How Eating Kentucky Fried Chicken Became a Christmas Tradition in Japan

This time of year, the inter­net thrills to the fact that the Japan­ese eat Ken­tucky Fried Chick­en for Christ­mas. Those Japan­ese cus­tomers who want a pre­mi­um KFC din­ner with all the trim­mings ready by Christ­mas Eve should reserve it well in advance, much as they do with the elab­o­rate­ly dec­o­rat­ed kurisuma­su kee­ki that fol­lows it as dessert. Less well-under­stood are the ori­gins of this curi­ous mod­ern cus­tom. The Japan­ese them­selves, even those who reli­gious­ly tuck into a Colonel Sanders-brand­ed Christ­mas din­ner each year, are sub­ject to cer­tain mis­con­cep­tions. At least in my expe­ri­ence, every Japan­ese per­son has expressed sur­prise when told that KFC at Christ­mas­time is not an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion.

KFC’s mar­ket­ing in Japan has long exploit­ed an asso­ci­a­tion with Amer­i­can her­itage, implic­it­ly or indeed explic­it­ly.” Colonel Sanders is dis­cov­ered as a boy of sev­en bak­ing rye bread in the roomy kitchen of his ‘old Ken­tucky home,’ ” writes Japa­nol­o­gist John Nathan in his mem­oir Liv­ing Care­less­ly in Tokyo and Else­where, describ­ing a KFC tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial of the 1980s.

“ ‘A life­time lat­er,’ the nar­ra­tor intoned, ‘this same tra­di­tion of excel­lence was trans­ferred by the Colonel to his fried chick­en.’ The pre­pos­ter­ous sell­ing point was KFC as tra­di­tion­al, aris­to­crat­ic food from the Amer­i­can South. I couldn’t imag­ine a more amus­ing exam­ple of an Amer­i­can adver­tis­er play­ing to Japan’s nation­al obses­sion with Amer­i­can val­ues and man­ners.”

This com­mer­cial appears in The Colonel Comes to Japan, a 1981 half-hour doc­u­men­tary Nathan filmed for the WGBH busi­ness series Enter­prise. So does Loy West­on, the Amer­i­can exec­u­tive in charge of KFC’s Japan­ese oper­a­tions, who insists that the aris­toc­ra­cy angle offers no “con­sumer ben­e­fit.” But when informed by a Japan­ese exec­u­tive that the spot test­ed bet­ter than any they’d pro­duced before, he responds sim­ply: “I give up. This is Japan.” Four decades lat­er, West­ern­ers who want to suc­ceed doing busi­ness in the Land of the Ris­ing Sun must still share that atti­tude — espe­cial­ly when pre­sent­ed with strate­gies they lack the cul­tur­al ground­ing to com­pre­hend.

KFC’s pres­ence in Japan goes back to 1970, when its first store opened for the Osa­ka World Expo. Its man­ag­er Takeshi Okawara was the one to think of pro­mot­ing the chain’s “par­ty bar­rels” of chick­en as a fes­tive sub­sti­tute for an Amer­i­can-style turkey din­ner. The inspi­ra­tion, accord­ing to the Ched­dar Exam­ines video at the top of the post, was being asked by a local school to deliv­er chick­en to its Christ­mas par­ty dressed as San­ta Claus. (His will­ing­ness to do so no doubt played a part in his lat­er becom­ing Japan­ese KFC’s chief exec­u­tive.) With­in a few years “Ken­tucky Christ­mas” had become a house­hold phrase, and one still used in the more recent TV com­mer­cials com­piled just above.

In Japan, a coun­try where Chris­tians con­sti­tute just one or two per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, eat­ing KFC has become one of Christ­mas’ pri­ma­ry cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tions. The Christ­mas song “Sutek­ina Hol­i­day” by Mariya Takeuchi — now world-famous as the singer of the revived-by-Youtube 1980s dance tune “Plas­tic Love” — is com­mon­ly known as “the Ken­tucky Christ­mas song.” With Christ­mas­time busi­ness account­ing for a star­tling ten per­cent of Japan­ese KFC’s sales in any giv­en year, mea­sures have been tak­en to ensure that the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic does­n’t put too much of a dent into it: the intro­duc­tion of some social dis­tanc­ing, for exam­ple, into its noto­ri­ous­ly long hol­i­day lines. Ken­tucky Christ­mas has proven a suc­cess year after year in Japan, but thus far it has­n’t been adopt­ed in oth­er Asian coun­tries. It cer­tain­ly has­n’t in Korea, where I live — but then again, we’ve got much bet­ter fried chick­en out here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hōshi: A Short Film on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japan­ese Fam­i­ly for 46 Gen­er­a­tions

In Japan­ese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learn­ing As It’s About Eat­ing

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Watch Andy Warhol Eat an Entire Burg­er King Whopper–While Wish­ing the Burg­er Came from McDonald’s (1981)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Ron Callahan says:

    I’m not remote­ly Japan­ese, but it was a tra­di­tion for our fam­i­ly to go to mass on Christ­mas Eve (typ­i­cal­ly around 4–4:30 pm), then stop by KFC on the way home for a big buck­et of fried chick­en. After­ward, we’d usu­al­ly either go to my grand­ma’s house (or that of an aunt or uncle) for a Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion with my Mom’s fam­i­ly.

  • YellowHills says:

    I’ve heard this sto­ry many times & there are sev­er­al prob­lems with it:

    1. Christ­mas is not a tra­di­tion in Japan; o‑Shogatsu (New Years) is the fam­i­ly ori­ent­ed tra­di­tion, which is the Japan­ese equiv­a­lent to Christ­mas.

    2. KFC for Xmas was ini­tial­ly a mar­ket­ing cam­paign; gen­er­al­ly Xmas is mar­ket­ed as an encour­age­ment to go out shop­ping, and for some young peo­ple, to go out on dates — a vis­it to KFC would be a cheap date & and some peo­ple would prob­a­bly order it deliv­ered.

    - I lived in Japan for 10 years and I nev­er had KFC for Xmas and nev­er knew any­one per­son­al­ly who did.

    (Caveat: I’m sor­ry, but I’m so fed up of hear­ing this sto­ry, I could­n’t be both­ered to watch the video — Maybe it men­tioned all of these things (-_-;))

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