Dearest Rachel –
For all our love of anime and the like (and now, having passed that on, to a certain extent, to Daniel) we never got around to celebrating a Japanese-style Christmas in our lives together. Of course, most of this was because we had family on both sides to celebrate with, rather than having to try to celebrate it just as a couple. Not to mention, America – even mid-urban areas like our own – is rather short on ‘love hotels’ like those frequented on that day, to put it mildly.
Incidentally, I’ve only just learned why it’s a couples’ holiday in Japan, as opposed to being a family and religious one here in the West. To be fair, it’s something I picked up from the internet, which you can’t necessarily rely on as a bastion of truth, but it has that ‘Liars’ Club’ quality of plausibility to it, so I’m willing to accept it as a reasonable origin story. To get the obvious out of the way, Japan has no Christmas (or Christian, for that matter, thanks to the Tokugawa shogunate) traditions, which begs the question: where did they learn about the holiday, and the Western traditions in the first place, and how did they get it so warped from the way we celebrate it over here? It would appear that this is due to the American occupation of Japan after WWII, and the presence of American servicemen, a number of whom found romance among the locals during their time stationed in Japan. You can probably already see where this is going; those soldiers would make a particularly big production about taking their girls on a date on Christmas, thus cementing it in the Japanese consciousness with love and romance, rather than the love of God for mankind. As sentiments go, it could certainly be worse, but they do wind up missing the point for the most part. Then again, as a non-Christian (and indeed, mostly irreligious) culture, the fact that the holiday even registers with them is a foot in the door – and it isn’t as if we in the West have exactly done right by Christmas, either.
With that initial bit of explanation out of the way, on to some of the other odd traditions regarding the peculiarities of how Japan celebrates Christmas. For example, Japan is famous (notorious?) for making a bit deal out of eating KFC on Christmas Day, with certain franchise locations taking reservations weeks in advance. How’d this come to pass? Well, as with the servicemen and their dates, there’s a surprisingly straight line to this point, combined with a genius bit of marketing on the part of the Colonel as his crew. It so happens that Japan, having been defeated in war by the West, decided to emulate it – in their own special way, of course. The whole ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ mentality, cranked up to eleven. Western culture was considered ‘exotic’ and embraced, much like anime fans would do in reverse decades later. This includes adapting Western holidays, and a version of the traditions associated with those holidays. One custom around Christmas is the family dinner, which often involves a turkey over here in the west (yes, turkey is more associated with Thanksgiving in America, but ‘the West’ involves more than just U.S.). However, turkeys aren’t native to Japan, nor are they familiar with them. However, they were plenty familiar with chicken, and more than willing to use them as an alternative.
With that in mind, the company behind Kentucky Fried Chicken created a marketing campaign to convince the Japanese that chicken was the bird to eat for Christmas, and what was more American (for an American holiday) than their chicken? Why, it even had an American state right there in its name? Surely, it was what all the cool Americans were doing, and don’t you want to be cool, too, Customer-san? To say the public ate it up would be both the most literal and the most understated way of putting things, and to this day, it’s a national tradition on par with the love hotels and the Christmas cake.
Oh, that’s right; the cake. What’s the origin of that? Especially since Japan, along with having no Christian tradition, had no history with anything as even basic as bread (their word for it, ‘pan,’ is imported from the Portuguese, who taught them the art of baking when they first arrived in the early 1500’s, before the shogun arose to close the country down). Well… I could just ask “come on, who doesn’t like cake?” and leave it at that…
But I did decide to look up a few things, rather than just leave it to ‘stuff that I heard on the internet.’ I still got it from the internet, though, so… anyway, from what I can tell, the first such cakes, from slightly more than a century back, were fairly traditional (by European standards) fruitcakes, decorated with white icing (to resemble snow), and steeped in liqueur. Over time – and with the advent of refrigeration – local tastes trended toward lighter fare, particularly a variation on the strawberry shortcake (liberally decorated with strawberries atop it). While there are elaborate – and pricy – variations, you can get one at the local 7-Eleven in Tokyo if you’re in a pinch, both time-wise and money-wise.
I suppose you can tell by both the topic and the picture that I got it in my head to try to pull off a ‘proper’ Japanese-style Christmas dinner, complete with KFC and a Christmas cake. After all, you are what you eat, and all of us, from Kerstin on down to Logan, all qualify as ‘Christmas cakes’ at this point for varying reasons.
Yeah, that’s the thing about sponge cake and fruit toppings; they don’t last very long. So, while the stores make sure to stock enough to cover demand, there’s a lot that goes unsold – and who wants a stale sponge cake the day after Christmas? It’s become a metaphor for unmarried people (well, women, mostly, since Japanese men aren’t necessarily defined by whether they are or aren’t single, although that does seem to be changing) past what is considered their ‘sell-by’ date, which is a whopping twenty-five years of age. That’s right; if you’re not hitched by twenty-five, you’re assumed to be an old maid, and more or less unmarketable. Now, I’m not sure that necessarily applies to widows and divorcees, but as far as I’m concerned, single is single in this situation. Either way, you’re spending Christmas alone. And yes, they have a term for that: ‘kuri botchi,’ condensed from ‘kurisumasu hitoribotchi’ (クリスマス独りぼっち); literally, ‘Christmas alone.’ It’s how you spend the holiday if you haven’t a partner to go on a date with.
But rather than dwell on that, I thought I’d invite the girls over, and we could make a whole thing out of it together (or, if you prefer, ‘issho’ 一緒, in keeping with the spirit of the thing). Ellen and Erin were with family – as to be expected in Western tradition – and so, the boys and I were simply joined by Kerstin.
Still, we managed to enjoy ourselves; Kerstin brought a few presents (which we hadn’t been expecting – and hadn’t anything to reciprocate with, save for the food – but were grateful to receive all the same). We caught her up on our travels and my recent studies – she’ll probably have to endure the whole schpiel again next week, when the girls can manage to join us for dinner at a place I’ve been meaning to introduce them to for a year, now. But I think we had fun enough. We certainly ate well.
Anyway, that was our attempt to mimic the Japanese attempt to mimic a Western Christmas dinner; things are starting to get a little recursive here. Hope you found that amusing. Until next time, keep an eye on us, honey, and wish us luck. We’re still going to need it.