Hello Kitty and KFC: Christmas in the Land of the Rising Sun

Illustration by Christy Shao, Graphics Editor
Illustration by Christy Shao, Graphics Editor

Santa-san is coming to town! It’s December in Tokyo and the city is decked with depictions of that jolly man in a red suit, whom the locals know as Santa-san. Like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Christmas is a Western festivity whose place in Japanese culture has become cemented.

Japan’s predominantly Buddhist/Shinto population has adopted Christmas not so much for its Christian background, but for its merry atmosphere. During the holiday season, shopping centres and convenience stores pipe relentless rotations of Christmas tunes like “Jingle Bell Rock” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Meanwhile, the Japanese appetite for cute characters is satiated by decorative snowmen, reindeer, and holiday versions of the ever-present Hello Kitty.

As in North America, Christmas lights add to the charm of winter in Japan, but with an epic twist. Breathtaking displays called “Illuminations” are assembled in pedestrian thoroughfares, where they remain for the duration of the season. Christmas Eve is a night for couples to take a romantic stroll in the multi-coloured glow of the Illuminations. Some high school students will even procure a boyfriend or girlfriend as the date approaches, so as not to miss out on this enchanting opportunity. In most cases, the relationships are disassembled faster than the elaborate displays.

Christmas Day, on the other hand, is an occasion for families and fried chicken. After work, which is obligatory on Dec. 25, some parents stop by KFC and pick up buckets of finger-lickin’ good chicken to take home to their expectant families. Customers are welcomed by posters of Colonel Sanders in a Santa suit, resembling Saint Nick with his snowy beard and rosy cheeks. This seasonal marketing campaign, which originated in 1974, has given KFC a monopoly over Christmas in the Land of the Rising Sun. Many in Japan, in fact, are unaware that North Americans traditionally opt for turkey, not chicken, on the yuletide table.

For families who are truly imbued with Christmas spirit and do not fear putting on winter weight, they might follow their fried chicken with a Christmas cake for dessert. Christmas cakes are a popular item sold in bakeries throughout Japan in December. Typically, they are sponge cakes decorated in red and white. For members of the older, more conservative generation, “Christmas cake” was once a crass term for women who reached their 26th birthday unmarried. Like the seasonal treats, their desirability was thought to drop in value after the 25th.

In recent decades, Santa-san’s “nice list” has been lengthening. Today, most children receive a Christmas present from their parents, followed by a monetary gift for Shogatsu, a New Year’s celebration that runs from Dec. 31 to Jan. 4. By then, Santa-san has already flown his reindeer-guided sleigh back to what the Japanese consider his native home: the town of Rovaniemi in the northernmost region of Finland. The Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi is highly popular with Japanese tourists.

In their own way, the Japanese have come to love that jolly man in a red suit and his message of holiday cheer.