by Michelle Liebheit
It is December and like every year this means that Christmas is coming soon. The city is more crowded than usual, packed with people looking for presents. The shops downtown are playing Jingle Bells endless times, and from everywhere Santa Claus and his reindeers are smiling at you. A giant Christmas tree is displayed in the central station and when it turns night, all the Christmas illuminations come to light.
So which city do you think this is? New York? Berlin? Or is it London?
No – I happen to be in Kyoto, Japan. However, this description could easily suit all major cities around the globe. You might say: This is globalization! But what is this word actually and what influences does it has on Japanese culture? In the following I want to analyze this question with the example of Christmas in Japan.
Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, although the 23rd of December happens to be one, as for being the present emperor’s birthday. While there is only around one percent Christians living in Japan, Christmas has received great approval. However, since Japanese Christmas does not consist of going to church, listening to the sermon and watch a nativity play before having dinner with your family, Japan has developed some unique elements itself.
Due to a clever marketing campaign dating back in 1974, KFC successfully established its fried chicken as the perfect Christmas dinner in Japan. Nowadays for Japanese people, Christmas equals a bucket of fried chicken from KFC just like New Years is associated with the especially prepared and in boxes presented food called “o-sechi ryôri” (おせち料理). Promoting this idea, even KFC’s figurehead Colonel Sanders, whose lifelike stature stands in front of each Japanese store, will be dressed in a Santa costume around Christmas time. Due to its popularity, people even need do reserve their KFC Christmas dinner at least a month prior to the event. KFC makes twice as much profit in December than in other months.
Another unique Japanese Christmas dish is the Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ), its most typical type being a sponge cake decorated with whipped cream and strawberries. It is usually picked up by the father of the household. By the 26th prices drop immensely and shops are trying to get rid of their left stocks.
Even though Christmas became a “big hit” in Japan, other Christian holidays like Eastern remain rather unnoticed. Japanese have been picky in choosing what to borrow from foreign countries – apparently most, when it comes to holidays. In class we talked about how some movies are successful around the world, whereas others are not. In this case, action movies seem to be the most “translatable”, since they usually do not have a lot of talking and shooting with guns unfortunately seems to be universally understood. Converting this to our look on foreign holidays in Japan, is it simply a failure of marketing that Eastern has not been as well received as Christmas in Japan, or what are the factors for successfully making a society celebrating a non-native holiday?.
As Millie R. Creighton writes, a holiday successfully promoted by Japanese department stores needs to “accord with Japanese ideology, or serve a particular function in contemporary Japanese society” (1991, p. 683). So even though Christmas came from a different religious background, it still transports a deeper meaning Japanese can relate to: Christmas is all about love and giving. These are values that are universal throughout different societies and Japan is a living proof for this. The holiday has been domesticated and the important male figure is Santa Claus and not Jesus. Of course, this is not a Japanese phenomenon only. On the other hand, Eastern still concentrates more on the historical figure of Jesus and therefore might not seem quite appealing to people with different believes. Other examples of successful holidays in Japan are Mother’s and Father’s Day or Valentine’s Day.
This example shows that globalization is not about making everything the same. Societies adopt particular parts of foreign origin and create a version that suits them best. Through globalization ideas, things and people can easily spread and move from one place to another on earth, but what is being accepted and what is being rejected is still up to society and its values.
CREIGHTON, Millie R. “Maintaining Cultural Boundaries: How Japanese Department Stores Domesticate ‘Things Foreign’”. Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 25, No.4, 1991.
HODKINSON, Alan and STRONACH, Ian. “Towards a theory of Santa. Or, the Ghost of Christmas Present“. Anthropology Today, Vol. 27, No. 6, 12/2011.
QUIGLEY, J.T. “A Kentucky Fried Christmas in Japan”. The Diplomat, 12/2013. http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/a-kentucky-fried-christmas-in-japan/
- KFC: The Japanese taste of Christmas (sophiesjapanblog.com)
- Why Christmas = KFC in Japan (pjmedia.com)
- Christmas in Japan: Similarities and Differences (insidejapanblog.com)
- Merry Kurisumasu! Or: Why do Japanese People eat KFC for Christmas? (violetcloutman.wordpress.com)
- Christmas in Japan (メリークリスマス) (gaijinintokyo.wordpress.com)
- Very Merry KFC Christmas to you a la Japan (kanzensakura.com)
- Amazon attempts to bring ‘Cyber Monday’ holiday trend to Japan (japandailypress.com)