Sex and Chicken Make Christmas in Japan

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Imagine this: your Christmas list is cut down to zero people. Instead of spending Christmas Eve arguing with your siblings about who qualifies as the true black sheep of the family, you go out on a date, eat a gourmet meal, and then toddle off to a nice hotel room for some cozy, romantic, Christmas sex.

There are no carollers, no treacly Christmas specials on the TV, no ghastly plum pudding and mince tarts. There is no necessity to display Christmas cheer, or to worry unduly about the nasty credit-card bills you ran up buying presents for your ungrateful nieces and nephews. Your only care is the frightening amount of cutlery you will have to negotiate before you get to the yummy crí¨me brí»lée, and the possibility of a stray piece of spinach on your teeth somewhat dampening the ardour in your date's eyes.

It's amazing how easy Christmas can be once you take the little baby Jesus out of the picture.

Christmas in Japan is strictly an import product, something cobbled together in response to the influence of American GIs stationed there after the Second World War. The Japanese were intrigued by the spectacle of Christmas--all those pretty lights and that strange fat man in the red suit--but they never bought into the religious origins of the holiday. All the different strands of the Christmas narrative got tangled up like so many errant strings of Christmas lights, resulting in the sign I saw in one department store, featuring a skinny, surfing Santa and the legend "Super Funky Holy Night".

I have tried to explain the roots of Christmas to some of my Japanese friends, and the conversation usually goes like this:

Me: Christmas is a celebration of Christ's birth. That's why we call it Christmas: Christ Mass.

Japanese Friend: So, Christ is a fat man? And he wears a red suit?

Me: No, that's Santa. Christ was a little baby. You know, Jesus?

JF: And the fat man is his father? So he gives presents?

Me: No, Santa is not Jesus' father. He was a saint, called St. Nicholas, and he...gave stuff away. And I think he brought some dead kids back to life.

JF: He's very fat.

Me: In real life, he was skinny. The Coca-Cola company made him fat.

JF: American people are very fat.

Me (squirming uncomfortably): Not all of them.

JF: Yes, Brad Pitt is not fat. He is a handsome boy.

ME: Yes, he is very handsome.

JF: I would like to have romantic Christmas with him.

Only about one percent of Japanese adhere to the Christian faith, which means that for every person worshipping at the manger, 99 are finding other ways to celebrate the occasion. Although Christmas is not the enormous money spinner that it is in the West, clever marketers have twisted the theme of Christmas two ways, turning it into Romanchikku Kurisumasu (Romantic Christmas) and Kentucki Furaido Kurisumasu (Kentucky Fried Christmas).

Romantic Christmas is the catchall title for a practice that caught on during the high-rolling late 1980s, when the yen doubled in value overnight and ordinary Japanese people found out that they could pretty much buy whatever they wanted. There was a boom in luxury goods; if it was expensive, exclusive, and trendy, there was an eager market in Japan. Foreign food, especially French food, became very popular. Top chefs were lured to Japan with the promise of enormous salaries and prime locations in the huge new hotels that were springing up all over Tokyo and Osaka. Women signed up for classes on how to decipher the mysteries of fish forks and sorbet spoons. Everyone dressed up in their best designer dresses and bespoke suits and went out for dinner.

I don't know who first spotted the trend, or who had the brilliant idea of exploiting it, but someone noticed that quite a few of the couples in the dining room were making more than dinner reservations; they were booking overnight stays at the hotels where they had eaten. Foreign food was sexy, and big, soft, western-style beds were sexier still. Soon hotels were offering bed-and-room packages, choosing December as the best time for a marketing push. Most salaried Japanese receive a large end-of-year cash bonus, and the brutal work hours enforced by company discipline are relaxed in the face of the looming New Year's holiday.

The market was there, the product was there, and all that was needed was the genius advertising line "Romantic Christmas". Expensive dinners went from being a luxury to a necessity, posh hotel rooms from being a businessmen's perk to a lovers' playground.

Romantic Christmas has informed an entire generation's idea of what Christmas should be: tasty, sexy, and expensive. Fourteen years of economic recession have forced most people to cut back on the expensive part; while upscale hotels are booked up for the season, prix-fixe dinners at less expensive restaurants have gained in popularity in recent years. Smaller restaurants have the disadvantage of being bedroom-free, but love hotels, which rent by the hour, are ubiquitous and popular. Places like the Hotel Zoo and Chapel Coconuts might not be the best places to invoke seasonal romance, but the Chapel Christmas hotel in Yokkaichi, with its larger-than-life Santa perched on a cornice, holds a bountiful choice of seasonally themed rooms.

Romantic Christmas is strictly for the single and childless--once you're married with kids, all the sexiness fades out of Christmas, and you're left with fried chicken and Kurisumasu kehki.

Japanese Christmas cake is a triumph of pragmatism over romanticism. Japanese like their cake fluffy, creamy, and fruity. No heavy, brandy-soaked fruitcake for them; they simply take what they like, plop a Santa on top, and proclaim it festive. Another difference between western fruitcake and Japanese Christmas cake is that fruitcake lasts forever, but Kurisumasu kehki is at its best for only one night. Nobody would buy a Christmas cake after the 25th--hence the phrase "Christmas cake" to describe a woman who remains unmarried by her 25th birthday.

The fried chicken comes courtesy of Colonel Sanders. Thirty years of intensive marketing have convinced the Japanese that chicken is the traditional Christmas food in North America. This belief is not a measure of Japanese gullibility: most Japanese have never seen or eaten turkey, and cooking and consuming a bird that large--or even having an oven big enough to roast it in--would strike most people here as being excessive and slightly deranged, like making omelettes out of ostrich eggs.

All the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Japan have a life-size fibreglass figure of Colonel Saunders posted outside their doors, crafted in realistic detail down to the natty black cane and Masonic pin on his lapel. In mid-November, the Colonel's customary white suit is swathed in red, transforming him into Colonel Santa. Once the white-trimmed red hat goes on his head, the resemblance is uncanny; just like Santa, only with beady eyes and less beard than one might hope. Then the sales pitch begins in earnest: buckets of chicken featuring the Colonel's Christmas face; boxes of chicken printed with holly designs; giant banners showing a Christmas feast of fried chicken, corn salad, hot Christmas biscuits, and Kentucky Fried Chicken Christmas cake, with a tiny log cabin and snowman planted in the creamy white topping.

This is as close to Yuletide tradition as you'll find in Japan, and it can all seem a little sad if you're hoping for a real Canadian Christmas. Most foreigners leave Japan for Christmas, travelling home for some authentic celebration, or south to escape the holiday entirely on some lovely tropical isle. It's understandable, the need to flee something that looks just enough like Christmas to evoke nostalgia but is just enough unlike Christmas to seem, at heart, distressingly alien.

Christmas Day isn't a holiday here; it's just another day, with chicken. When the malls close, the Christmas decorations come down and the New Year's decorations of pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms go up in their place, efficiently, ruthlessly. Colonel Sanders is stripped down to his white suit, everything goes back to normal, and the super funky holy night fades into a strictly pragmatic dawn.