By Maria Carcaboso Abrie
Tokyo, Dec 23 (EFE).- In Japan, where only 1.5 percent of the population are Christians, Christmas staples of the West such as turkey and stuffing are cast aside in favor of fried chicken, strawberry shortcake and dates.
Japan celebrates the festive season with no religious fervor, but in November its cities are brightly lit and in December certain squares in the country’s large cities put on European-inspired Christmas markets.
The Christmas marketing that led to Santa Claus swapping green for red is also felt here: the fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) was responsible for establishing, after a successful campaign, one of the most popular traditions of Japanese Christmas: eating fried chicken.
Instead of chocolate or Christmas cake, sponge cake with strawberries and cream is the Japanese sweet of choice at this time of year and must be booked weeks, if not months, in advance.
The local confectionery and restaurant chain Fujiya was a pioneer in the early 1900s in marketing this sweet, whose white and red colors evoke the national flag.
CHRISTMAS EVE, JAPAN’S VALENTINE’S DAY
The height of romance in Japan comes not on Feb. 14, but on Christmas Eve, when couples go out for dinner and stroll under the Christmas lights at night, which is more celebrated than the day of Christmas itself.
Although the origin of this tradition is unclear, some say it is due to the Japanese musical hit ‘My Lover is Father Christmas’, which topped the charts when it was released in 1982.
The song would be to Japan what ‘Last Christmas’ or ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ are to the West.
JAPANESE CHRISTMAS MENU
Local conbinis (24-hour convenience stores), restaurants and burger joints serve special Christmas fried chicken menus and KFC estimates that some 3.6 million Japanese families sit down to a hearty feast of fried chicken every December.
In fact, many outlets accept Christmas orders as early as late October to avoid long lines forming outside their doors on Christmas Day.
The prelude to this custom is said to be the ‘Kentucky for Christmas’ advertising campaign launched in 1974 by KFC, inspired by a foreign customer who came to the chain’s first location in Japan to buy fried chicken after an intense but unsuccessful search for turkey to cook for Christmas.
It is also said that the dish became the quintessential Japanese Christmas food after the first KFC manager in the country falsely presented it as a typical American Christmas food to boost sales.
Whatever the origin of this well-established custom, the fact is that fried chicken is not far removed from the original Japanese cuisine, which includes a very similar dish, ‘karaage’, the Japanese culinary technique to fry pieces of meat coated in panko batter.
Figures released by KFC put the chain’s revenue in Japan between December 20-25 in 2018 at ¥6.9 billion (about $48.5 million), 10 times more than the average day’s turnover.
CENTURY OLD CAKE FOR DESSERT
The reigning Christmas dessert for the Japanese is the strawberry cream shortcake introduced in 1910 by the Fujiya chain, but discontinued after World War II due to food shortages that made sugary sweets unattainable for most people.
As Japan’s economy recovered, the ingredients needed started becoming available again and the cake was revived to become a symbol of Japan’s recovery.