Note: I wrote a report for my anthropology class back in college in 2011 about the Japanese tradition of eating KFC for Christmas. It’s not a totally legit and accurate study. And I don’t think my writing was good at the time but I did pass the course so that counts for something I guess. Here it is in its completely unedited glory, aside from some fixes for the references URLs.
In the field of anthropology, it’s an important fact to keep in mind that culture is never static and is always changing. New customs, traditions, and ideas are introduced to many cultures around the world, especially now with globalization being more effective than ever with today‘s Internet generation.
Western culture, specifically North American culture, is the dominant culture of today and has been exported all over the world through goods & services, arts, and ideas. Sometimes, certain cultural facets from the west are taken at face value with little change. Other times, the receiving culture takes such ideas and give them its own take as is the case with this papers topic: In Japan during Christmas, it is extremely popular to either go to or order fried chicken from the fast-food chain KFC, so much so that huge lines are formed in front of KFC branches, and seats within the restaurant are fully booked months beforehand. This is quite peculiar for a nation with Christians composing less than %1 of the population.
History of Christmas in Japan
In Japan, the celebration of Christmas began with the arrival of missionaries in the 16th century, though at first it was not as widespread and was only celebrated by Christians. The holiday increased in popularity during the 19th century after the Treaty of Amity and Commerce which opened Edo period japan to foreign trade. Finally, the last and probably the biggest factor of influence came during the US occupation after WWII. Today, Christmas celebration is widespread along Japan. And arguably as is the case with its western originators, Christmas became a holiday that’s celebrated more for its “commercial/consumerist” aspects than it’s religious ones (ie: more about Santa clause, gifts, huge sales, and year-end bonuses than the birth of Jesus Christ), which is why many Shinto and Buddhist organizations list the holiday in their calendars as they don’t consider it to be intrusive or threatening to their religion.
However, Christmas in Japan is not a legal holiday and is considered a regular work day. Also, the celebration is more akin to the romantic Valentine’s Day than the family gatherings of Christmas that’s found in the west. Taking your date out to an expensive restaurant or other such romantic activities during Christmas is considered a great show of love and devotion. But if you already have a family, it’s expected that the father brings home a “Christmas cake” after he leaves from work, and then the family feasts on Chicken from KFC or other such restaurants. Actually, their New Year celebration is more family-centric and “Christmas-like” than Christmas.
Fast Food in Japan
While eating fast-food for such an important occasion might be considered to be belittling to what is considered the most important celebration of the year by many people around the world, it is important to leave such an ethnocentric opinion behind when examining another culture. In the big cities of Japan, fast-food has a different status then the west and opinions about them are generally less stigmatized, this is probably due to Japan’s commuter culture, where most of their working population in the cities travel to and from their jobs using public transportations and walking. It’s also important to consider that due to the huge population of Japan, and therefore the extreme high price of residency, most people can only afford tiny apartments that only satisfy their bare needs. This leads many of these people to be spending most of their free non-resting time outside of their homes for entertainment or eating or other such activities that cannot be accommodated in their homes. For example, McDonalds in Japan focus their service to serve both single workers and families who eat burgers in a hurry or stay there in the restaurant for a long time. This is due to how Japan considers burgers to be more of a snack than a meal. And with waitresses delivering food to tables and the prominence of internet services, McDonalds becomes more of a café, with many people spending some part of their day there surfing the net or playing portable games with friends. And that idea is totally different than what the Japanese consider of Burger King, even if both serve the same type of food.
The story from the official Japanese site of KFC says that at one Christmas Eve during the early 70s, a western expatriate ordered Fried Chicken from a branch, explaining to the manager that he couldn’t find any turkey so he thought chicken was the next best thing. After hearing that, the manager told about this interesting incident to his higher ups. And that lead KFC to launch their hugely successful marketing campaign that links KFC to Christmas. The ads showcased their new Christmas meal which has fried chicken and wine sold for about $10 using the catch phrase “Christmas = Kentucky”. Though given the fact that Colonel Sanders, the “mascot” of the franchise, resembles the popular image of Santa Clause, and the red color of their brand motif it’s no wonder that the Japanese took that idea to heart.
Side Factors to this tradition
While KFC were able to instill the idea of linking Christmas with KFC through sheer marketing, their campaign was already at halfway through due to Japanese popular taste and circumstances.
In the US, traditionally, the family feasts on a whole roasted turkey during Christmas and other holidays. That’s not the case in Japan. The turkey bird itself is rare in Japan. And acquiring a whole turkey in Japan is a difficult and expensive endeavor. And if you do manage to get one, most Japanese kitchens are not equipped with large roasting ovens, as Japanese cuisine is not reliant on baking or roasting since the traditional Japanese diet is actually rice-centric rather than bread-centric. Finally, the taste of turkey meat itself is not popular with the locals, and the taste of chicken is generally preferred over turkey. All of these factors lead to these cultural phenomena where KFC becomes the de facto food to eat during Christmas in Japan.
This example of a tradition being practiced by a certain culture is interesting in the ways how it shows the several influences that can affect a culture. The arrival of foreign missionaries and traders lead to the beginnings of Christmas celebration in Japan. The US occupation of Japan lead to its popularization. And due to globalization, KFC began to operate in Japan and started their marketing campaign. And finally due to Japan’s general dislike to the rare and expensive turkey meat, KFC were extremely successful in leading Japan to take up the tradition of eating KFC Fried Chicken for Christmas.
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“Why Xmas = KFC in Japan.” Dannychoo. 25 Dec. 2010. Web. 21 July 2011. http://www.dannychoo.com/iphone_post/en/25944/Why+Xmas+KFC+in+Japan.html
Plath, David W. “The Japanese Popular Christmas: Coping with Modernity.” The Journal of American Folklore 76.302 (1963): 309-17. JSTOR. American Folklore Society. Web. 21 July 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/537927?seq=2
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