TIME

The Quirky Ways 7 Other Countries Celebrate Christmas

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KAZUHIRO NOGI—AFP/Getty Images Japan Airlines President Yoshiharu Ueki (2nd L) and Masao Watanabe (2nd R), President of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan pose with a statue of Colonel Sanders (C) wearing a Santa Claus costume during a photo session after a press conference to announce their new "AIR Kentucky Fried Chicken" in-flight fried chicken service, in Tokyo on November 28, 2012.

Italy's Epiphany witch, Iceland's "Yule cat" and why Japan eats KFC at Christmas

If you’ve ever considered it odd that U.S. Christmas traditions revolve around indoor trees (real and plastic) and a plump, bearded man sliding down chimneys… you’re not wrong.

In fact, our conception of Santa Claus can largely be attributed to a single 1828 poem, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which enshrined the nation’s image of Santa–with his “little round belly” and a beard “as white as the snow–and propagated the idea of him coming through chimneys to deliver gifts in stockings, now common knowledge to children across the country. It’s just one of the ways our Christmas traditions can be traced to quirks of history.

But odd and seemingly arbitrary Christmas traditions are not only the purview of the United States. Around the world, in countries that are majority Christian and countries that are majority not, unique practices emerge as the holiday approaches.

Here’s a look at some of the notable and sometimes bizarre Christmas time traditions around the world.

Japan

The vast majority of Japan is not Christian, but one Christmas tradition persists: a trip to KFC. Since a “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign was launched in Japan in 1974, the American chain has become a popular Christmas Eve hotspot. The campaign worked so well that sales that night typically outpace those of the rest of the year. Some people even order their bucket of fried chicken ahead, to beat the Christmas crowds.

Sweden

In the Swedish town of Gävle, it is traditional to construct a 30-foot tall giant straw “Yule Goat” — a Christmas symbol in Sweden for centuries. And it’s tradition for some meddling kids (actually, unidentified criminal arsonists) to try to burn it down. According to the Gävle tourist board, the goat has been burned down 25 times since its construction became an annual tradition in 1966. So far this year, the Gävle goat is safely standing, as you can see on this webcam. You can also follow him on Twitter.

India

Christians comprise roughly 2 percent of the Indian population, or 24 million people. But Christmas trees in the warm climate are in short supply, so in lieu of the evergreen conifer many Indian families will adorn banana or mango trees with ornaments. In Christian communities, which are mostly in southern India, people put oil-lamps of clay on their flat roof-tops to celebrate the season.

Ukraine

Americans would recognize the Christmas trees decorated in Ukraine, as they’re similar to the traditional, Western fir tree, but Ukrainians will sometimes decorate them with an unlikely ornament: spider webs. The tradition stems from a Ukrainian folk tale, about a widow whose family was so poor they had no money to decorate their tree. Instead, a spider span a web around it on Christmas Eve — and when the first light of day hit it on Christmas morning, it turned into a beautiful web of gold and silver.

Iceland

Beware the Yule Cat! This traditional Christmas fiend is said to terrorize the Icelandic countryside, particularly targeting those who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. But the frightening festive feline is just one of Iceland’s “Christmas fiends”, who include Grýla, a three-headed ogress with goat-horns. The creature’s sons, the “Yule Lads”, hand out Christmas gifts to children who have been good (and rotten vegetables to those who have been bad).

Italy

Only in Italy do the witches bring gifts to children. That’s La Befana, a broom-flying, kindly witch who effectively takes over from Santa–in Italy, “Babbo Natale”—about two weeks after Christmas on Epiphany to deliver gifts to the good, and ash to the bad. Though the witch has her roots in the pre-Christian pagan tradition, she features in some tellings of the Christmas story in Italy — as an old woman who refuses to give the Wise Men directions to Bethlehem because she is too busy cleaning, and is forced to ride a broomstick for eternity as a result. The town of Le Marche, in northwestern Italy, celebrates her coming every January.

Czech Republic

Save the ham. In the Czech Republic, carp is the mainstay of a Christmas dinner. The tradition of eating carp on Christian holidays dates back as far as the 11th century, when Bohemian monasteries would construct fishponds for the express use of farming the fish. Until recently, Czech families would buy a live carp in the weeks before Christmas and keep it in a bathtub, before slaughtering it on Christmas Eve ready for the following day’s meal. Many Czechs still take part in the festive superstition of saving a dried (and cleaned) scale from the Christmas fish in their wallets for luck over the coming year.

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TIME Japan

Japanese PM Orders ‘Thorough Measures’ After First Bird Flu Outbreak in 8 Months

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MIXA—Getty Images/MIXA

Poultry culled and affected farms quarantined

Japan ordered the culling of about 4,000 chickens Tuesday following an outbreak of avian influenza at one of the country’s poultry farms.

The owner of the farm in the country’s southwest reported that 20 of his birds died suddenly over the weekend, following which a DNA test revealed the presence of the H5 strain of the bird flu virus, AFP reported.

The affected farm, located in Miyazaki prefecture on the island of Kyushu, has been locked down along with several others surrounding it. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered “thorough measures for epidemic prevention” in what is the country’s first confirmed bird-flu outbreak since April.

[AFP]

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Johnny Manziel Stumbles During Debut Start for Browns

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Japan’s Ruling Coalition Wins Big in Elections

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Bill Cosby Briefly Breaks His Silence

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R&B Icon D’Angelo Releases His First Album in 14 Years

D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years is impressively timely, unveiled as it was at a New York City listening session one day after an estimated 25,000 people in the same city protested police brutality against unarmed black citizens. Black Messiah came out at midnight

One of the World’s 6 Northern White Rhinos Has Died

The world has only five northern white rhinos left, after the sixth, Angalifu, died at the San Diego Zoo on Sunday. He was 44 and zoo officials said he had been refusing food for a week. Decades of wide-scale poaching have driven the rhinos to the brink of extinction

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TIME movies

The Japanese Studio That Launched the Franchise Is Making a New Godzilla Movie

Godzilla Eats A Commuter Train
Toho/Embassy Pictures/Getty Images Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

“The time has come for Japan to make a film that will not lose to Hollywood”

Director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot was a box office rainmaker, earning $525 million worldwide. But Godzilla was born in Japan, and the Japanese studio that produced the first Godzilla movie in 1954 wants back in on the lucrative franchise. According to Variety, the studio, Toho, plans to begin filming next summer and release the film in 2016, a few years ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The most recent of Toho’s 28 Godzilla movies, out in 2004, was to be the last, largely thanks to disappointing revenues. But the overwhelming success of this year’s American version along with advances in computer graphics, says Toho producer Taichi Ueda, inspired the studio to get back in the reptilian monster game.

Looking to compete with the U.S. and develop a character that “will represent Japan and be loved around the world,” Toho is convening a committee of directors and studio executives, the Godzilla Strategic Conference, or Godzi-Con for short. There is still no word on a director or casting. But a competitive spirit will surely fuel the producers as the film takes shape — Edwards’ Godzilla 2 is slated for release in 2018.

TIME Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Defends Abenomics Ahead of Elections

Shinzo Abe
Shizuo Kambayashi—AP Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Nov. 18, 2014

The vote will test public confidence in the prime minister's set of economic reforms

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday took on the leaders of six opposition parties in a debate marking the start of the official campaign season for this month’s elections. The polls are widely seen as a referendum on the incumbent’s economic policies.

Abe had in November called snap elections for the next month to let voters weigh in on so-called Abenomics — a package of reforms to boost the Japanese economy — after Japan dipped into recession and stoked fears that the reforms were unsuccessful, the Associated Press reports.

The incumbent prime minister is expected to easily come out of the elections with a four-year mandate to helm Japan and press onward with Abenomics, despite Moody’s cutting Japan’s credit rating this week.

Critics of Abenomics have castigated the policies as supporting just big businesses and the well-heeled. Abe has said it will take time to see the full benefits of the reforms, which seek to end deflation.

TIME Japan

A Japanese Woman Has Been Linked to the Deaths of Six of Her Partners

The men all died shortly after starting a relationship with her

A Japanese woman, who has been linked to a series of mysterious deaths, has been arrested on suspicion of fatally poisoning her husband.

Sixty-seven-year-old Chisako Kakehi was arrested by Kyoto police on Wednesday. Japanese media say cyanide was found in the body of her 75-year-old husband, who died in Dec. 2013, one month after the couple was married, Associated Press reports.

But Isao Kakehi was just one of six men who came to untimely deaths shortly after marrying or beginning a relationship with the woman.

In 2012, cyanide was also found in the blood of her 71-year-old partner who died after falling off his motorcycle. According to Kyodo news service, the cause of death was attributed to heart disease.

Chisako Kakehi denies she had a hand in any of the deaths.

[AP]

TIME whaling

Japan Reduces Antarctic Whale Hunting Quota

Humpback whale in Antarctica
Getty Images Humpback whale in Antarctica

The policy will take effect for the 2015-2016 whaling season

Japan has cut its whale hunting quota down to 333 from 900, in response to international criticism over the practice, officials announced Tuesday.

“We will explain the new plan sincerely so as to gain understanding from each country,” said fisheries minister Koya Nishikawa, according to the Guardian.

The International Court of Justice ruled in March that Japan’s “research whaling” served as a front to allow the country to hunt and sell whale meat under a scientific exemption to international bans on hunting whales for commercial purposes. But the country maintains that it needs to hunt whales to set “safe levels of catch limits” and to determine the age of the population.

The new policy will take effect for the 2015-2016 whaling season. This year’s whaling season was canceled in response to the ICJ’s ruling.

[Guardian]

TIME Japan

Japan’s Abe Calls Early Election to Save His Grand Economic Plan

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo
Toru Hanai—Reuters Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Nov. 18, 2014.

Second stage of VAT hike is put back by 18 months to allow the economy to haul itself out of recession again

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called early elections and delayed by 18 months a second big hike in value-added tax, in an effort to rescue his floundering plan to revive the economy.

Abe told a press conference that he would dissolve parliament and call the elections for December 14, just 26 days from now. Under normal circumstances, his mandate would run for another two years.

The news comes only a day after the shock announcement that Japan’s economy fell into recession in the third quarter, failing to recover–even moderately–from a plunge in output that followed the first stage of a two-stage hike in VAT in April.

Figures released Monday had shown gross domestic product contracting by 1.6% in annualized terms, with all components of the economy falling short of what economists had expected.

Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party currently holds over 294 of the 425 seats in Japan’s lower house, making it likely that it will be hold on to an overall majority barring disasters. However, it is less likely to be able to keep the two-thirds majority that it currently enjoys by virtue of its coalition with the New Komeito Party.

That super-majority, which means it can overrule the upper chamber of Japan’s two-chamber parliament, has been vital for pushing through a radical three-pronged economic strategy–dubbed as ‘Abenomics’–for jumpstarting Japan out of a 20-year struggle with stagnation and deflation.

The strategy revolves around a massive monetary stimulus from the Bank of Japan, and a sharp, two-stage increase in tax on consumption to plug Japan’s yawning government deficit, and deregulation of a range of business activities.

The economy had initially responded well to the first “arrow” of that strategy, with the yen falling sharply and fears of deflation fading in response to the Bank of Japan’s stimulus. Exporters also benefited, with companies like Toyota Motor Corp. posting sharp increases in sales and raising its full-year profit forecast after two strong quarters. But the 5% increase in VAT killed all momentum in the domestic economy, sending both consumption and business investment into reverse all through the spring and summer.

With signs of the “deflationary mindset” returning, the Bank of Japan ramped up the printing presses again at the start of the month. Abe admitted that the first tax hike had hit consumption and said that going ahead with the second stage, initially planned for next October, would jeopardize Japan’s chances of winning its battle with deflation.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Japan

In Japan, New Okinawa Governor Pledges to Shut Controversial U.S. Air Base

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Jiji Press—AFP/Getty Images Former Naha mayor Takeshi Onaga speaks to reporters after winning the Okinawa gubernatorial election on Nov. 16, 2014, in Naha, the capital of Japan's Okinawa prefecture

Defeated governor Hirokazu Nakaima was elected on a promise to get rid of the Futenma air base but then changed his mind

The controversial proposal to relocate a U.S. military base on Japan’s Okinawa prefecture was dealt a blow Monday when an outspoken opponent of the plan was elected as the island chain’s new governor.

Takeshi Onaga won Sunday’s gubernatorial polls in a landslide and wants to get rid of Futenma air base altogether. Defeated incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima had agreed for it to move to a new location in the island’s north despite widespread public opposition.

“The governor’s decision in December of last year to endorse [the current government relocation plan] was proven wrong when I won this election,” said Onaga, reports the BBC.

The election result may prove a setback for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who has pushed for stronger military ties with the U.S.

The U.S. military has been present in Japan since the end of World War II and currently boasts around 26,000 troops and several bases around the East Asian nation. But the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by U.S. troops largely turned public opinion against the ongoing presence of American soldiers.

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