The reason why Kentucky Fried Chicken became the Christmas meal in Japan is a story of a fast-food company that was in the right place at the right time—and a foreigner who got the ball rolling.
The time was the tail end of the nation’s post-war period of rapid economic growth when Japanese people were increasingly drawn to the Western lifestyle. They were particularly enamored of American culture, which they saw as modern, stylish and fashionable, and were quickly incorporating U.S. ways into their own daily lives.
In 1970, Osaka held a world fair—the Expo ’70—and KFC International opened a trial store there. It saw roaring trade that, at its peak, notched up ¥2.8 million in sales in just one day, KFC Holdings Japan says on its website.
In July that year, KFC set up a joint venture with Mitsubishi Corp., and Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan was born. The first regular store opened in Nagoya on November 21, 1970.
But business didn’t really take off, the company says, until it opened its first Tokyo store, in July 1971 in Aoyama—its fifth store in Japan. Young people took a liking to the taste of this fashionable new food and the cool store décor, KFC says.
They were particularly enamored of American culture, which they saw as modern, stylish and fashionable, and were quickly incorporating U.S. ways into their own daily lives.
What just one foreigner can do
The connection to Christmas, according to KFC history, started with just one foreigner. She walked into one of the stores one day, from a nearby Christian kindergarten, saying that she wanted to buy some fried chicken for a Christmas party, and could someone dress-up as Santa to deliver it.
The store manager took up the challenge. His somewhat goofy party dancing was a hit with the kids and the event was a success. His talents were subsequently called on by a number of other schools.
This gave KFC the idea of connecting its product to Christmas. The chain launched its first Christmas campaign on December 1, 1974, and has continued to do so every year at all its outlets.
In 2018, KFC Japan posted all-time high sales of roughly ¥6.9 billion for the five days from December 21 to 25. That’s about 10% of its annual sales revenue. KFC is so popular at Christmastime that queues at some of its counters stretch out to the street.
KFC is so popular at Christmastime that queues at some of its counters stretch out to the street.
“It was a lie”
Takeshi Okawara says he was the store manager that fulfilled the woman’s request. Okawara, who went on to become president and CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan from 1984 to 2002, also claims the credit for linking KFC to Christmas.
When interviewed by NHK back in those early days, he was asked if fried chicken really was a Christmas tradition in the West. In 2018, he told Business Insider, that the answer he gave was a lie.
“I…know that the people are not eating chicken, they are eating turkey,” Okawara said. “But I said yes. It was [a] lie.”
“I still regret that. But people…like it.”
KFC’s official version of its Christmas story doesn’t attribute it to any one person. The truth is muddied further by the existence of a different version of the tale on an earlier company webpage which we wrote about in a previous article.
In this one, a group of foreigners who were living in Japan walked into the Aoyama branch and said that since they couldn’t get their hands on turkey in Japan, they’d celebrate Christmas with KFC chicken instead. This was overheard by the store’s manager who passed the word on to his superiors who then decided to launch the first “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) campaign. A testament to the power of eavesdropping if ever there was one.
In 2018, KFC Japan posted all-time high sales of roughly ¥6.9 billion for the five days from December 21 to 25. That’s about 10% of its annual sales revenue.
Either way, KFC caught that ball and ran with it. It seems safe to assume that it was at least one of our fellow foreigners who is responsible for the modern-day phenomenon of Japanese families sitting down together on Christmas Eve to eat junk food.
Which is, of course, not quite the right way to look at it.
It’s a cultural thing
From the Japanese perspective, particularly if you are celebrating Christmas with children, eating fried chicken together is fun and a special treat that elevates the day (which is otherwise just a typical working day) to an event.
KFC credits the success of its “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign with good timing. It entered the market just when the custom of celebrating Christmas with decorations and Western-style food—which had started in the late 1960s—began to take hold. The Japanese people happily accepted the model that KFC offered them for celebrating Christmas in Japan.
There’s a bit of a theory out there that the reason why KFC is associated with Christmas is that the store’s founder and symbol, Colonel Harland Sanders, resembles Santa Claus. True enough, they are both old, white guys with greyed beards.
This idea is perhaps born of the nationwide coordinated custom for all KFC stores to dress their Colonel Sanders statues in Santa outfits in December each year. (A practice that Okawara takes credit for.)
“But wait! What is a Colonel Sanders statue?”—if that is the question on your mind, then you obviously have never been to a KFC in Japan.
They’re storefront mascots that replicate the Colonel as he was at age 60. With a height of 173 centimeters, they are just 7cm shorter than his actual height at the time. They weigh 26 kilograms or less than a third of his weight. The statue’s eyeglasses are real and have a strength of +3.25.
The statues first appeared in Japan in about 1971, after a Japanese KFC executive brought home with him one that a store in Canada had made to promote an event there. The exec thought the mascot might help the Japanese public relate to KFC and its then little-known concept of fried chicken eaten with one’s hands.
What is a Colonel Sanders statue? […]They’re storefront mascots that replicate the Colonel as he was at age 60.
Japanese staff have since shared the practice with KFCs in other Asian countries.
The Curse of the Colonel
According to this urban legend, KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders put a curse on the Hanshin Tigers baseball team after fans threw a storefront statue of him into Osaka’s Dotonbori River when celebrating their team’s victory in the 1985 Japan Championship Series. It is used to explain the team’s subsequent losing streak.
In 1985, the Hanshin Tigers achieved its first (and so far only) victory in the Japan Series, largely due to the efforts of star slugger, and bearded American, Randy Bass. Supporters gathered at the river’s Ebisu Bridge for a rowdy celebration in which they yelled the players’ names, and with every name, a fan resembling a member of the team leaped into the canal below.
Lacking a person to imitate Randy Bass, the crowd grabbed a Colonel Sanders statue from a nearby KFC and tossed it off the bridge as an effigy.
The statue was eventually discovered in 2009. Its missing glasses and left hand have been replaced and it is now at the KFC branch near the Tigers’ home ground, Koshien Stadium.
Chicken vs turkey
This year’s KFC pre-ordered Christmas menu includes options such as a whole roast chicken with gravy or the “party barrel” of fried chicken, shrimp gratin and triple berry tiramisu cake.
These days, thanks to companies like The Meat Guy and stores like Costco, you can get a turkey in Japan. But if—like many Japanese—you find the traditional bird tends to be a bit dry, you might want to go with something more, shall we say, finger-licking good?