Let Them Eat Strawberry Shortcake: Christmas in Japan

People, by and large, can be very good at adopting certain practices of other cultures. Japan does this so well, often adding their own unique twist, that usually whatever they’ve adopted becomes part of Japan itself: radio calisthenics from the US, kanji from China, tempura from Portuguese missionaries…

Of course, tempura wasn’t the only thing these missionaries introduced (although I’m sure glad they did, because damn, tempura done properly is so good). They also brought over the Christian religion and, not surprisingly, Christmas – which the Japanese have taken to with great gusto.

The Most Wonderful Time of The Year… Unless You’re Single

These days, come December in Japan, Christmas decorations crop up just about everywhere, hymns are constantly on the airwaves, and there’s probably a Godzilla Christmas tree at the local shopping mall. In other words: Christmas is huge in Japan, although in a strictly secular sense.

godzilla christmas tree

Photo by Hayata-san

In any case, free to interpret Christmas any way they like, the Japanese have decided that it is… another Valentine’s day, basically. It’s a day for romantic dinners at expensive restaurants and letting the food get cold because couples are too busy gazing meaningfully into each others’ eyes. You know, that sort of stuff.

This Christmas-as-Valentine’s deal is not a bad idea, I guess, since Valentine’s has pretty much lost all romance in Japan: there’s hardly anything romantic about “obligatory chocolates” (義理チョコ, giri-choko) after all. So hurrah for an actual day for lovers to celebrate!

christmas couple in japan

Photo by mrhayata

Of course, too much of a good thing is no good, and the emphasis on having someone special to spend Christmas with can get out of hand. So much so, that if you’re single on Christmas, you’re a “loser dog” (負け犬, make-inu).

But, regardless of whether you’ve got a significant other to spend Christmas with or not, Christmas in Japan just wouldn’t be the same without Japan’s “traditional” Christmas meal: a finger-lickin’ good combo of Kentucky Fried Chicken chased by some strawberry shortcake – Japanese-style, of course.

What Is This Strawberry Shortcake You Speak Of?

Unlike the dense fruitcakes of most other countries, Japan’s unofficial Christmas cake is an airy sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries. That is to say, it’s not actually a shortcake… and strawberries? In winter?

Anyway, this Japanese-style strawberry shortcake was first sold in 1922 by Fujiya Food Service Co., Ltd., although nobody really knows who came up with it in the first place. Some claim that Fujii Rinemon, the founder of Fujiya, brought the idea back with him from the US. Others claim that Kuniteru Kadokura of Colombin Co., Ltd., was inspired by a French dessert.

peko-chan and cake

Image from Fujiya site

Peko-chan is Fujiya’s mascot. You’ve probably come across her smiling, tongue-sticking-out face before since Fujiya also makes heaps of other sweets and stuff.

Strawberry shortcake proved so popular that once refrigerated displays became readily available in the 1960s, there was no stopping it. Nowadays you can probably get it from any bakery or convenience store in Japan. It’s such a specifically Christmas dessert, though, that after Christmas, businesses slash their prices drastically to get rid of any unsold strawberry shortcakes. Some businesses may even start dropping their prices on Christmas Eve:

These big discounts and Japan’s youth-obsessed culture meant that not too long ago, women were referred to as Christmas cakes: once past the age of 25, her value as marriage material would drop significantly (because, you know, Christmas falls on the 25th). Like most other countries, though, these days it’s normal for both men and women to marry later.

Season’s Greetings, Folks!

whatever won't offend you

So, how do you plan to spend your Christmas this year? What’s your opinion on Christmas in Japan? If you’ve spent Christmas in Japan before, tell us what it was like in the comments!


DISCLAIMER:
Make-inu is a general term for loser, and its use it not restricted to singles on Christmas.

  • Jon

    Awww. . .I’m a 負け犬.

    :(

    On the bright side, I don’t have to spend money on anyone. Hurray for saving money!

  • DAVIDPD

    Christmas Tree Gojira!!! I will never stop being impressed with Japan.

  • Flora

    Is that clip from the movie about the Japanese kids who were abandoned by their mother & just stayed in the apartment secretly? Or is it another movie?

    (BTW, child/foster care in Japan would make a great Tofugu article.)

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Interestingly, “wagashi” makers have gotten into the act with spectacular-looking sweets that have a distinctly Christmas them in recent years. So there is competition for Fujiya’s strawberry shortcakes….

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    If you’re thinking of the movie Nobody Knows (誰も知らない), then yes that’s where the clip is from : )

  • デンツネ

    Christmas: That beautiful holy night when we all remember the sacred act of buying cakes for those we love, and spend so much money on fancy restaurants with those we want to love.~~

    まぁ、いいけど。。。何だかしがうでしょうか?~

  • http://twitter.com/foozlesprite foozlesprite

    Thanks for 負け犬. I love finding new vocabulary with kanji I already know! I’d love to see more little tidbits of vocabulary sprinkled into posts like this. And man, that strawberry shortcake looks AMAZING right now.

  • Phillip

    That description sounds exactly like the strawberry shortcake I eat. How’s that Japan-ized? Or did I just grow up eating Japanese style shortcake? :/

  • Fee_Fi_Fiona

    Hmm… the way I understand it a traditional shortcake is supposed to be sort of scone-y instead of spongy. Kind of like in the attached picture. Apparently back in the day “to shorten” meant “easily crumbled” hence the name, but of course I’m no food historian.

    Or maybe strawberry shortcakes have undergone parallel and independent evolution in both Japan and elsewhere ^_-

  • http://twitter.com/flabang slenderwoman

    I agree so much with this post. Literally in every shoujo manga there will ALWAYS be a Christmas scene…and then they’d be there with… yeap, a strawberry shortcake ಠ_ಠ. Not that I hate it though, all those shortcakes look so yummy it makes my Christmas look sad ;w;

  • Flow

    wow, did tofugu employees going holiday? it’s been five days (in my timezone) without any new article and this is the last article I’ve read, well, have a nice holiday then, especially for Hashi and Koichi, you’ve done a good job both of you.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    After writing about strawberry shortcake, they realized they’ve now written about every single Japan related topic that could be written about. They’ve decided to refocus their efforts into a new blog about Chinese culture entitled “Koichina and Friends’ Adventures in a Slightly More Western Land, Geographically Speaking.”

  • Mescale

    The end of the world happened, if you’re still reading this you need to realise its happened and stop existing already. Take a leaf out of tofugu’s book.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yup, we’re taking a break until after the New Year. Thanks for all of the kind words! :)