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Daniel Robson on Japanese Christmas traditions

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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