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Random Wed Dec 18 2013

A Finger Lickin' Good Japanese Christmas

By John Greenfield

For some reason, I've long been interested in how festivals of light are celebrated around the world — I've even written songs about Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali and Ramadan. I recently asked my friend Naomi Yoshimura-Honda, who moved here from Osaka, Japan, to study law and business at Northwestern, to tell me about how Christmas is celebrated in her homeland.

In Japan, do you do anything for Christmas — do you mark Christmas at all?

Yeah, we do a lot. Obviously Japanese people are not Christian. The major religion in Japan is Buddhism. But Christmas is still very popular with us, and it's very commercialized. Normally this holiday is for kids and couples.

For families, small kids believe in Santa Claus, and parents pretend to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The kids write a letter to Santa Claus saying, I want to have this video game or I want this toy, and the parents will buy that and place it beside their kids' beds. Of course, the next morning, the kids will find their Christmas present and they get very excited. And usually on Christmas Eve the family will prepare Christmas cake for kids. The most popular Christmas cake is white and round, with vanilla cream and a chocolate disk that says "Merry Christmas," and we put some candles on it and have a party.

When a family has small kids, usually they buy Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas. Maybe in the beginning of December, Kentucky Fried Chicken will have a lot of commercials on TV or radio saying, "Now Christmas is coming, so why don't you buy a Christmas pack for the family?"

Your family had KFC for Christmas when you were growing up?

I don't know why, but my family didn't like Kentucky Fried Chicken very much, so we didn't do that.

So you don't do that now?

No. During Christmas, it's very popular for Japanese people to eat chicken in general, not only Kentucky Fried Chicken. I think here in the United States it's supposed to be turkey, but in Japan turkey's not very popular, so we just celebrate with chicken. So if you go to supermarkets at Christmas time, you can find a lot of ready-made chicken dishes, so we just buy the whole chicken and eat it with our family.

japanese christmas cake
Photo by suri@ on flickr
What other dishes would you have?

We try to have to have some Westernized dishes on Christmas day, so we normally have a whole chicken and a very fancy salad, and we buy sparkling wine or champagne, then some cheese and crackers, then Christmas cake, of course. Sometimes people do cheese fondue. So it's kind of like a Japanese interpretation of Western culture.

Any idea why the Japanese associate Kentucky Fried Chicken with Christmas?

I don't think Japanese people ate a lot of chicken at Christmas before Kentucky Fried Chicken came to Japan. Not only Christmas but also Valentine's Day is not originally part of Japanese culture but many companies try to make them more commercialized events in Japan and they try to sell a lot of things to Japanese people. So I think Kentucky Fried Chicken just came up with this idea.

Do you know who Colonel Sanders was?

I don't know.

Have you ever noticed in front of Japanese Kentucky Fried Chicken shops there's the old man with the beard?

Oh yeah, we call him Colonel Ojisan, it's like Uncle Colonel.

kfc japan colonel santa
Photo by akaitori on flickr
Do you think people think he looks like Santa Claus?

I'm not sure people think he resembles Santa Claus, but in Japan some Kentucky Fried Chicken stores have him wear a Santa Claus outfit and display him in front. And people laugh at him and say, "Oh, he's just like Santa Claus!"

So, I've heard about Romantic Christmas. Can you tell me about that?

Christmas is also a very important event for couples. It's very, very important to celebrate Christmas with your boyfriend or girlfriend, otherwise maybe the couple will break up. Normally the couple will eat at a fancy French restaurant and spend the night at an expensive hotel, like the Hyatt. Usually the boy buys. The boy will buy an expensive present for his girlfriend, and sometimes the girlfriend also buys something for the boyfriend.

Normally the price of the Christmas present will really reflect the Japanese economy. I don't know what it's like nowadays, but when the economy was good in Japan, the budget was something like 500 bucks for one present. Normally the boys had to buy nice jewelry, like a ring or earrings, and they bought them in a fancy shop like Tiffany's. The popular presents to give your boyfriend are things like a muffler to keep him warm, or gloves or earmuffs.

Now that the economy's not so great, the budget might be lower. But some people really care about the budget. Some people have really high expectations about the present. Some girls might be disappointed they receive something not really good after those high expectations, so some boys get really worried about what to buy.

Had you every gone out of for fancy French food and then stayed at a hotel with a boyfriend?

Yes, once. My ex-boyfriend reserved a room at the Hilton or something, a fancy hotel. We had a delicious French dinner, and he paid for everything, which was very nice. It was my dream night.


Want to host a Japanese-style Christmas party? Pastry House Hippo, inside Mitsuwa Marketplace, 100 E. Algonquin Rd. in Arlington Heights, 847-228-5435, sells Japanese Christmas cakes in two sizes for $23 and $33. For the Kentucky Fried Chicken, you're on your own.

John Greenfield is the editor of Streetsblog Chicago, covering walking, biking, transit and livable streets issues in the region, and he writes the transportation column Checkerboard City for Newcity magazine. His band Illinois First! plays songs about the history of the Land of Lincoln. Follow him at @greenfieldjohn.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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