That Christmas is different in Japan shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, even the most generous estimates place Christians at 1% or less of the population. Nowhere is this clearer than in the differences between the Christmas meals. While Western countries enjoy mouthfuls of turkey, the Japanese are more likely to be found eating chicken… fried chicken at that!
Similarly, foreign residents looking forward to a marzipan-coated, fruit cake or mince pies are soon disappointed to find that they are difficult to find outside of import stores. While there are many factors that resulted in these changes to the meal, one of the biggest was the changing technological landscape which changed the Japanese diet and in turn the Christmas celebrations.
One of the first questions that visitors have about the Japanese Christmas meal is why Japanese people even have a Christmas meal at all. After all, this is a country which banned Christianity for much of its history. Professor Klaus Kracht of the Institute for Japan in Berlin has written extensively on the subject.
His theory is that the Japanese Christmas’ origin can be traced to the country opening up at the end of the 19th century. During this period, intellectuals were given increased opportunities to travel and more foreign people were being hired in the big Japanese cities. As the country became more international, Christmas celebrations began to be associated with a newly formed wealthy, cosmopolitan class and spread as this enviable group was imitated.
The increasing opportunities for international travel in these years also lead to the most notable change to the Christmas meal: the consumption of fried chicken instead of turkey. Chicken was introduced to the Japanese Christmas meal by the foreign workers who helped modernize the country in the post-WWII years.
Unable to find the more traditional meat, these workers settled for another kind of poultry, leading to chicken replacing turkey. Unsurprisingly, it was hard to convince Japanese people that ugly flavorless turkeys should be worth more than the chickens that were readily available, so they happily adopted this modification to the tradition.
While foreign workers started the trend, it was the next important advance in technology that solidified the link between Christmas and chicken in the Japanese mind. By the 1970s, the TV had gone from an expensive luxury to a feature of everyone’s home. Marketers and salespeople soon spotted the opportunities this new technology offered.
Kentucky Fried Chicken were one of the earliest companies to take advantage of advertising’s possibilities by linking the slogan クリスマスはケンタッキー (Christmas is Kentucky) with the festivities. This campaign made the company’s name in Japan and even now its sales peak in December.
Many advances in technology are also responsible for the unique Christmas cakes Japanese families enjoy. Whereas the Western image is a fruit-filled and marzipan-covered cake, Japan usually favors the fluffy, cream-filled cakes that are usually eaten for birthdays back home. According to a Japan Times article, these Japanese-style cakes are filled with all the things that were scarce at the time Christmas was popularized in the country.
At this time, fruit was viewed as a luxury. Things like strawberries were popular presents for the year-end oseibo (お歳暮) gift-giving traditions. Advances in farming around this time enabled perfect strawberries to be harvested all year round, allowing strawberries to be used in Christmas cakes slightly before their peak harvest time in late winter.
Strawberries have become a mainstay of the Japanese Christmas cake to this day. Alongside these farming advances, the refrigerator was becoming a mainstay in most Japanese homes in the 70s meaning that Japanese started wanting fresh things like cream on their cakes. The result? Christmas cakes covered with cream and strawberries.
These days of course, technology has overtaken the festival. Similar to most Western countries, children in Japan are told by commercials on the TV or Internet exactly what toys and games to buy. While this may seem to be a modern problem, history shows us that traditions adopted from foreign countries are often influenced by the technological landscape.
So while the increasing effect of technology on the festival may seem to be a bad thing, there is no reason that Japan cannot use the increasing influence of technology to create something uniquely Japanese… even if it is fried in batter or fluffy, light and covered with strawberries!