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How KFC Kick-Started Christmas in Japan

How KFC Kick-Started Christmas in Japan

Japan celebrates Christmas a little differently. It's not a national holiday like it is for the many of the country's western contemporaries, and for most loved-up Japanese folk it's celebrated with your romantic partner rather than the entire family.

But there's one particular Christmas tradition that's long caught the attention and mystified western visitors to this great and culturally unique country, and that's the KFC Christmas dinner. While in Europe and the States, families are huddled around the fire, wrapping gifts, ham in the oven and fruit pudding waiting to be coated in custard, in Japan folks are lining up outside KFC outlets to pick up their pre-ordered fried chicken buckets.

According to the BBC, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families eat KFC during the festive season. But why? So many ask, and the short answer is 'clever marketing', but the long answer is far more nuanced and interesting, so let's dive in.

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The history of KFC in Japan

KFC came to Japan in 1970; it was a joint venture between KFC USA and the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan. The first test store was opened in Osaka as part of the Osaka World Expo in March of 1970. The launch was a success, and the chain started opening permanent branches. While the US side of the team rallied for opening branches in more suburban parts of Japan, like in Nagoya, Mitsubishi favoured the metropolitan areas. The company opened two locations were opened in suburban Osaka in the early 1970s as well, but they lost the company millions, so Mitsubishi took over the expansion strategy. They opened a store in an upmarket, ex-pat dense area of Kob one of the most international cities in Japan and it was during this time the idea for the KFC Christmas started to germinate.

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The history of Japan's KFC Christmas

During these early days, the nation's first KFC store manager, Takeshi Okawara, was struggling to drive business. The KFC name was relatively unknown in Japan, and the English signage and red and white striped displays just confused people. So, it was time for some innovative thinking.

In Japan, Christmas wasn't a big deal; in fact, only 2% of the country's population was Christian. What happened next is contentious, Okawara is reported as telling Business Insider's podcast "Household Name" that a nun visited the store and suggested that the school host a Christmas party in the store where Okawara could serve KFC's fried chicken. As Okawara's story goes, the party was a success, and other school groups enquired about booking. From there the events got the attention of national broadcaster NHK, who asked Okawara if KFC was a traditional Christmas food enjoyed in The States, he willingly lied and said 'yes' inspiring Japan to try the tradition.

According to KFC Japan, this tale is a little more folk tale than actual history, as they claim a visiting foreigner suggested that KFC start selling chicken on Christmas as an alternative to the traditional turkey. No matter the history, by 1974, the idea was a full-blown marketing campaign branded as "Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii: Kentucky for Christmas." Given the interest in western culture, and the loveable seasonality behind the idea, the campaign was a hit.

Why does Japan eat KFC at Christmas?

Simple, because it's fun and tasty! Just like Shibuya's Halloween festivities, if there's one thing, Japanese folks like to do its embrace an outside tradition and put their unique spin on it. These days, you'll see Colonel Sanders, the company's mascot looking more like Santa Claus than some than fast-food mogul, decked out in the red and white, cheerful smile and facial hair a snowy white. Other theories why the tradition has lasted all these decades is that the concept is simple, chicken at Christmas feels like a comforting, home treat and one that the whole family can enjoy. It's also very similar to Japan's own style of fried chicken 'karaage', but it's still different enough to stand out. The tagline "Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii: Kentucky for Christmas" is also much catchier than any other fast-food brand name.

How hard is it to get KFC in Japan at Christmas?

KFC Christmas boxes are far more than your standard buckets of chicken. These days there are a variety of packages that include fried chicken, bbq chicken, cake and even sparkling wine. You can always line up an order you KFC Christmas package as you would any other KFC visit, but it's recommended you pre-order at your local store to avoid standing in the dry winter cold.

Tokyo's all you can eat KFC buffet

If the Christmas season doesn't satisfy all your KFC cravings, then consider visiting Tokyo's newly opened all you can eat KFC buffet, a follow up to the Osaka chain which opened back in 2015. If you're planning to visit, the buffet costs 1,980 yen 80-minute lunch buffet (2,180 yen on weekends), while the 90-minute dinner buffet, is always 2,580 yen and with the option for all you can drink alcohol costing an additional 1,250 yen. Good luck and Merry Christmas!


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