There’s a saying that Japan takes the best from the world and makes it its own. That’s certainly true with Christmas. Japan disassembles it, removes the heavy Western nostalgia and religion, and brilliantly repackages it as a fun, light snack before the solumn New Year’s main dish.
It’s a good thing too, because there probably isn’t room in the Japanese psyche for any more December sentimentality anyway. This is the month the typical company salaryman unfolds his repressed, packed-in feelings and hits the bonenkai (“forget the year” company drinking parties). One will inevitably find himself with various salaryman colleagues at several of these wild late night affairs throughout December.
Christmas is often sprinkled into the bonenkai theme for fun, but the overall spirit of it all is definitely more ritualized, Japanese-dubbed Animal House than it is yuletide. It’s a time for unwinding and settling down into serious, methodical drinking.
Bonenkai are like a celebration of vice consumption, and they live in a parallel universe to the benevolent company Christmas parties of the West. Japanese izakaya pubs cater almost exclusively to bonenkai for the entire month, usually packaging it in a two-hour all-you-can-drink party menu served up with frightening efficiency (to illustrate, eye-contact and a slight nod to the hovering servers at these places is all that’s needed to net a speedy refill).
Japanese business tradition grants certain repercussion-free, once-a-year rites during these blitzes, giving Christmas season here a slightly more naughty than nice flavor compared to the West.
Deep critiques of your boss right to his face, wild trysts with co-workers, soulful disclosure of private longings, boozy office confessions that dissipate with the cigarette smoke, and then hurling it all back up on the train platform – all are culturally-reserved rites for bonenkai goers.
The emotionally and physically draining ride of all these bonenkai may be one reason the Western idea of good Christmas music is at best a vague background melody during the Japanese Christmas season. It’s hard to imagine there being much emotion to spare for sentimental classics like “Deck the Halls” and “The Little Drummer Boy” when your head is throbbing from an R-rated romp through several bonenkai.
Much more agreeable to the overstimulated Japanese palette during this time is thin soup like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and Wham!’s “Last Christmas”, both absolute staples at holiday celebrations and on Japanese holiday TV programming.
And you won’t find turkey on any Japanese Christmas menus. The reason is simple: Japanese ovens aren’t big enough to hold them. Not that it matters; most Japanese find turkey an overly gamey-tasting bird with an inedible, dry texture.
Chicken, the closest acceptable thing, wins out as the de facto Japanese Christmas main dish. Or more specifically, fried chicken. Keeping with the quick and highly-consumable theme of the season, KFC is a popular Christmas meal in Japan.
For holiday dessert, there’s basically no such thing as pie in Japan, but everywhere you look there’s an amazing variety of ornate Christmas cakes (it’s such a part of the culture that there’s an old traditional joke about women and aging that says something like, “Women are like Christmas cakes, after the 25th they’re no good.”).
The hog-wild consumption and naughty bonenkai spirit of a Japanese Christmas season can make your head spin. And this is actually what it’s used for: a Western prop designed to drain you of your naughty vices. A fun cultural set-up for achieving a pure, blank Zen state for the all-important Japanese New Year.