Why the Japanese Eat Cake For Christmas

A tradition beginning in war and ending in cake

A dog eats a special Christmas cake in Tokyo, celebrating with the festive red and white dessert. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye) ()
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Fluffy white sponge cake might not be the first dessert that comes to mind around Christmastime, but in Japan, the cake is king. Despite less than one percent of Japan’s population identifying as Christian, Christmas cheer is widespread on the island nation. There are Santas aplenty, Christmas tree decorations, lights on display and presents for children. But nothing says Christmas in Japan quite like the Christmas cake. The ubiquitous dessert is made of round sponge layers covered in whipped cream, with strawberries between the layers and placed on top. The dessert is so iconic you can even see its representation in the cake emoji on your phone.

Christmas first made a limited appearance in Japan in the 16th century, when Christian missionaries from Portugal arrived. But the holiday didn’t spread in its secularized, commercial form for several hundred years, until the 1870s, when Tokyo stores like Maruzen (a bookstore chain) began creating displays with Christmas decorations and selling imported greeting cards. In the decades before World War II, the country seemed primed for an American cultural boom. Charlie Chaplin visited the country in 1932, Japan’s first professional baseball teams began competition, and Babe Ruth came to Japan on a tour and was greeted by hundreds of thousands of fans. Consumerism was on the rise—but was forced back down as Imperial Japan embroiled itself in World War II. Soon the slogan “luxury is the enemy” could be seen everywhere.

Before the war, Japanese treats fell into two large categories. Wagashi (Japanese sweets) were the more traditional variety, made from bean paste and powdered rice and very lightly sweetened. On the other side were yogashi (Western sweets), things like chocolates, made with rare ingredients like milk and butter. Yogashi were signs of wealth, status and modernity—but during the war they were all but impossible to find. In 1944, due to food shortages, official sugar distribution by the Japanese government ended; by 1946 the average amount of sugar used by one person in a year was only 0.2 kilograms, the equivalent of about four cans of Coke.

After World War II ended, the U.S. occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952. During that period, the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers’ economic and scientific division formulated and instituted a number of economic policies, inspired by the New Deal, to assist in the rebuilding of Japan’s infrastructure. As Japan’s economy began to rebound, sugar consumption increased anew. Mass-produced yogashi-like caramels and chocolates gradually filled supermarkets, signaling the rise of the national standard of living. From the mid-1950s to the 1960s, chocolates were being produced at five times the pre-war rate, and cakes were being produced 2.5 times more. As cultural anthropologist Hideyo Konagaya writes, “Tangible acts of consuming sweetness, typically of chocolates, marked a certain psychological achievement once they looked back to the state of hunger a few decades earlier.”

Christmas was the perfect opportunity to celebrate economic prosperity and the unique mixing of Japanese and Western culture. References to the holiday were also made in English reader books, helping children become familiar with it, and it soon came to be celebrated in several main ways: giving toys to children, ordering KFC for dinner, and eating Christmas cakes.

The cake itself is highly symbolic as well, according to Konagaya. The round shape calls back to other traditional sweets (think of the rice-wrapped treats called mochi), whereas white has a connection to rice. Red is the color that repels evil spirits, and is considered auspicious when combined with white, as it is on the national flag.

It was popularized by Japanese confectioner Fujiya Co., but technological advances were what made its creation possible. Earlier sponge cakes were iced with butter cream, since the frosting didn’t require refrigeration. But when most households began owning personal refrigerators, the classier, fresh whipped cream was used. As for the strawberries, they were rare, expensive commodities until after World War II, when greenhouses and new agricultural technology made them available in the colder winter months. Like with the cream and sugar, strawberries symbolized economic advancement. Today strawberries are popular in mochi and other desserts, but their most iconic use is still the Christmas cake.

If the Christmas cake sounds like an irresistible tradition to adopt, follow the instructions on how to make it from the popular Japanese cooking show, “Cooking with Dog.”

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