Why KFC is the traditional Christmas meal in Japan

In Britain, Christmas means roast turkey with all the trimmings. In France, they enjoy the lavish Réveillon on Christmas Eve. Over in South Africa, it’s all about outdoor braais, or barbecues.  And in Japan, Christmas means KFC.

On December 25th every year, you’ll find millions of Japanese people sitting down to a hearty meal of KFC fried chicken, with orders placed with the restaurant months in advance. It’s all thanks to a very effective marketing campaign that began in the 70s. It created a whole new Japanese Christmas food tradition that has thrived for almost five decades. Read on to find out why KFC is the Christmas icon of Japan.

The history of Christmas KFC in Japan

fried chicken Japan Christmas KFC

KFC has been the ultimate Japanese Christmas food since December 1974, just four years after the first KFC store arrived in Japan. So how did it all begin? Some say that the first KFC manager in Japan, Takeshi Okawara, told a little white lie and marketed their fried chicken as a traditional American Christmas food to encourage sales. 

The official story from KFC Japan says that Okawara went to a Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus, and when the kids loved it, he was inspired to create the KFC Christmas specials. Another legend still says that Okawara, overheard foreigners looking for Christmas dinner traditions in Japan. Okawara then came up with the brilliant idea of a ‘party barrel’ with KFC chicken, sold at a low, all-inclusive price.

This scheme, combined with the fact that the traditional turkey is nearly impossible to find in Japan (so the Christian population went for the next best thing – fried chicken), and the party barrel was an immediate hit with the locals. Whatever the true origin story, it’s clear on one thing – KFC created a national phenomenon and one of the most popular Japanese Christmas food traditions.

Today, around 3.6 million Japanese people tuck into a feast of the Colonel’s fried chicken specialities every Christmas. It’s known by its catchy slogan – known as ‘Kentucky for Christmas!’ or ‘kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’. And Takeshi Okawara? He went on to become the president and CEO of KFC Japan between 1984 and 2002. 

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Clever Christmas marketing

Only around 1% of the Japanese population is Christian, with the majority identifying as Shinto or Buddhist. Christmas isn’t even an official holiday in Japan. Meanwhile, other brands have tried and failed to replicate KFC’s success in the Christmas fried chicken market. So how did KFC become a country-wide Christmas tradition and how has it continued to evolve for almost five decades? 

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The answer is great marketing. KFC Japan has used the same jingle in its Christmas ads for the last 20 years – the iconic “My Old Kentucky Home” song. When people hear that song, they know it’s time for Christmas – and time to order their festive fried chicken!

The KFC ads that began in the 70’s and 80’s were also beautiful campaigns that showed a family enjoying a luxurious feast of golden fried chicken together. The idea that fried chicken was an essential part of a lavish and authentic Western Christmas took off – even if that wasn’t totally true.

There’s also the coincidence that Colonel Sanders looks like Santa. He’s evolved into Colonel Santa in Japan. With white facial hair and a jolly round belly, the Colonel can be found dressed up in Santa outfits all over the country come December. KFC also promotes the likeness by dressing up their Colonel Sanders statues with red-and-white Santa outfits every Christmas season.

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How does KFC Japan prepare for the Christmas season?

KFC sells millions of pieces of fried chicken every Christmas. So how do they even begin to prepare for such an event? It isn’t easy and KFC Japan has preparations in motion all year, with the bulk of the preparations picking up in July. About six weeks before Christmas, the orders start arriving, with 40% of all Christmas orders made in advance. 

They make their biggest sales between December 23 and 25, and overall sell around 800,000 Christmas packs and 300,000 larger party barrels during Christmas. This makes up around a third of the total yearly sales for KFC Japan. The packs and barrels are customisable, and you can choose from chicken legs, tenders, nuggets and even a whole roast chicken. There’s also the tasty sides like coleslaw, shrimp gratin, and triple-berry tiramisu, the Japanese Christmas cake.

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It’s an enormous undertaking, and you’ll see people queuing out the door from December 23rd and into Christmas Eve, with wait times up to two hours long. It’s all hands on deck, with stores being ten times busier than usual. But for the locals, it’s all worth it to make sure they secure their KFC Christmas chicken. 

While it might seem unusual to go without the classic roast turkey on Christmas Day, fried chicken isn’t too far off the mark! Plus, the British can’t really say they don’t eat KFC for Christmas too. The country purchases thousands of tubs of the famous KFC gravy on Christmas Eve every year. There really is something irresistibly festive in the Colonel’s secret recipe.

Would you like to experience a KFC Christmas feast in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!

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