Countries around the world have their own special traditional foods they eat at Christmas. Many households in the United States enjoy ham as the centrepiece of their dinner, and the United Kingdom usually has turkey, just to name two. People around the world enjoy desserts like gingerbread, Christmas cookies, and fruit cake. But what about Japan?
Japan does not have any Christmas “tradition” rooted in a long history itself, as Christmas is a holiday that was adopted from Western countries and culture. But that doesn’t stop Japan from having developed its own Christmas food culture in recent years - and it's just as unique as Japan always tends to be!
The first Christmas food tradition in Japan is one not too far removed from what you may be familiar with, and that is Christmas cake. The second, though, may surprise you. It's fried chicken! And not just any fried chicken; the most popular is from Kentucky Fried Chicken, and it's so beloved, it has to be pre-ordered to guarantee you get some for you and your family. Let’s have a deeper look at the Japanese Christmas tradition of eating fried chicken and cake!
Let’s start with the Christmas cake, as it's a bit closer to many other countries’ holiday food. After all, sweets like fruit cakes are eaten all around the world at Christmas time. While Japan does not do the fermented fruit style that some people may be familiar with, it's still very popular to eat cake at Christmas time. Of course, just about any cake is acceptable as a Christmas cake, but there is one kind that is the most popular and recognizable; you may have even seen it in anime before. It's strawberry shortcake! These vanilla sponge cakes are often layered with strawberries in the middle, and always have white icing and whole strawberries on the top, too. And while strawberry shortcake is available all the time at cafes and bakeries, Christmas is definitely its time to shine.
Strawberry shortcakes are the perfect colour scheme for the Christmas season, being red and white, and strawberries are a seasonal fruit around Christmastime in Japan. Red and white are also the colours of the Japanese flag, and Christmas cakes represent prosperity in Japan. After WWII, American soldiers brought many sweets to Japan with them, handing them out to children. According to NPR, it was a small glimpse at what a prosperous life people led in America, as sweets were a luxury in Japan until postwar years. Today, embracing a Western holiday that was brought to Japan after the war, and celebrating it by eating a sweet cake that is so different from traditional Japanese sweets (which are not that sweet at all) shows that Japan has come a long way since those days.
Christmas cakes are advertised all over Japan starting as early as October, and many families will pre-order the ones that they want from local bakeries, the supermarket, and even convenience stores. With many different sizes available, from large ones for a whole family to ones advertised to single people, there are plenty of Christmas cake options. Christmas cakes are even popular as presents in Japan, and many children look forward to eating Christmas cake alongside getting a gift from Santa. It's easy to understand why; who doesn’t love to eat cake, especially on a holiday? In fact, Christmas cake is so beloved that its even been made into an emoji for phones - and its probably on yours, too! Plus if you don’t want a traditional strawberry shortcake, you can always choose a different favourite - or even an anime-themed one like the convenience store Lawson offered in 2021 with their Kimetsu no Yaiba Christmas cake!
Okay, the Christmas cake is pretty easy to understand - but what about fried chicken? Fried chicken has become the most popular and common food to be enjoyed on Christmas Day across Japan, with Kentucky Fried Chicken being the number one provider for the holiday. KFC is so popular that you have to order your chicken dinner for Christmas well in advance at your local store, because you’re very unlikely to be able to buy it on the actual day. Beyond KFC, local supermarkets also sell pre-orders of fried chicken platters, as well as a huge amount of chicken for people who want to cook it themselves. But…why?
According to Smithsonian Magazine, this obsession with KFC for Christmas can be traced back to an incredibly successful marketing campaign in Japan in 1974, declaring “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!”, or “Kentucky for Christmas.” When foreigners living in Japan were unable to find turkey available anywhere, KFC saw it as a great opportunity to try to get people to eat their chicken and offered it alongside wine for an incredibly reasonable price. The advertising campaign made its way to the TV, and the “Americanness” of the campaign won the hearts of people across the country.
Things haven’t changed since the 1970s; KFC continues to make the most money of the year during the Christmas season. And these days, they offer a bucket of chicken that comes with champagne and, you guessed it, Christmas cake! Christmas isn’t a national holiday in Japan, so many people still have to work or even attend school like a normal day. That means many families don’t have time to make a huge Christmas meal and considering only 1% of the population in Japan is Christian anyway, it doesn’t make sense to. Rather, it's much more appealing to just bring home a big bucket of chicken and enjoy it with your family while celebrating the commercial side of Christmas that was brought to Japan after the war.
The next time you’re watching a slice of life anime set in Japan, keep your eyes open for Christmas cakes and fried chicken. You’re likely to see at least one, if not both, of these delicious food items if the characters have a chance to eat! It's also not too late if you want to celebrate a Japanese-style Christmas yourself this year; just head to your local KFC and take home the biggest bucket of chicken your wallet (and stomach) allows you to. At least they’re not likely to be sold out on Christmas day wherever you are! Oh, and don’t forget the cake, of course.
How does Japan’s way of celebrating Christmas compare to your own family’s traditions? Could you get used to having cake and fried chicken for Christmas as well? Have you ever celebrated Christmas in Japan, or had a modern Japanese Christmas meal at home? Have you noticed any great Christmas scenes in anime lately? We would love to hear from you in the comments!