Header image courtesy of @kfc_japan (via Instagram)
It’s a cold winter’s night, you’re settled down and cosy, feeling the warmth radiate off your heated kotatsu (炬燵, low wooden table with built-in heating) and from the glow of the yellowed lights above. It’s Christmas time, and you are about to dig into a hearty dinner that you’ve been looking forward to ever since you placed an order weeks ago, immensely relieved that it hadn’t run out of stock. Suddenly, a pair of hands stretches past you to place the main course onto the table, right in the middle of a spread of side dishes, glasses of wine, and cake—a bucket of Kentucky fried chicken.
Whilst in the West, Christmas dinner usually includes a painstakingly prepared stuffed turkey, ham hock, or roast beef, paired with cranberry sauce and gravy over mash, Christmas dinner in Japan features crunchy home-style fried chicken as its centrepiece.
What started as a clever marketing trick from an ambitious KFC shop manager had become an annual ritual that helps KFC reap up to a third of its yearly sales. The story of how Christmas was brought to almost every home in Japan begins with a man named Takeshi Okawara, and his first encounter with, yes, the Colonel Sanders himself.
In 1970, when he was still a young local businessman, Okawara had encountered a booth promoting KFC at a business convention in Osaka. Having fallen in love with the flavours of the Kentucky style chicken, as well as finding immense inspiration in the then 80-year-old Harland Sanders’ unwavering entrepreneurial spirit, he decided to bring the chicken-based vendor to Japan.
He soon found out this was no easy task. Though the chicken was delicious, the people of Japan had no clue what the store was selling nor was interested in his product, leaving the restaurant to suffer through radio-silence for a long period of time after opening. As the in-store manager, Okawara had to work hard, even sleeping on flour bags just to save rent at a certain point. This unfortunate situation lasted for a few years, until a fateful Christmas party one day.
As stated by the CIA world factbook, Christianity makes up less than two percent of the general population of Japan. It comes as no surprise that Christmas celebrations were a fairly undercooked concept, the holiday occupying only a small (and secular) part of December festivities that were dedicated to family time, gift-exchanging, and celebrating Emperor Akihito’s birthday on December 23. This made for a climate that easily allowed for Japanese appropriation of this imported holiday. Incidentally, Christianity was—in a roundabout way—the catalyst birthing the Christmas fried chicken tradition.
Okawara insists that the inciting incident that had planted this seed was when he received a call from a Catholic school requesting him to dress up as Santa Claus to entertain some kindergarteners for a Christmas party. Desperate to revive his enterprise, he brought along some fried chicken as a prop, improvising a cutesy jingle while dancing with the barrel. “Kentucky Christmas, Kentucky Christmas, Happy Happy”, he sang.
That day, the stellar reception towards his routine and the fried chicken sparked a brilliant idea. It led him to launch an entire Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii (クリスマスはケンタッキー, Kentucky for Christmas) campaign that was so successful, it cemented KFC position as a nationwide chain restaurant.
By 1973, the restaurant has opened 75 locations throughout Japan. The rapid success drew much attention to Okawara—but this is where this retroactive account begins to get hazy. Legend has it (with legend being Okawara telling the story himself) that when asked in an interview by the national NHK news station if fried chicken was a traditional Western Christmas dish, Okawara said yes.
This semi-lie—semi being a keyword considering how chicken and turkey are both poultry—was told with the intention to keep his business out of jeopardy. In an interview with the Business Insider Household Name podcast, he details the tendency for the Japanese public to associate the West with trendiness and see Western cultural imports as inherently “something good”. Hence, the lack of religious significance to the holiday was a key factor that allowed its Western origins to be romanticized and remoulded so easily. And it worked. By the 1980s, KFC had expanded to around 600 locations across Japan.
Still, the Japanese KFC corporation denies this, stating instead that the origins of Okawara’s ground-breaking campaign was a lightning strike of inspiration by way of his overhearing some foreigners in Japan lamenting about being unable to enjoy a good ’ol turkey for Christmas dinner.
Ultimately, whether or not Okawara’s story is true, and whichever version of it is true, this strange tradition has successfully cemented itself in the Japanese consciousness. It could even be said that the hazy verifiability of the differing accounts is exactly what adds to its legendary status. Today, the KFC party barrel has become a Christmas essential for numerous families in Japan.
The chicken is placed into a barrel with bento box-style layers separating the different types of dishes. Some premium barrels even include chicken with stuffing, ribs, and roast. Dessert is also included—usually a cake for easy sharing. This year’s featured Christmas barrel features the customary eight pieces of original recipe Kentucky fried chicken, a special shrimp gratin, and a triple-layer mixed berry tiramisu cake.
The festivities don’t stop just there—every KFC across the nation participates by erecting a statue of Colonel Sanders dressed in red at their storefront. Colonel ‘the Uncle’ Sanders is a familiar face to the Japanese, at playing the role of Santa Claus, a well-loved avuncular figure, and being a representative of the Japanese practice of reimagining Western traditions.