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Almost authentic, but not quite

As we here in America wait seemingly forever for a white bearded chub of a man in a red suit to deliver his bag of goodies, the Japanese also wait seemingly forever in long queues for a white bearded chub of a man in a white suit to deliver his bag of chicken. Yes, you heard me right. Chicken. Specifically Kentucky Fried Chicken. You see, roast chicken is Japan’s traditional Christmas dinner and whereas anyone can get a chicken, not everyone has an oven in which to roast it. Enter the Colonel.

How wonky is this tradition and how in heaven’s name did it start?

When we moved to Japan in 1962, for those who chose to take part in the holiday roast chicken was the traditional Christmas dinner, but It was purchased from the food section of large department stores. In a total cultural switcharoo, I might add, my family always ate raw tuna for Christmas. I know, I know. There’s just no explaining things like this other than to say—to each his own—and we happened to like sashimi better than chicken.

But, now, back to the Japanese chicken. If you’re scratching your head about now, I will agree that all of this is pretty bewildering. Roast chicken for Christmas dinner? Christmas? Japan? Isn’t this the land of Buddhists and Shintoists? What are they doing celebrating Christmas?

What you must know about the Japanese is they love nothing more than taking on an American tradition and twisting and stretching it to their liking. Their Eastern logic liking. Why would something as trite as not being Christian, and not having a clue what the significance of Christmas is, stop some of them from joining in on all the fun?

For example, the Japanese know that Santa brings presents to children in the hush of night, so they do the same thing even though there is confusion over just who and what Santa is. I will cite one prize example of this. In 1963, both of our boys attended a Japanese nursery school. That year the staff decided they’d treat the youngsters to a visit from Santa, the only problem being where they would find a chubby old man with a long white beard. It just wasn’t going to happen in Tokyo.

What to do? Well, of course, they’d make their own version. I attended the Christmas party and watched as Santa made his exuberant entry. My expectations for what I was about to see were exactly like your expectations would have been, so I was disappointingly stunned when a skinny man with an extremely thin fake beard bounced into the room.

Coal black hair stuck out from under his red pointy cap and on his final bounce into the room, several pillows fell onto the floor from his obviously fake stomach. Ironically, I was the only one who seemed to notice that things were amiss, as all the children and teachers were focused only on the candy filled sack he carried on his back.

There sat my two young boys as captivated as everyone else for even they, like their classmates, had never before seen the real American depiction of Santa. It broke my heart to see this sham of a holiday tradition so poorly displayed. But, I will be the first to admit that my boys were in the swing of things, seemingly overlooking the suddenly svelte charlatan Santa.

To counteract this desecration, we did, however, have holiday trimmings in our home. Not a real tree, mind you, because none were available, but in its place a good semblance made by me out of green felt. On Christmas morning there were presents under that counterfeit effort and we joyfully opened them together.

This was very, very different from the Japanese portrayal where late on Christmas Eve parents would sneakily place a single gift on the foot of their sleeping child’s futon. Then in the darkness of the next morning, the child would awaken and open his present. Alone! This custom always seemed so forlorn to me as I was conditioned to the delightful practice of everyone opening their presents together …. Mom, Dad and all the kiddies. In the depths of my soul, opening gifts was never meant to be a solitary activity.

But, now I have strayed from roasted chicken, the subject of this column. KFC arrived in Japan in the early 1970s, a time when only a few Japanese had established Christmas traditions because only 1% were Christians—not that that had anything to do with taking the celebration on as their own. A clever marketing agent got the idea of creating a holiday bucket of chicken, coleslaw and fries instead of the department store rendering of the single whole bird with no trimmings.

It was a smashing success. In 2018 alone, KFC pulled in $63 million from Dec. 20-25. For the world’s most clever copy cats, fried chicken became almost the same as the Western turkey …. almost. Paradoxically, in their culturally clouded thinking, the Japanese believed themselves to be the real deal, celebrating Christmas just like Americans.

To prove my point, I once saw a nativity scene in downtown Tokyo. It was so highly unusual, indeed so extremely rare, that I was immediately drawn to it. There standing in the stable were the established cast of characters: the wise men, the shepherds, a sheep or two, and of course the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I was enthralled, if not taken aback, at this lovely Christian display here in the heart of Japan.

But, as I raised my eyes up to the stable roof, my heart plummeted. There hanging from the center post was the Easter bunny.

Almost authentic, but not quite ……