Have you ever wondered why KFC is the traditional Christmas meal in Japan?
I spent Christmas of 2015 in Japan. I am not sure why, but I was surprised by the fact that Christmas is not really celebrated in Japan. Of course, Japan is not a Christian country. In fact only around 1% of the population identifies as Christian. Predominantly Buddhist and Shinto, celebrating the birth of Christ would be kind of weird.
There are a few modern Christmas traditions, uniquely Japanese, that have emerged over the last fifty years.
Firstly, Christmas is celebrated a bit like Valentine’s Day and is a romantic, date opportunity. I spent Christmas Day at Universal Studios in Osaka, and not only was there heaps of couples on Christmas dates, most of them were dressed in Santa suits. Boys and girls, in red and white.
Secondly, the eating of Christmas Cake. These sponge cakes are beautifully decorated, usually with a Santa, trees, reindeer, strawberries and cream and eaten on Christmas Eve. I purchased my Christmas Cake at a konbini (convenience store) in Kyoto, from a man dressed as Santa outside the store. They are popular and (apparently) delicious. I am GF 😔
Thirdly, Christmas illuminations. Amazing light displays that have become incredibly popular around Japan. The lights are spectacular, particularly in the snow.
Finally, and most importantly, KFC Christmas. Eating KFC for Christmas is a nationwide tradition upheld by many families in Japan. December Christmas sales account for approximately 1/3 of yearly sales. Ordering is done in advance. In some cases, as early as late October. For those who do not pre-order, queuing for many hours is common. December 24 is the busiest day of the year in all stores in Japan, and the sales can be 5-10 times the normal daily sales.
A KFC Christmas “Party Barrel” includes a bucket of chicken, a salad, a cake and a commemorative Christmas plate. The plate is collectable and is different every year.
So, how did eating an American fast food meal become a tradition in a country that did not really celebrate the holiday? There are various stories. Many of the stories contradict each other and, strangely, the one I believe is the one in which someone confesses to lying.
The story goes…Takeshi Okawara was the store manager of the first KFC in Japan, located in Nagoya. It opened in 1970. His store was not very successful. Evidently, most people did not understand what KFC sold. Looking for a good idea, he overheard some expat customers who had come into his shop to buy chicken on Christmas Day. They were commiserating not being able to get turkey in Japan for Christmas.
He had the idea to market a “party barrel” of chicken as a “traditional” Christmas meal. He launched it in his shop. By 1974, there were more KFC restaurants in Japan and the marketing strategy went National. カリスマスにはケンタッキー(Karisumasuniwakentakki) Christmas with Kentucky was a huge success. He dressed Col. Sanders as Santa, in a red and white suit.
When interviewed by NHK about the strategy’s success, Okawara said that KFC was a traditional food eaten at Christmas in the West. This little lie endorsed the tradition and it has enjoyed longevity until the present.
Okawara went on to become the CEO and President of KFC Japan. KFC does not confirm this story, instead offering a very generic version of events.
So, did I eat KFC on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day in Japan? No, I did not. Firstly, I was not there early enough to pre-order. Secondly, I am not a huge fan of KFC, although I used to be. Thirdly, I had Christmas dinner at The Three Broomsticks, in Hogsmeade, at Universal Studios, which was magical and accompanied by Butter Beer. We did, however, try to follow the local tradition to a point. I purchased some KFC for my kids from a mobile chicken cart outside a department store in Kyoto. So, they did get to experience KFC for Christmas, even if I did not.
You can watch a retro KFC Christmas Ad from Japan on YouTube by ミケ猫トマト
You can read more about Japanese Christmas here.