As a grown adult, I never thought I’d find myself at Christmas time waiting in line again with other excited boys and girls, to receive a festive token from the jolly man with the white beard and white collared suit, Colonel Sanders. Yes, you heard me right. Colonel Sanders?! KFC? Kentucky Fried Christmas is how they roll here in Japan. To international surprise, this "world-class" eatery is the country's No.1 choice for couples and families to enjoy a festive dinner. You must book your bird well in advance, or be prepared to wait in line, as the Christmas spirit of freshly fried chicken wafts over you.
KFC Santa Claus by Nathan Hosken
Clearly, a little backstory might help to decode this bizarre mash-up tradition.
After the Second World War, America was integral in rebuilding the Japanese economy. Japan looked to the USA as a symbol of prosperity and attainment of wealth. As a result of this partnership, Western brands became more commonplace. Yet because of local religious and social structures, they were received differently than in the United States. In the 1970s, the first KFC opened in Nagoya and was incredibly popular. Japanese customers loved KFC, but the chain also filled a gap in the Christmas dinner market for poultry-loving foreigners literally going "cold turkey". Christmas turkey was impossible to find. This shortage sparked an idea, leading to a successful advertising campaign: "Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!" (Kentucky for Christmas!) KFC deserves full credit for implanting the far-reaching mental association of festive holidays with deep-fried chicken here in Japan.
You may be more familiar with other Japanese Christmas traditions than you realize. Have you ever noticed those tiny cake emojis on your phone? The ones with the whipped cream and strawberries? Behold, Japanese "Christmas cakes".
Japanese Christmas cakes by Nathan Hosken
Christmas "sheep" cake in Japan by Nathan Hosken
While some Christmas cakes are meant to resemble the Yule log linked to the UK and Germany, Japan gives another amusing example of how an international tradition can get mashed-up and a little lost in translation. In a country with a Christian population of just 1%, nativity scenes are swapped for extravagant displays of lavishly decorated sponge cakes. Christmas cakes are eaten with kids and loved ones on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You can give one as a gift, and even send or receive your cake by refrigerated mail order all across the country. Almost all imported holiday icons take a life of their own in Japan, as fun, commercial entities.
Santa lives in Finland -- Photo by Visit Finland
But don’t lose hope: Santa still makes an appearance in Japan. Arriving at Narita Airport around early December, Santa takes selfies and distributes gifts to all the good children. According to modern Japanese folklore, he prefers to fly Finnair direct from his homeland of Finland. Why? Santa relocated from the North Pole to Finland with the help of a savvy company's marketing campaign. You can write to Santa and for a small fee, get a letter in return. The Folks at Finnair got in on the deal -- and nabbed their fair share of marketing fame! -- when they helped Santa-san realize his methods of travel were a little archaic. Poor Rudolph should probably start looking elsewhere for employment!
Santa's official airline -- from Flickr cc by Franklin Reynolds
Perhaps the meaning of Christmas in Japan is about as fluffy as a strawberry sponge cake and whipped cream. Still, no one can argue it isn’t a time for reflecting on the year, enjoying the joyful buzz of Tokyo, or impressing your loved ones with a reservation at your local fast food restaurant if the illuminations aren’t cutting it.
In the end, Japan puts forth a merry holiday season, where anyone can make it whatever the heck they want it to be!
Planning your travels to Japan? Check out these great trips. Copy, customize and make them your own!