The Holidays in Japan: Christmas, Part I
If you're visiting Japan in December, it might be hard to believe that Christmas isn't actually a large, national holiday here. The stores playing carols, the light-laden trees, and the abundance of red and green motifs everywhere you look is bizarrely remniscient of the US around this time. However, despite the familiarity, there are a few key differences that really make Christmas in Japan a unique experience.
Fried Chicken and Strawberry Shortcake
Yes, those articles that pop up on your Facebook feed really are true; Japan eats fried chicken on Christmas. Specifically, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The official story goes like this: One Christmas, a group of foreigners in Japan were looking for turkey to celebrate the holiday with, but unable to find any, they decided instead to have a good ol' bucket of KFC. Some people at the company heard about this incident and came up with an actually rather brilliant marketing scheme, claiming that people in the West eat chicken on Christmas. The campaign was so successful that chicken is now a staple Christmas food, with people placing their orders for their Christmas buckets of KFC up to two months in advance in order to avoid the incredibly long lines on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps equally ubiquitous are Christmas cakes. While they do come in a number of varieties, the most common by far is a simple strawberry shortcake frosted in white and decorated with chocolate Santas, fresh strawberries, and other red and white toppings. While the flavor palate may not fit to our ideas of what Christmas desserts should taste like (gingerbread, peppermint, eggnogg, etc etc), they certainly look festive!
Love and Romance
Perhaps because it isn't a "real" holiday in Japan, Christmas is not something really celebrated as a family past childhood. Instead, Christmas, or rather Christmas Eve, is one of the biggest days of the year for couples. Much like with Valentine's Day, restaurants and hotels offer special packages, and securing a reservation at a popular location requires you to plan months in advance.
And although I can't really confirm whether this is true or not, apparently in the weeks leading up to Christmas, single young women will try desperately to find a boyfriend to avoid being alone on this couples' day.
Celebration without Context
Over the last two weeks or so, I've been doing Christmas presentations and lessons for my elementary and middle school students. With the younger students, I've been doing things like decorating paper ornaments to attach to paper Christmas trees and reading traditional Christmas stories in Japanese. My older students get a period-long game of Christmas Jeopardy with questions relating to traditions as well as pop culture. No matter the age though, I always try to leave a few minutes for Q&A time at the end for them to ask me anything they want to know about Christmas as it's celebrated in America or, more specifically, Hawaii.
Some of the things that they've asked have made sense considering the a-religious quality of the holiday here. Questions like, "Why is Christmas on December 25th?" or "Why is it called 'Christmas'?" or "How do people in America normally spend Christmas Day?"
On the other hand, though, I've been surprised by the number of questions regarding things that are considered the more 'superficial' side of Christmas that I had assumed would have been brought over with the commercial quality of holiday. Questions like, "Where does Santa live?" or "How does Santa afford to buy all the toys for all the children?" or "How does Santa get into the house?"
In America, I would argue that the majority, if not all, of the holidays that we celebrate have long histories and traditions that most people are (at least partially) aware of. Japan, on the other hand, doesn't really seem to care whether or not a holiday makes sense culturally or whether they know why exactly they're celebrating. The opportunity to celebrate itself is worth the celebration!
You can see this with many Western holidays that have made their way to the Land of the Rising Sun. Besides Christmas, Halloween and Valentine's Day, for example. The cynical might say that bringing these holidays over was just a way for companies to make more money, and I won't deny that there's likely a lot of truth to that statement, but I would also like to argue that the reason they've taken so well is because Japanese people love the opportunity to celebrate!
I've never seen so many people in costume for Halloween than in Osaka this past Hallow-weekend, and I'm fairly certain that when I'm in the city again this weekend, the streets will be filled with people ready to dance all night in Santa hats. Any opportunity to dress up and have fun is a great opportunity, so why pass it up, right?
So, if you are visiting Japan during the holiday season, don't be afraid to branch out from what you're used to. Eat some chicken and cake instead of the usual turkey and eggnog! Rather than holing up inside for a Silent Night, hit the town where there are sure to be crowds of people out having a good time!
(But if you're looking to celebrate something a little more quiet and traditional, stick around for a week or so for New Years!)