A Bucket of KFC and a Plastic Tree: Christmas In Tokyo

A Bucket of KFC and a Plastic Tree: Christmas In Tokyo

‘Tis Christmas in Tokyo and the cash registers are pulsing with Joy.  To my surprise, Christmas, while not actually a holiday, is a fully locked and loaded part of modern Japanese culture. From mid-November, Christmas decorations went up in every supermarket, department store, chain restaurant and bar.  In both English and Japanese, the bouncy sounds of Christmas songs, past and present, play on repeated loops.  In varying degrees of inappropriate shortness, the naughty Santa outfit has appeared on girls working at pachinko parlors, game centers and most definitely the more prurient end of the entertainment spectrum.  Christmas trees are everywhere from tiny fake ones on the counter of 7-11 to the magnificent ones, surrounded by selfie taking 20-year-olds, in Ebisu. Colored lights twinkle in trees and light posts.  Santa has visited my daughter twice at her Kindergarten — apparently so skinny a Santa that my daughter promptly deemed him “Fake Santa.” Holly and pine wreaths hang on doors, synthetic snow decorates windows and everywhere there is a Christmas sale of one kind or another.

Japan, being almost entirely non-Christian (and even more so non-Jewish), has embraced the commercial aspects of Christmas with an unrepentant joy such as I have never seen before. There is not even the hint of anything spiritual or religious (not to say that America really revels in the deeper meanings of Christmas). While Santa’s chubby visage and Christmas trees abound in Tokyo, I have yet to see a manger or a dewy-eyed Jesus anywhere. For the majority of Japanese, Christmas is for couples: hotel rooms are booked a year in advance, Tokyo Disneyland is packed to the gills and all the short-term “Love Hotels” are slammed with business.  Oddly, due to some anonymous genius of the advertising world, Kentucky Fried Chicken has a lock on Christmas. For years ads ran that gave the idea that in America, Christmas was celebrated with a big bucket of KFC: the result is that every December 25th there are lines down the block at every KFC in town. Why Japanese people who create some of the greatest fried chicken (Karage) I have ever tasted would follow the Colonel is beyond me, but then again, the taste of natto escapes me as well.

I come from a family of abundant Christmas gift-giving. My father derided Chanukkah as more Goyish than Pat Boone and claims the holiday didn’t even exist until the mid-1960s when spoiled Jewish kids were about to convert en masse unless they got some holiday gifties. So, Christmas it was with a lovely tree trimmed with all the baubles and on the morning of the 25th, an ungodly mound of presents: skies and books and art supplies; toys and records and the boring horror of the “warm sweater” all prompting fevered calls later in the day to my best friends, “What’d you get?????” This orgy of gifts was preceded by our traditional Christmas Eve feast of bagels, bialies, latke and every variety of smoked and cured fish offered up by New York’s venerable Russ & Daughters. (As a side-note, I have spent decades waking up at the crack of dawn and lining up in front of R&D to be among the first folks through the door on Christmas Eve.  During that time, I have made friends with a group of singular eccentrics who arrive as early as I do.  I will miss them all this Christmas and hope that they survive the cold weather.)

Japan is a gift giving culture.  Beautifully wrapped packages change hands all the time here as part of the intricate weave of checks and balances that define Japanese society.  Suffice it to say, you would never show up to a friend’s house empty-handed and you would never return from a trip without say, a box of local shrimp crackers.  Given that, Christmas in Japan does not entail mounds of presents.  One or two gifts perhaps, but nothing more.  Beyond toys and the pre-stuffed stockings for sale, there are handsome gift boxes of Yebisu Beer (hint hint!); ornately wrapped selections of Hokkaido pork and single musk melons costing more than $100.  And I am positive that there is a KFC fried chicken gift bucket that would knock your socks off.  Most important is not to be alone and I am sure that the pressures of this lead to some very regrettable hook ups and self-loathing on December 26th: think a Roman-themed love hotel room, a bucket of chicken, risqué Santa outfit and red and green knickers.

I see a lot of plastic Christmas trees for sale here.  I do not see the equivalent of French Canadians (would that be people from Hokkaido?) hawking fresh pine trees on the streets.  I did hear that Starbucks was offering some sort of Christmas Tree coupon, whereby a person could get a tree and also have it picked up when the holidays are over.  Sounds pretty good, but I couldn’t really figure the whole thing out.  So, what the hell am I going to do for the holidays?  I am pretty sure that I am the first person in Heiwadai to light a menorah; also the first in making a latke, so I may well be the first to have a big pile of presents for my kids.  I have had to assure my daughter that Santa Claus both speaks Japanese and has the ability to travel via screen door when a chimney is not available. I will pile those gifts up under a small, fake tree and hang stockings by the veranda. I will gather up what smoked fishes I can find — Sushi on Christmas Eve?  Not such a bad idea! — make blini (make sour cream in fact, as it doesn’t exist here) and gather my family in an embrace as big as the oceans that separate Tokyo from New York and hope for the warmth and joy of the season to melt away some of those ruptures and fractures that come hand-in-hand with embarking on a new life in an utterly new place.


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