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Daniel Robson on Japanese Christmas traditions

K-On! Christmas

An old urban legend says that shortly after the end of World War II, eager to capitalise on the commercial aspect of the Western holiday of Christmas, a department store in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district set up a magnificent seasonal display whose centrepiece was a life-size effigy of Santa Claus – nailed to a cross.

Although the story has been reported from a wide variety of sources, it’s never been confirmed as being true. Pretty funny, though. The innocence of the gesture, and the cataclysmic cock-up that inadvertently resulted, are not unlike the genuine everyday faux pas made by well-meaning Japanese with a shaky grasp of foreign customs.

Japan is not a Christian country, but just like in Britain, Christmas is a commercial season celebrated with gusto – with a few key differences. For one, the period works in reverse of the West: Christmas is a time for friends and lovers, whereas New Year’s Eve is a family occasion. Couples jostle for Christmas Eve reservations at romantic restaurants, while friends and colleagues have parties at home or at a pub. And although 23rd December is the Emperor’s birthday and the first weekday in January is also a public holiday, 25th December is a working day like any other.

The menu is different, too. Since turkey’s not popular in Japan, the preferred meat is chicken, and somehow the traditional meal has become a special bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken. This has become so insanely popular that, in a bid to combat queues on Christmas Day, KFC takes pre-orders from as early as October. Some of the bucket options include a commemorative plate (seriously); and in addition to the regular Kentucky fare, they also sell a whole roast chicken for the heart-stoppingly extravagant sum of 5,600 yen (£46.60).

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Tokyo is a fun place in December. Punk-pop queens Shonen Knife play an annual Christmas tour, where their classic songs ‘Space Christmas’ and ‘All I Want For Christmas’ become epic singalongs. And in Tokyo’s neighbouring prefecture of Chiba, the Makuhari Messe convention centre plays host to the mammoth four-day Countdown Japan music festival, with performances from the cream of Japanese pop and rock; this year’s line-up includes everyone from Sakanaction to Miyavi, Kinoco Hotel to Puffy AmiYumi.

A traditional family New Year’s Eve is usually spent watching the 4½-hour pop-music extravaganza Kohaku Uta Gassen on TV, over a bowl of buckwheat noodles, and then popping out to a shrine. Kohaku is a real endurance test: a seemingly endless parade of the most talentless tossers in J-pop, crooning badly over backing tracks. But when it finally ends, many families head to a local shrine, where open fires and hot sake welcome residents young and old.

Wherever you are, whatever you believe in, season’s greetings to you all! And remember: before you put on your Santa costume, be sure to check for crucifixes.

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