The KFC Christmas in Japan

By Ilaria Vecchi, PhD researcher in Religious Studies, Media, and Visual Anthropology at LTU and Visiting Lecturer at York St John University

A few days before Christmas I found myself talking to a Japanese friend about end of year celebrations, including the impending trip back home and family visits. When she requested a photograph of my festive home decoration, I sent a pic of my dining table by the window with some candles lit for the occasion and decorative lights around the window. She found it very kawaii (pretty) and promptly reminded me that “we celebrate it too, with lights and the rest of the bits and pieces.” Unlike Halloween, which is celebrated with annual parades in Tokyo and many other cities over the country, Christmas has gained a special place in the Japanese calendar. The popularity of the celebration is not due to the number of Christian followers; on the country – barely a 1% profess to being Christian. As Kimura (2005) suggests, “the Christian basis for the holiday does not even enter the consciousness of most Japanese celebrating Christmas.” Not only in Japan but in the so-called Christian world too, Christmas has very little to do with “religion”. It is enough to observe how we are reminded about the incoming Christmas period: beginning with what the advertisement TV broadcasters propose, to the messages on social media, and concluding with the choice of songs most radio stations play during December: this annual celebration is rarely about Jesus or the Christian idea of peace.

Christmas is celebrated in a number of countries in the world, so it goes without saying that there are variations in the form of observing it. As Hobsbawn and Ranger (1983) theorised traditions are invented and strengthen over time because institutions and society support them. As for culture, traditions are not static objects but change with time. In our case, Japan, a country rich in celebrations often related to harvesting time and other seasonal recurrences, has shaped its very own way of marking this event, adopting and personalising its tradition. It is crucial to remember that the most important event at this time of year is the New Year’s Day celebration.

As many authors have suggested, Christmas has filled the vacuum in the calendar of annual events. Similarly in Europe or America, the spirit behind Christmas in Japan is capitalism where the celebration is seen as the perfect occasion for buying a small present or milling about in a German Market decorated with millions of lights in Roppongi, maybe after having taken a photo with a Finnish Santa.

Picture1Figure 1 Christmas menu adverts on the Facebook page of KFC Japan (Credit KFC Japan).

So, if on one side Japan replicates the classic symbols and characters populating any European city square in December, on the other hand, it adapts it to its own taste. In Japan, this annual event has a “love affair” connotation by being associated especially with couples. Not a surprise since most of our Christmas pop songs talk about love and longing for a mysterious partner, and everything rotates around spending money for a loved one. Turkey, a product mainly consumed in US-influenced Anglo-Saxon countries (in other geographic areas fish or other types of meat are consumed), is substituted with chicken and KFC in particular, which has organised a suitable Christmas package for its Japanese consumers (fig. 1). Like many other chains, KFC found a vacuum in the market and designed its product to satisfy the demand for something similar to a festive American dinner. This all-in-one box – also known as a Party Barrel – contains fried chicken, salad, cake, and disposable plates or wine for the most expensive version; the most exciting thing is the queue people seem keen on facing to book their meal. As any respectable tradition, you need your pilgrimage, your ritual to confirm you are part of a larger community of followers, thus the food, the market and the rush to The Fast Food (Fig. 2). These characteristics make of Christmas a perfect example of globalisation, providing crucial information to explain much of what we see in Japan – or other countries – and recontextualising it.

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Figure 2 People queuing outside a KFC in Tokyo (Credits KFC Japan).

Apart from these curiosities, often looked at as exotic behaviours, there are a few interesting points which are worth noticing. The place Christmas has gained within  Japanese society over recent decades is indeed considered very relevant, as it appears in surveys from the late 1990s that the majority of Japanese people interviewed listed it within their annual celebrations. Nevertheless, this event is kept at bay and spatially restricted to some areas, marking out even more its consumeristic character. Christmas is confined to places like malls, markets and the like, and excluded from temples, shrines or Japanese related institutions such as the Royal family. Therefore, if on the one hand, this celebration is de-facto incorporated and consumed by millions of Japanese, on the other hand, its nature is restricted by limiting its presence in space and in time. In fact, after the 25th of December, all decorations are removed to make space for the main annual event, the New Year’s celebration.

Junko Kimura & Russell Belk (2005) Christmas in Japan: Globalization Versus Localization, Consumption Markets & Culture, 8:3, 325-338

Hobsbawm and Ranger (1984) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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