On Christmas in Japan | メリクリスマス!

I am not spending Christmas on a date at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But hey, I’m a foreigner.

Christmas in Japan
In the war on Christmas, we know what side Japan is on: The country is not inclined to celebrate the birth of Christ, given that less that 2 percent of the population are Christians. You don’t get the day off, an honor reserved for the Emperor’s Birthday (Dec. 23).

But a Japanese Christmas has traditions: You go shopping for a cake, buy presents, and try to score with your girlfriend: Christmas is a romantic holiday.

Valentine’s Day is traditionally a Sadie-Hawkins kind of affair in Japan, with women giving gifts of chocolate and affection to men who, characteristically, give them nothing in return.

So, as a young Japanese man, where do you take your girlfriend on the most romantic night of the year? If you want to follow the trends, you take her to Kentucky Fried Chicken. But don’t forget to make a reservation. Seriously.

How did Kentucky Fried Chicken come to dominate Christmas in Japan? It’s not so far-fetched when you consider that the American version of Santa Claus is largely a product of Coca-Cola’s marketing efforts (hence the red and white trim).

Col. Sanders (who never actually served in the military) has a terrifying, life-sized plaster statue in front of every KFC in Japan. In December, his traditional chef’s apron is replaced by a red coat and Christmas hat (Sanders is also sometimes dressed as a samurai).

A Japanese friend told me that growing up, she would see the enormous turkeys and chickens on the table in Tom and Jerry Christmas specials and associated it with America. People in Japan want whole roasted chickens to match that traditional look – but the Japanese oven is usually about the size of a microwave. It won’t fit a whole chicken.

So, since 1974, KFC has offered a package meal (“a set”) with a whole roasted chicken, salads and a Christmas cake (Strawberry and white frosting, a popular Japanese Christmas custom they seem to associate with the UK). You order it in advance, and take the meal home to have a giant, Tom-and-Jerry-sized holiday feast, carcass and all.

Christmas Music
At the underground mall connected to the train station in the city – a sprawling 2-block spread – the faux-French accordion music was replaced on Dec. 1, with four Christmas songs, one of which is the plague that Paul McCartney hath wrought upon the Earth, “Wonderful Christmas Time.”

The song rotation includes some crossover with my students’ lists of “The Top Christmas Songs in Japan,” which he handed to me with no prodding or explanation. Here are the contents of that list:

1. Wham! – Last Christmas
Everyone in Japan loves this song. There is a popular Japanese version, performed by a soul-rap group called EXILE, which has 14 members and its own train. (BONUS: The Sailor Moon cover). WHAM! FUN FACT: In almost every translation of this song into English, it’s happy. George Michael’s heartbreak is ignored, and the song becomes a more appropriate tribute to Christmas romance. The original version has always been misunderstood. Poor, misunderstood George Michael.

2. Mariah Carey - All I Want for Christmas
This song was used repeatedly in a Christmas episode of “In Love With Dinosaur,” aka “Falling in Love in the Eyes of the Unpretty,” a Japanese Ugly-Betty derivative based on an unattractive female comedian who seeks true love from a handsome TV news anchor. The news anchor must decide between Dinosaur and several attractive, educated ladies. The show went off the air and came back for a Christmas special, which used the first 20 seconds of this song on a loop as the background music for Dinosaur’s existential crisis. I have no clue how popular this show was back in 2006, but it’s all I can think about when I hear this song in Japan.

3. Tatsuro Yamashita – Christmas Eve
JR Railways licensed this song back in 1988 and has used it in commercials every Christmas since. The song enjoyed a brief success in America in 1984, when Tatsuro translated it into English, but the JR Railways campaign has kept it alive in Japan. In most of the commercials, a woman is late or waiting for a train. By far, the best one, for pure zeitgeist value, is the one where an 80’s new-wave rocker is worried that her boyfriend has stood her up, only to be surprised by a stranger break dancing in MC Hammer pants. Spoiler Alert! It’s her boyfriend! (It’s the first one in this video).

4. John Lennon/Yoko Ono – So This is Christmas (War is Over)
Since you all know this song, here is what appears to be a 1979 commercial for a local Japanese electronics store, featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I don’t think they had John’s permission.

5. I don’t remember number 5. Either that or it was that awful Paul McCartney song.

1. Here is a cooler, more-Japanese-looking KFC commercial for the Colonel’s Birthday.

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15 Responses to On Christmas in Japan | メリクリスマス!

  1. lollerskater says:

    Another favorite is “Do they know it’s Christmas?” Another case of misunderstood lyrics. It’s on constant rotation at my pre-school. Unless my school principal is just really concerned about Africa.

  2. Laura says:

    Take back your blasphemy, “Wonderful Christmastime” is the best song ever written.

    I heard a new Muzak version of “Last Christmas” at the drugstore tonight in Tagawa. Thought of you and L.

  3. Blue Shoe says:

    Nice post, very interesting!

    I work as an ALT at a senior high school, and this year we make the 2nd-year students memorize and sing English songs (they hate it). This month we did Mariah Carey’s “Last Christmas.” The Japanese teacher introduced the song by telling the kids “This song is very famous all over the world, so no matter where you go, people will know it. It’s very popular. Right, Paul?” I should have thrown the guy a bone, but I hate overly poppy- Christmas songs almost as much as I can’t stand Mariah Carey songs, so I just replied “Uh…I don’t know this song.”

    Christmas feels so odd in this country…

  4. Blue Shoe says:

    Whoops, I meant Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

  5. Travis says:

    That post was pure solid gold, Eryk. The JR Railways commercial? The weird, clearly illegitimately used Lennon footage in the electronics store commercial? The whole idea of Christmas revolving around eating KFC? I’m delighted by all of these things.

    Plus, “Wonderful Christmastime” vs. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” should prove to anyone that Lennon was the top Beatle. “Wonderful Christmastime” truly is a plague upon humankind.

  6. Zach says:

    HI BRO


    • owwls says:

      “Hark, and Herald Boneless Wings.”
      “Have a Holly Jolly Biscuit.”
      “All I Want For Christmas is my Two Pieces of Chicken Used as Bread.”
      “The 12 Filets of Christmas.”
      “Have Yourself a Second Piece of Crispness.”
      “11 Secret Seasoning’s Greetings”
      “I Saw Mommy Kissing Sanders-San.”
      “Little Drumstick Boy”

      At the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life”:
      “Everytime a Bell Rings, An Angel Gets a Bucket of Wings.”

  7. acat says:

    Hi Zach. I have taken the liberty of shortening this for you, to reflect what I initially read.


    I have no doubt you’ll understand my meaning.

  8. acat says:

    It’s counterintuitive-sounding, but if Christmas were treated more like Valentine’s Day, I’d be less fucking broke. And ideally, more chkn’d, yeah?

    • owwls says:

      Because I speak Japanese like a 2-year-old, I can only translate “Get Chicken’d” as “torii-shimashite o torimasho” or “Take the Chicken-Doing!” But it could make an amazing Japanese ad campaign for KFC.

      “Take the ChickenAction!”

  9. Zach says:



  10. Renmi says:

    I remember when I used to work in a Japanese bakery and they had those songs on loop. As soon as Dec. 1st came around… I was accosted with “last christmas” which is my least favorite xmas song ever. When I suggested, “hey, what about the other xmas songs?” everyone was like, “what other songs?”

  11. Pingback: On the Ephemeral Nature of the Starbucks Sakura Latte | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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