Eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas day has become a popular tradition in Japan as the country views the celebration more as a commercial holiday than a religious one. Families will place orders far in advance (up to a week) and lines outside each franchise often extend out into the streets.
When many people think of Christmas dinner they often think of turkey, and a whole host of delicious sides such as stuffing, gravy, and other assorted classic sides.
Takeshi Okawara, the manager of Japan’s first KFC franchise, started marketing fried chicken “party barrels” as a Christmas dinner to match the traditional Western turkey dinner in 1970. In Japan, eating KFC meals as a Christmas feast has since become a popular tradition.
The meal is itself was very filling and partially healthy. What many people do not think of is having fast food for Christmas dinner, especially fried chicken. However, this is how Christmas is celebrated in Japan since the 1970s.
Although those in Western countries may find the idea of eating crispy fried KFC for Christmas dinner rather odd, for the Japanese it is a tradition spanning decades.
However, this tradition is not nearly as odd as you may think but rather came about thanks to a very clever marketing campaign by KFC. Having fried chicken for Christmas does not simply mean any standard fried chicken, but specifically KFC.
So, naturally, you may be wondering to yourself: what does KFC have to do with Christmas in Japan? Well, here we’ll explain everything that you want to know about the unique tradition from how it came about to why and how it continues today.
Lack of tradition
In Japan, there are significantly fewer Christians than in Western countries. In fact, only 1% of the entire country identifies themselves as Christian.
So, what the West would normally celebrate as a Christian holiday (even though it has been significantly commercialized) does not have the same cultural impact in Japan. This means that although they recognize the 25th of December as Christmas day, it does not have the same importance or associations to most Japanese people.
This is where commercialization truly played a part in the tradition of KFC for Christmas. Because Christmas is recognized as a celebration in Japan, but its religious meaning is mostly stripped from the day, there is a lack of historical traditions for the holiday.
There is no midnight mass, large turkey feast, or visiting the church on Christmas morning (for the majority at least) and so although people wanted to get together for Christmas with friends and family there was no standing tradition to go about this. And this is the point at which KFC created a genius marketing ploy.
A few years after Takeshi Okawara began his marketing campaign at his store the company picked up the idea and began marketing “Christmas In Kentucky” to the Japanese area where KFC’s operated.
Currently, Japan has over 1100 KFC locations in cities large and small. In 1972, 1978, and 1980, Harland Sanders the founder of KFC personally visited the Japanese franchises.
There were almost 400 locations in 1983, with yearly sales of about $300 million USD. KFC’s largest single international market in the early 1980s (outside of the USA) was Japan.
The KFC Advertising Campaign
KFC recognized this lack of Christmas tradition in Japan and decided to fill this gap in the market by filling it with the idea of KFC for Christmas. The idea originally came about in 1974 when an advert was produced and marketed suggesting the idea of having KFC for Christmas dinner. “Kentucky for Christmas” was an instant hit in Japan.
However, the exact origin of the idea is disputed as some say that it was inspired when a franchise manager dressed up as Santa Claus delivered fried chicken to children, and others that the idea came up at a holiday party in Japan. Whatever the origin story the advertising campaign was marketing genius.
The marketing effort had a significant amount of investment money behind it to ensure that it was as successful as possible. The campaign depicted a family gathered around a table all enjoying KFC together and basking in the pleasure of each other’s company. This association of KFC with family time quickly caught on.
Although the idea of KFC at Christmas was marketed as an American-style tradition, this is certainly not the case. But, in Japan it didn’t matter, the connection between chicken and Christmas had already been made.
However, some people claim that the reason why the marketing campaign had such a great success is that what it was promoting was easily assimilated into Japanese culture.
For example, there was already the tradition of gathering friends and family and eating “karaage”. Karaage is a type of dish that is made up of small pieces of fried meat such as fish or chicken.
Sharing a box of KFC with family was not all too dissimilar from karaage. So, the idea that KFC was promoting was not a completely foreign concept and was quickly accepted as a result of this similarity and the success behind the marketing campaign.
The modern day
The successful Christmas marketing had such a stronghold that many people have continued to eat KFC every Christmas and because they have done so since they were a child the memories and association of KFC at Christmas means that they are now passing this tradition down to their children.
KFC still promotes this association with the holiday meal with decorated buckets and other memorabilia every year in Japan during the Christmas season.
Over the Christmas period in Japan (between 20-25 December) KFC reported an income of $63 million (USD) and it is easily the company’s most busy period in the entire year.
As a result, the company offers different types of deals and packages or (set meals) especially for the Christmas period that can range anywhere from 3780 yen up to 5800 yen. The packages can include chicken as well as beverages and Christmas cake.
Although the advertising campaign was a great success for KFC in Japan it has not managed to continue its association outside of the country, making this a uniquely Japanese tradition.
The Curse Of The Colonel
The Curse of the Colonel is a 1985 Japanese urban legend about the spirit of KFC founder and mascot Colonel Sanders allegedly casting a curse on the Japanese Kansai-based Hanshin Tigers baseball team.
The team was said to be cursed as a result of the Colonel’s anger at the handling of one of his storefront statues, which was tossed into the Dotonbori River by Hanshin supporters celebrating their team’s triumph in the 1985 Japan Championship Series.
The Colonel’s Curse was said to explain the team’s following 18-year losing record, as is usual with sports-related curses. Some Japanese felt that until the statue was found, the team would never win another Japan Series. Since then, they’ve competed in the Japan Series three times, losing in 2003, 2005, and 2014.
On March 10, 2009, the Colonel was ultimately located in the Dotonbori River. Divers who discovered the statue initially mistook it for a giant barrel and then a human corpse, but Hanshin fans on the site quickly recognized it as the long-lost Colonel’s upper torso.
The right hand and lower body were recovered the next day, but the statue’s eyeglasses and left hand remain missing. It is stated that restoring his long-lost eyeglasses and left hand is the only way to break the curse.
Final Thoughts On “Christmas In Kentucky” Japan Style
Many people may initially think that the idea of having fried chicken as a Christmas dinner is a little bit odd, it is not simply the food itself that is at the center of the idea. KFC simply filled a void that many people had throughout the holiday in Japan, as the religious traditions were removed from the most secular celebration.
KFC simply put their food out there as a way to bring people together and to enjoy each other’s company while eating and sharing its Chicken.
However, because the marketing campaign was so successful the association between KFC and Christmas now stems from many people’s childhoods, making it a tradition that they pass down to their own children.
The Christmas period is so busy for KFC stores in Japan that the sale of Christmas packages accounts for one-third of their total yearly sales.