, as it meant it did not require refrigeration. Other than that, the rest of the main elements were the same: sponge cake and fresh strawberries. The use of rare, Western ingredients such as butter, milk and strawberries enhanced the perceived value of the overall cake. Not that the concept of cake itself required that much help. In those times anything youshoku was associated with favourable notions such as affluence, modernism, and high social status. If you could afford to purchase a cake during the post-war period, you were considered to be doing extremely well.
Once most households began to own their own personal refrigerators, fresh whipped cream took precedence as the icing of choice. It was considered classier due to its pure white colour and lighter texture. As for strawberries, development in agricultural technologies meant they could now be supplied all year round. With wealth returning to more people, and with the formation of Japan’s new middle class, the increase in discretionary income was a marketing division’s hot opportunity. Despite the fact that the ingredients, and hence the cake, became cheaper, they never lost their association with Japan’s economic growth.
Today, you can get all kinds of Christmas cakes in Japan. However, the vast majority will purchase some version of a strawberry shortcake – be it a simple cream and strawberries only version, or one glitzed up with chocolate filigrees and fairy dust. Strawberries are still heavily associated with Christmas cake, like how bacon and eggs are inseparable.
The Christmas Cake Theory
You would never have guessed but this theory relates to a Japanese woman’s prime marrying age.
Christmas cakes sell well in the few days leading up to the day, and particularly on Christmas Eve. During this time these cakes are able to fetch full price because they are in demand. This is true on Christmas Day as well, but the desirability of a Christmas Cake decreases as the day wears on. By the 26th, stores are discounting whatever inventory of cake they have left as they are past their prime.
Due to this occurrence, people began comparing the martial eligibility of unmarried women to the dates of Christmas Cake sales. If a women was over the age of 25 and still unmarried, she was considered to be too old and undesirable, just like how no one really wants a Christmas Cake past the 25th of December. Women aged under 26 are desirable ‘Christmas cakes’; if they remain unmarried once they are 26 and over, they become undesirable ‘leftover Christmas cakes’. This term was popular around the 1980s, but thankfully it has fallen out of common use.
Every Christmas approximately 3.6 million families in Japan purchase KFC as a special holiday treat. It is firmly entrenched in their culture; children grow up thinking this is a completely ordinary thing to do on Christmas. It is such a busy time for the fried chicken franchise that one has to order their dinner weeks in advance or risk waiting hours in line on the day.
Outside of Japan, Christmas is a time for a home-cooked feast. Turkeys are left to defrost for 2-3 days, brined for a few hours, and then roasted for a few more hours. The Christmas pudding is made in November so it has time to mature. Ovens (or barbies) are running all day, while the constant rhythmic chop-chop of the knife hitting the cutting board warns you not to disturb the cook lest you be put on dish duties! Here, it would be considered rude to purchase fast food for the Christmas Day feast. The difference is that Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan. People have to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Additionally Christmas is celebrated in a commercial sense rather than a religious sense; so the thought of spending so much time to cook an elaborate meal is rather ludicrous to the Japanese.
That’s not to say that the KFC one purchases during Christmas is just your usual, ordinary KFC. The KFC Christmas Party Barrels usually contain complete meals, with side dishes, cake and drinks (even wine!). Some barrels provide a whole roast chicken instead of fried pieces.
While upscale KFC is great, for many families it’s not about the food itself. Rather the custom of getting the whole family together to enjoy the meal is what’s important. And that is a Christmas notion that is present wherever Christmas is celebrated.
How KCF Became Tied to Christmas
Unlike the Christmas Cake, the ‘KFC for Christmas’ was purely a marketing idea. In 1970 Okawara Takeshi, the manager of the first KFC in Japan, overheard a few foreigners lament about how they could not get turkey for Christmas. Shortly after, he dreamed of a ‘party barrel’ that could be marketed during Christmas, hoping that fried chicken would be a good substitute for turkey. It worked so well that the KFC corporation nationalised this plan in 1974, creating the slogan ‘kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii ‘(クリスマスにはケンタッキー Kentucky for Christmas). It quickly became a national phenomenon as people were unsure of what exactly to do during Christmas. The Christmas Party Barrel filled a need in the marketplace. Okawara climbed up the corporate ladder and served as CEO from 1984 to 2002.
KFC’s mascot, the grinning, white-haired Colonel Sanders, also contributed to KFC’s popularity during Christmas. This is because Japan places a high value on their elders. Stores would dress the Colonel up as Santa during the holidays; he looked very much the part of the ideal Santa. Like strawberry shortcake, the Colonel became another symbol of Christmas.
Christmas Eve Dates
Christmas is a time for families…in everywhere else except for Japan. In Japan, Christmas, particularly Christmas Eve, is considered a romantic holiday. Many couples go out to romantic dinners in fancy restaurants. These restaurants release Christmas Eve bookings months in advance and you would be hard pressed to find an empty table on the day without a reservation (on this note: you would definitely NOT want to treat your date to KFC… Christmas cake, however, is fine as long as you’re not cheap about it).
Again, this is the result of heavy marketing and commercialism. Pop culture draws upon this (now how many shojo mangas have a romantic Christmas Eve scene??), and this creates social expectations to have a boyfriend or girlfriend by this time.
Although all these Christmas customs are unique to Japan, the underlying meanings are the same as anywhere else. It is a time to get together with your loved ones, whether that is family or a significant other; to eat, be merry, and end off the year with good memories.
Barton, E 2016, ‘Why Japan Celebrates Christmas with KFC’, BBC, 19 December, viewed 1 June 2017, < http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161216-why-japan-celebrates-christmas-with-kfc>.
Boissoneault, L 2016, ‘Why the Japanese Eat Cake for Christmas’, Smithsonian, 23 December, viewed 9 June 2017, <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-japanese-eat-cake-christmas-180961556/>.
Bruzek, A 2014, ‘Japan’s Beloved Christmas Cake Isn’t About Christmas At All’, The Salt, 16 December, viewed 9 June 2017, <http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/16/369830094/a-christmas-cake-that-isn-t-about-christmas-at-all>.
Konagaya, H 2001, The Christmas Cake: a Japanese tradition of American Prosperity, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 121-136.
Suzuki, M 2013, ‘How to Celebrate Christmas in Japan: KFC, couples, and of course, old cake’, Tofugu, 23 December, viewed 10 June 2017, <https://www.tofugu.com/japan/christmas-in-japan/>.
Taylor, K 2016, ‘How KFC Made Christmas All About Fried Chicken – In Japan’, Business Insider, 23 December, viewed 1 June 2017, < http://www.businessinsider.com/how-kfc-became-a-christmas-tradition-in-japan-2016-12/?r=AU&IR=T>.
Ref 1: https://emojiisland.com/products/birthday-cake-emoji-icon
Ref 2: http://wowsabi.co/5-things-christmas-japan-everyone-know/
Ref 3: http://www.express.co.uk/life-style/food/628477/Japanese-KFC-Japan-Christmas-day-dinner-turkey