Every year on 25 December, Christmas enthusiasts across Japan partake in an annual eating tradition that’s more about American food culture than seasonal sentiment.
Families in the land of the rising sun commemorate the Western holiday with a distinct Japanese edge – instead of eating a roast turkey for Christmas, they feast on fast food fried chicken.
Ayumi Kumagai, who now lives in New York City (USA), grew up in a small town located near Osaka, Japan. The 40-year-old reminisces about her youth and family Christmas dinners that were filled with fried chicken.
“I was seven years old when I ate fried chicken for Christmas dinner for the first time,” Kumagai explains. “I just remember thinking how lucky I was to eat fried chicken and cake with my family – it was so fun. [When I think back to the experience of it] when I was young, it makes me feel joyful.”
“I was seven-years-old when I ate fried chicken for Christmas dinner for the first time.”
A day of romance and fried chicken
Japan doesn’t really celebrate Christmas in the same way that many western countries like Australia do. There are not many Christians living in Japan – Shintoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are the country’s major faiths. December 25 is also not a public holiday.
Yet, it’s customary for the city streets to be adorned with Christmas decorations and shops to market Christmas-themed products. So what is it that the Japanese are actually celebrating if the event is so far removed from its original religious roots?
Chie Tobita, who currently lives in Tokyo, tells SBS that Christmas in Japan is more about festive fun than spiritual meaning.
“The actors are usually eating turkey at Christmas, so that is something people try to do in Japan. But instead of eating turkey, we have chicken as it’s a similar meat.”
Likened to a blend of New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day, December 25 has become known as a day of romance. It’s where singles have house parties (featuring chicken on the table) or date each other at fancy restaurants, while couples with young kids who want to enjoy a Western celebration stay at home and eat fried chicken.
“We have grown up watching Christmas celebrations on American TV and in the movies,” Tobita says. “The actors are usually eating turkey at Christmas, so that is something people try to do in Japan. But instead of eating turkey, we have chicken as it’s a similar meat.
“When you go to the supermarket, you see grilled or fried chicken being sold at Christmas time. There are lots of ads on TV for fried [take away] chicken. We also think that Colonel Sanders looks a lot like Santa Claus, especially when he is dressed in red clothes on TV for Christmas commercials. So to us, Christmas time is when you eat chicken.”
The luxurious meaning of a fried chook
Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney, Rebecca Suter explains that Japan’s love affair with Christmas and eating crispy-skinned chicken developed in the 1960s.
“At that time, there was economic growth and the idea of having western foods that were new and fancy [was favoured],” A/Prof Suter tells SBS.
Although turkey is traditional, not many families had the space to roast a giant bird as most Japanese kitchens are very small. So people opted for chicken instead. Karaage chicken was already a popular dish at that time, so it made sense that the masses took a liking to American-style fried chicken.
“In a way, fried chicken at Christmas became a symbol that Japan had recovered from the aftermath of World War Two. It demonstrated that people were doing well as they could afford to have nice, luxurious foods like fried chicken, eaten to celebrate foreign festivities.”
The 1970s then saw a rise in companies trying to sell more products by jumping on the Christmas-theme bandwagon. With the help of some clever marketing, the Christmas tradition of eating fried chicken became solidified within Japan’s national culture.
A/Prof Suter says although that’s how the fried chicken tradition began, it’s not what the annual practice is about today. “Christmas, for most people in Japan, has just become an excuse to do something different.
“Limited edition and seasonal [celebratory] food in Japan is huge in general. The Japanese are also very big on seasonal foods as well. For example, winter is about everything chestnut and pumpkin. So it makes sense that Christmas editions of fried chicken are very popular.”
“In a way, fried chicken at Christmas became a symbol that Japan had recovered from the war.”
According to BBC online, around 3.6 million Japanese families eat fried chicken from the famous American fast-food chain – Kentucky Fried Chicken – every festive season.
Orders for 25 December need to be placed months ahead and people queue up outside takeaway outlets to pick up their fried chook. The Japanese variety of fried chicken also provides wasabi, soy and other culturally appropriate condiments with the poultry. Those who miss out can buy fried chicken at the supermarket or make their own at home. But cooking chicken for Christmas is not a very common practice.
“There’s a reason why I like to go to Japan at Christmas,” says A/Prof Suter. “It’s really the most wonderful time of the year.
“Christmas is a very felt holiday in Japan. It’s just that it’s an imported one. But, Christmas is also a holiday that the Japanese have distinctly made their own in many ways – especially by eating fried chicken.”
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