How KFC Became the Traditional Christmas Meal in Japan
Image Credit: Eating KFC is now a tradition on Christmas | Unsplash

Every year, millions of people around the world celebrate Christmas with a variety of traditional dishes. But in Japan, KFC is a staple of the holiday season. KFC Japan reports five-to-ten times its average daily sales on December 24. How did this unlikely tradition start?

This article looks at how KFC became the traditional Christmas meal in Japan and what we can learn from this interesting trend.

Introduction to KFC in Japan

KFC, also known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, is an American fast-food chain that specializes in fried chicken and other Southern-style cuisine. It was founded in 1930 by Colonel Harland Sanders in Corbin, Kentucky, and is now one of the world’s largest and most recognized fast-food chains. In Japan, KFC has been serving fried chicken since 1970 and is now one of the country’s most popular fast-food restaurants.

Despite its popularity, KFC is not a traditional part of Japanese cuisine. So how did it become a holiday staple? The answer lies in a unique marketing campaign that began in 1974. How, then, did Kentucky Fried Chicken come to be so closely associated with the holiday season in Japan?

After a difficult period in the 1940s and 1950s in the wake of World War II, the Japanese economy began to flourish. Japan's economy was booming, and for the first time in its history, its citizens could afford to partake in consumer culture. The United States was the most important cultural force at the time, so Japan eagerly took in Western music, art, fashion, and food.

Franchises from other countries, like Baskin-Robbins, Mister Donut, and KFC, began appearing in the United States in the early 1970s. Fast food in Japan became 600 times more popular between 1970 and 1980, according to "Colonel Comes to Japan," a 1981 documentary by John Nathan.  

How KFC Promoted its Christmas Campaign in Japan 

Picture credit - Unsplash

Christmas in Japan, where less than one percent of the population identifies as Christian, was and is a secular holiday, so in the 1970s many people didn't celebrate it with any particular rituals or traditions. To fill this void, KFC was introduced. Party buckets have been around since 1974, when the company debuted its "Kentucky for Christmas" advertising campaign and introduced the original version.

KFC’s Christmas campaign was cleverly designed to appeal to Japanese consumers. The ads featured the iconic Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa costume, delivering buckets of KFC chicken to happy children. The campaign also included television advertisements, radio spots, and even a (made-up) Christmas carol called "Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii!"  

An urban legend has it that Takeshi Okawara, manager of the first KFC franchise in Japan, started the practice after being asked to provide food for a school's holiday party.  

At the time, few Japanese people celebrated Christmas, but Okawara went all out by donning a Santa Claus costume. A second kindergarten class reportedly asked for a similar party after hearing about how well it went. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Stores in Japan quickly began advertising fried chicken as an everyday Western staple, going so far as to tell NHK (Japan's national broadcaster) that it was frequently substituted for turkey during the holiday season. This falsehood eventually became widely believed.  

A Conflicting Story on KFC’s Popularity

In 2020, the global KFC website published its own explanation. It said that the idea for the campaign came from a foreign customer who went to a KFC in Tokyo on Christmas Day and said, "I can't get turkey in Japan, so I have to celebrate Christmas with Kentucky Fried Chicken." A member of the brand's sales team in Japan overheard the comment and used it as the impetus for the company's first Christmas advertising campaign.

It's no secret that a lot of money was spent on marketing before "Kentucky for Christmas" became a hit. These campaigns were exceptionally well executed, and they successfully merged the concepts of fried chicken and holiday indulgence. There's no denying the popularity of the concept.

Traditional tastes

However, it would be unfair to attribute KFC's long-lasting success solely to effective marketing; the brand's compatibility with mainstream cultural mores is also a key factor. 

KFC, for example, is reminiscent of "karaage," a popular traditional Japanese dish consisting of bite-sized pieces of panko-breaded, deep-fried meats like chicken or fish. So, KFC doesn't require a significant leap of faith in terms of flavor profiles, as it's not an unfamiliar flavor.  

The popularity of the Christmas buckets soon made KFC a staple of the holiday season in Japan, with people ordering their buckets weeks in advance.

The Current State of KFC’s Christmas Tradition in Japan 

Nowadays, a reported three million Japanese families visit the fast-food chain every Christmas Eve in an attempt to get their hands on the Colonel's secret recipe.

The holiday menu, which includes buckets and burger meals, is rumored to bring in large crowds to KFC locations across Japan. While fast food is convenient, it can be expensive. KFC holiday bundles in Japan cost anywhere from 2,000 Japanese Yen (₹1200) to 8,000 Japanese Yen (₹5000).

KFC’s Christmas campaign is also a big hit on social media. Every year, customers post pictures of their Christmas meals on Instagram and Twitter, furthering the chain’s reach and popularity.

As a result of globalization, consumer rituals like these have spread to other countries and been translated into local forms, just as there is now an Ikea in every major city around the globe. While Japanese customers may be in a hurry to get their hands on a bucket of KFC on Christmas Eve, the company itself is in no tearing hurry to deposit their "buckets" of cash!