How KFC Worked Its Way Into Becoming Japan’s Biggest Christmas Tradition
Ah, Christmas. The perfect holiday to spend time together with your loved ones, gather around the dinner table, and enjoy a delicious feast of…KFC?! While many families cook up delightful homemade meals for Christmas, many Japanese families instead storm to this popular fast food chain. That’s right, in Japan, it’s a common tradition for families to devour handfuls of fried chicken on Christmas night. In fact, it’s estimated that approximately 3.6 million Japanese people enjoy KFC for Christmas each and every year. With a tradition so strange, you have to wonder how it all started.
You’re probably questioning what kind of masterful campaigning was done by KFC to pull off a feat this incredible. But before we get there, let’s start off with a little history. Back in 1970, Takeshi Okawara was the very first to open a KFC restaurant in Japan. While sure, it was a popular fast-food restaurant, it was nothing compared to the industry titan that it is today. It wasn’t until four years after its opening in 1974 that KFC blasted into sky-high popularity. Thanks to the amazing reception of their “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign (also known as Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii in Japanese), it quickly became the start of this crazy annual tradition.
Funnily enough, there are numerous claims circulating online about how Okawara first got this idea. Though none of them have concrete evidence stating they are in fact true, let’s take a look at some of the wild origins of this KFC Christmas tale.
According to BBC, KFC Japan spokeswoman Motoichi Nakatani claimed it all started thanks to one of Okawara’s dreams. “Shortly after it opened in 1970, Okawara woke up at midnight and jotted down an idea that came to him in a dream: a ‘party barrel’ to be sold on Christmas.” Nakatani went on further to explain how this idea was dreamed up after hearing foreigners in his store complain about having to miss turkey for Christmas. Sounds kind of believable, right?
On the other hand, a report by CNN told a different story. They claimed that some said Takeshi Okawara “falsely marketed fried chicken as a traditional American Christmas food to drum up sales”. Supposedly after dressing up as Santa and seeing how well-received it was, Okawara saw Christmas as a business opportunity. Although this may or may not be true, it’s certainly interesting to see how other countries in the world use American culture as a tactic for marketing and boosting interest. It really goes to show you the power and influence that the United States of America holds on the world.
Last but not least, in 2017, there was a more recent claim made on the television show The Rising Sun Show. Here, “the director of KFC Japan declared the [Kentucky for Christmas] idea was born following a request from foreign customers who wanted to see fried chicken delivered to them by delivery boys dressed as Santa Claus.” With each of these declarations becoming harder and harder to believe, perhaps we’ll never truly find out how it began.
But regardless of how it all started, the fact is, fried chicken has become synonymous with Christmas in Japan. Just take it from local resident Naomi - “almost every year since she was a child, Hokkaido resident Naomi has looked forward to her family’s traditional Christmas meal: a KFC ‘party barrel’ brimming with salad, cake, and lots of fried chicken.” And to really help you understand just how big this tradition is, in 2018, Japan was supposedly able to bring in in 6.9 billion yen just from December 20-25 alone, equating to approximately $63 million USD. Now that’s a whole lot of money!
This incredibly unique Christmas tradition in Japan just goes to show us that people around the world celebrate this beloved holiday in very different fashions. While it’s certainly a quirky approach, we can’t deny it’s a fun tradition that really celebrates the country’s history and culture. Maybe this year if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, how about going the Japanese route and ordering in buckets of KFC? You can never go wrong with fried chicken after all!