Monday, 23 January 2017

Eating Christmas Cake Is A Japanese Tradition

In November, Seibu department store in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district claimed a threefold increase in reservations for Christmas cakes with prices ranging from ¥4,000 to ¥5,000, according to the Kyodo News. Despite a dessert fair held at the store featuring 200 different types of Christmas cakes, the all-time favorite sponge cake with white cream and strawberries is this year's hot seller.

Eating Christmas cake has become such a popular Christmas Eve tradition that Christmas cakes are even sold in convenience stores and small-scale bakery shops located throughout Japan. Retail stores also cash in on this lucrative global holiday event with celebrities promoting their Christmas confection selections via TV, radio and magazines.

Although Christmas is celebrated, it is not observed as a national holiday in Japan. In fact, Christmas is often seen as a non-religious offshoot of the New Year's festivities. Most Japanese have eagerly embraced Christmas consumerism - buying and exchanging gifts, eating Christmas cakes and fried chicken, as well as decorating their trees or houses with illumination.

It seems that the Japanese widely accepted practices of Christmas traditions without the religious aspect of Christmas have baffled many Westerners. In a consumer-driven nation, Japanese marketers are masters in their trade. They understand it is through practices, such as manufacturing, selling, buying, exchanging, giving, eating, that construct the legitimacy of the products. The Christmas cake is a fine example how strawberry shortcake came to be a "traditional" Christmas cake in Japan.

Fujiya sold the first Christmas cake in 1910, targeting foreigners living in the Yokohama area. It was a simple fruitcake like the British style of Christmas cake.

In 1921, Fujiya's founder, Fujii, visited the U.S. to observe the confectionery industry. He noticed that the confections were sold in the crowded commercial districts. After Fujii's return to Japan, Fujiya started producing Christmas cake (sponge cake with butter cream) for the Japanese consumers in Ginza, the commercial district in Tokyo. The custom of eating Christmas cake began to spread among rich Japanese consumers. From this time on, the Christmas cake was gradually changing from a fruitcake to a shortcake.

Fujiya's Christmas cake main rival was Juchheim founded in 1921. The German founder, Karl Juchheim was the first meister who baked baumkuchen in Japan. Even though Juchcheim hired certified artisans to follow the traditional recipe and use only natural ingredients, its Christmas cake stollen was not popular among the Japanese at the time.

During the American occupation of Japan, the sugar and flour rationing of wartime had been lifted. As economic success came to Japan, Fujiya began making decorative Christmas cakes in large quantities. By the late 1960s, most households had a refrigerator, so whipped cream gradually replaced butter cream and strawberries that became available year round were selected as the main fruit ingredient for the cake.

The popularity of Fujiya's Christmas cake was attributed to the introduction of mass production technology that made Christmas cakes affordable to average Japanese consumers. To the Japanese, Christmas cakes were the symbols of modernity, Westernization, and higher social status.

Over the years, the type and size of Christmas cakes have altered due to the cultural shifts in the Japanese society. Since mid-1980s, Fujiya has been selling 12-cm in diameter cakes to lovers spending a romantic Christmas together. It is also considered trendy and fashionable for young couples to enjoy various kinds of Christmas cake, such as the French Buche de Noel, the Italian dessert Tiramisu and even the German classic revival of stollen by Juchheim.

As fickle consumers develop their own specific Christmas cake tastes, the confectionery shops try to meet their changing demands with a wide variety and unique creations.

In Tokyo, the Westin hotel promotes a functional edible cake-game, Reversi board complete with chocolate pieces. The winner can eat the loser’s chocolate pieces. For dog lovers, Sumainu offers a small Christmas cake as a special treat made of yogurt and cheese topped with either fresh strawberries or sweet-roasted slices of apples. In Sapporo, Azumazushi restaurant has a limited offer for a 25-cm in diameter Christmas sushi cake with eight kinds of seafood such, as crab, salmon, scallop, fish roes, etc.

Though the style and type of Christmas cakes may change from year to year, one thing is for sure - eating Christmas cake will remain a Japanese tradition.

(First published on, December 22, 2010)