To an outsider’s eyes, a Japanese Christmas can make for a frankly bemusing spectacle. A friend, for example, once swore to have seen an illuminated diorama featuring Santa Claus depicted in blinking neon lights on the wall of a department store. Hardly unusual, except that in this case St. Nick wasn’t accompanied by his reindeer, but rather a crucified Jesus.
Whether true or, perhaps more likely, the product of sake-fuelled delirium and an overactive imagination, the story is certainly indicative of the shape taken by Christmas celebrations in Japan. As a country with almost no tradition of Christianity, and where considerably less than 1% of the population identify as adherents of the religion, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the holiday fails to elicit the same emotional response as in many Western countries.
In recent decades the Japanese have wholeheartedly embraced the aesthetic of Christmas, but without necessarily taking any interest in the meaning behind the imagery – the festival remains a resolutely secular, and consumerist, affair. While some Christmas traditions have translated to Japan – decorations and the giving of gifts – others are notable by their absence. In a nation as frequently food-obsessed as Japan, the culinary overindulgence often associated with the holiday might reasonably be expected to be among those elements adopted with relish. Anyone expecting to find a turkey dinner however, will find themselves disappointed.
In recent decades the Japanese have wholeheartedly embraced the aesthetic of Christmas, but without necessarily taking any interest in the meaning behind the imagery
That is not to say that the holiday does not come with an associated meal – it simply isn’t one which involves roast potatoes and stuffing. In fact, the food most frequently associated with Christmas in Japan is a bucket of fried chicken. Since the early 1970s, fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken and the celebration of Christmas have been inextricably linked in the Japanese popular imagination. Indeed, the consumption of oily, battered poultry on Christmas Eve is, arguably, the closest thing the country has to a home-grown Christmas tradition.
According to the fast food giant’s lore, this improbable connection stems from a particularly attentive store manager’s overhearing an expat customer’s Christmas Day lamentations that the chain’s fare was the closest he could find to his childhood turkey back home. The manager passed this titbit on to his higher-ups and, in 1974, KFC’s incredibly successful ‘Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ (Kentucky for Christmas!) campaign was born.
Kentucky for Christmas!
Such is the success with which KFC’s marketing department have established their franchise as the destination du jour for Christmas Eve that reservation forms are made available in early December each year to ensure that customers avoid disappointment when stores inevitably sell out. The rush of customers is so great that even back office staff, including many senior executives, report for front line service each December 24th to help cope with demand. Numbers show that an average store’s profits more than double in December as compared to any other calendar month.
A Christmas feast courtesy of the Colonel doesn’t come cheap – KFC’s Christmas 2012 menu includes various permutations on their signature fried chicken sets through to the ‘Premium Roast Chicken’ meal weighing in at a hefty ¥5600 – about forty pounds.
By Sam Jones