As an English teacher in rural Japan, one of my favorite “culture” lessons was teaching my first-year students the shocking truth about Christmas in my home country: we don’t devour KFC for Christmas dinner. I’ll bet that most of you reading this find it odd that I would have to clarify such a thing. But for more than 3 million families in Japan, Christmas and Kentucky Fried Chicken go together like Coca Cola and Santa.
Christmas in Japan
Like many foreign holidays, Japan has whole-heartedly adopted “Corporate Christmas” for its festive cheer and cash flow. Despite only 1% of the population holding Christian beliefs, the second November 1st rolls around, Polar Express can be heard blaring its obnoxious whistle like a Mariah-Carey-foghorn in every department store throughout the land. Most Japanese people recognize the Yuletide season as something significant, whether it is because of Christmas, the previous emperor’s birthday, or the year’s end.
But just because Christmas isn’t a religious event for most people, that doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in it religiously. Most cities will have holiday illumination events and decorations in public squares. Christmas trees become common sights in living rooms (where else are you going to put the presents?), and many stores will have holiday sales.
So What’s With the Chicken?
Japan is somewhat famous for adopting foreign customs and culture, then tweaking it. Traditionally, Christmas meats have been things like honey-glazed ham or turkey, but neither of these are part of the Japanese diet. While sliced ham is popular, the stereotypical cut of Christmas ham is definitely not. As for turkeys, the animal does not exist on the archipelago (except at Universal Studios Japan, where it’s delicious!). Simply put, with neither of these traditional dishes being readily available, chicken made for a delicious and affordable alternative.
Enter the Colonel
Once chicken had been declared the main dish, it was only a matter of time before the marketing masterminds of KFC Japan hopped on the bandwagon. The official story from the KFC Japan website goes something like this:
At the time of KFC’s debut in the 1970s, “fast food” was not common nor much liked in Japan. Furthermore, Japan was not (and still is not) a culture that eats with its hands. Thus, the first KFC in Osaka was fighting an uphill battle and sales were low. With a rebranding emphasis on “hip” American culture, sales slowly picked up, but it was far from steady. Then [as the story goes], a Catholic missionary kindergarten wanted to throw a Christmas party for their students, and asked the local KFC manager to come to the party dressed as Santa Claus. The manager agreed and it was such a roaring success that other schools began asking KFC to cater Christmas parties. Before the company knew it, they had a marketing campaign on their hands. On December 1st 1974, KFC Japan released the 「クリスマスにはケンタッキー」(“Kentucky for Christmas”) campaign.
Other sources claim that the marketing campaign began when managers noticed foreigners who, desperate for a Christmas dinner in Japan, consistently came to KFC each year. Yet another more mundane (and probably most accurate) story is that the manager of the first KFC in Japan thought of the marketing ploy one night as nothing more than a way to increase sales.
Have a “Finger Lickin’ Good” Christmas!
Regardless of its true origins, the famous “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign was a roaring success. Because Christmas is not an official holiday in Japan, most people who wanted to celebrate it didn’t have time to spend all day roasting a chicken and preparing a nice meal. KFC offered all the festivity of a Christmas feast with none of the hassle.
Nowadays, KFC Christmas has become so popular that only the foolhardy would have the gall to attempt walking into a KFC on December 25th and trying to order a bucket of fried cheer. Instead, Christmas platters and buckets must be ordered weeks in advance!
If you miss the deadline, KFC will still be open on Christmas day and serve their regular menu, but it may be a madhouse. In recent years, other establishments such as convenience stores have started offering their own Christmas chicken. Honorable mention goes to Family Mart, but I have friends who will bring the argument of “Famichiki” or Lawson’s “Golden Chicken” to fisticuffs. If you’re in Japan this holiday season, be sure to eat your fill!
Barton, Eric. “Why Japan Celebrates Christmas with KFC.” BBC Worklife, BBC, 19 Dec. 2016.
Taylor, Kate. “How KFC Made Christmas All about Fried Chicken – in Japan.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 25 Dec. 2017.
ライフスタイル Michill. “クリスマスにチキンをなぜ食べるの！？日本での意外な歴史とは？: Michill（ミチル）.” Michill (ミチル) | 笑顔が満ちるちょっとしあわせな生活, 12 Dec. 2017.
歴史あれこれ｜「Q＆A」よくあるご質問｜ケンタッキーフライドチキン, Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan LTD.