In Japan, where the Christian population accounts for no more than 1 percent of the population, Christmas isn’t an officially recognized holiday. Most businesses and government offices will operate under normal hours.
And yet, as Christmas Eve approaches, a surprisingly large percentage of the Japanese population is preparing to celebrate – planning romantic getaways, enjoying holiday lights, and preparing for their traditional Christmas dinner, takeout from KFC.
Not surprisingly, Christmas in Japan is more about commerce than religion.
The first recorded Christmas in Japan was in 1552, just a few years after Christianity was introduced to the island nation. That didn’t last long, however. Christianity was banned in 1612 and would not be allowed again until Japan ended its self-imposed isolation in the middle of the 19th century.
Even with the influx of Western culture at the time, it was not until after World War II that Christmas would gain popularity.
Still, it would take a couple of savvy marketing moves in the 1960s and ’70s for Japan to adopt some of its best known Christmas traditions.
The first was the idea of a Christmas cake, which department stores began to offer in the 1960s, as Japan was starting to enjoy the recovery from the war known as the economic miracle. Offered in a variety of types and flavors, the cakes proved to be an instant success and became popular to eat on Christmas Eve.
The idea of Christmas dinner came a decade later, thanks to Kentucky Fried Chicken, which opened its first restaurant in Japan in 1970.
By 1971, that first KFC restaurant in the city of Nagoya began getting requests from foreign customers for a Christmas turkey. Turkey is not common in Japan, but the requests kept coming, inspiring a new campaign in 1974 – the Kentucky Christmas chicken dinner.
It was an instant success and has remained so for 40 years. Japanese families often wait in line for hours on Christmas Eve to buy the dinner, which consists of an assortment of fried chicken, a salad and a Christmas cake.
“Chicken was not popular until KFC,” said Naoyuki Ohishi, a spokesman for KFC Holdings in Japan. “If KFC was a pork restaurant, then maybe pork would be the favorite Christmas dish.”
Of course, a fried-chicken dinner is not the only Christmas tradition here. There’s Santa and gifts on Christmas Day in many households.
And there’s romance. Christmas is considered the most romantic day of the year, surpassing Valentine’s Day and a similar celebration a month later known as White Day.
Most nice restaurants are booked well in advance by couples seeking to enjoy a romantic dinner on Christmas Eve. Love hotels, which cater to those who do not need more than a couple of hours’ stay, are usually fully occupied by couples seeking to enjoy some private time.
So lovey-dovey is the date that single adults often find it depressing. One restaurant in Tokyo even bans couples from entering on Christmas Eve in hopes of giving singles a break, though its approach doesn’t seem to have been adopted by its competitors.
Naturally, businesses have found the season perfect for pushing their wares. Department stores and most small shops and restaurants are filled with Christmas decorations and music through most of December. Many city parks and landmarks are covered in lights and festive phrases such as “Happy Christmas” and “Very Merry Xmas.”
Indeed, while the days after the New Year are usually the busiest for retail in Japan, Christmas is quickly becoming, well, like Christmas for retailers.