The holiday has become increasingly popular in Japan, but it’s celebrated a lot differently.
Until recently, Christmas was obscure in Japan because, well, the country didn’t have a lot of Christians. It was only in the 1960s that the holiday became familiar by watching imported American and British TV sitcoms, many of which feature tradition-referencing Christmas episodes.
This presented the marketing department at Kentucky Fried Chicken with a great opportunity. KFC has had many restaurants in Japan for decades; the first opened in Nagoya in 1970. After learning that Americans and Europeans living in Japan made due with KFC chicken and sides during the winter holidays because it was the closet thing in Japan to a traditional turkey dinner, in 1974, it rolled out an ad campaign titled, “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!,” which means “Kentucky for Christmas!”
While the company just wanted to sell more chicken, it didn’t anticipate inspiring an enduring— and permanent—cultural phenomenon. Fried chicken is associated with Christmas in Japan the way that a Christmas tree is associated with Christmas in the West. It’s now so popular to head to a KFC for “Christmas Chicken” in Japan that reservations are required at many locations. It’s common to find each location’s statue of Colonel Sanders dressed as Santa Claus, and a line around the block, at various Japanese KFCs every December 24th and 25th.
KFC’s Japanese Christmas ads have become an annual tradition in their own right. They often feature celebrities and pop singers munching on drumsticks. The company’s Japanese website even features a Christmas countdown every year. As Yasuyuki Katagi, an executive director at a Japanese ad agency recently explained, “one of the reasons the campaign lasted so long is that the message is always the same: at Christmas you eat chicken.”
But it’s not the only way that Japanese people celebrate Christmas.
- Christmas cakes are popular in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but stores almost always make too many and are forced to mark them down on Dec. 24 to close them out. This has spawned a cruel slang expression. Women who haven’t found a husband by age 25 (get it?) might be called “Christmas Cakes.”
- Some celebrate the holiday much like Valentine’s Day. It’s considered a romantic time of the year and many couples spend the 25th having fancy dinners or romantic nights in hotels. Because of this, the average Japanese Christmas present tends to be a teddy bear, roses, or a box of chocolates.
- Christmas light displays are also becoming increasingly common. In 2000, a Tokyo shopping mall set up a gigantic “Godzilla Christmas Tree” complete with twinkling lights. It was also capable of “breathing” steam out of its mouth.