In early December, chef David Chang (no, not me) became the first celebrity contestant ever to win Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, and as luck would have it, one of the questions (worth $250,000) was this:
In the words of Jimmy Kimmel, “It’s like we wrote that one for you.” Chang is a chef. Though Korean, he lived in Japan twice and has said he speaks Japanese better than he speaks Korean. His flagship restaurant serves a fried chicken meal that critic Alan Richman once called “the best fried chicken I’ve had in New York since the glory days of Harlem’s Charles Gabriel,” while also repeatedly comparing it to KFC.
He, mercifully, got it right.
I, too, have spent a handful of Christmases in Japan, always with my relatives in Tokyo. In a cruel twist of fate, my uncle there is absolutely disgusted by chicken, so I’ve actually never had KFC on Christmas, but my nickname in the New York JA community was briefly "KFC," and I did once dress up as Colonel Sanders for Halloween (we'll come back to that). I also distinctly remember my cousin asking me years ago at Christmas, her voice dripping with suspicion, “You don’t eat fried chicken on Christmas in America, do you?”
Nope. But in the pantheon of Christmas beliefs, the idea that chicken might be traditionally eaten on Christmas did not strike me then or now as particularly strange; it isn’t exactly “fat man breaks into your house through the chimney to GIVE you things” weird. But the press coverage of this piece of cultural minutiae would have you believe otherwise. It’s a lazy bit of orientalism of the "Wacky Japan" variety - you know, the kind of cultural observation that feeds on robot companions, owl cafes, and penis festivals to illustrate the (sometimes contrived) deeply strange foreignness of Japan. Christmas ephemera dispensed from a panty vending machine.
So I’m starting a new tradition - articles commenting on all those articles commenting on Kentakki Christmas in Japan. Because honestly - is the KFC phenomenon really that strange? Let’s answer some questions to get to the bottom of this.
Wait - how long has Kentucky Fried Chicken been in Japan?
A long time - 50 years to be exact. 1970 was a watershed year for Japanese restaurants. Though Yoshinoya, the oldest fast food chain in the world, was founded in 1899, 1970 has come to be retrospectively christened gaishoku gannen, or “the first year of the restaurant.” Several domestic chains coincidentally launched that year. The Osaka Expo, a sort of World’s Fair, was held that year, and a restaurateur named Yoshiaki Shiraishi unveiled the conveyor belt technology he’d developed for kaiten zushi. And the expo also hosted test concepts for two foreign restaurants - Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s.
The Expo was set against a backdrop of increasing Japanese curiosity about world and the Japanese government relaxing laws regarding Foreign Direct Investment, allowing both companies to enter Japan with operating partners (Mitsubishi for KFC and a local entrepreneur for McDonald’s). KFC and McDonald’s were fairly young companies at the time (founded in the U.S. in 1952 and 1955 respectively), and remarkably, Japan was one of the first foreign markets for both.
50 years is a long time to be anywhere, and KFC Japan has since developed its own menu, culture, and history. For example, their stores feature a statue of Colonel Harlan Sanders at the door that is dressed like Santa Claus at Christmas. One of those statues was thrown in Dotonbori River in Osaka in 1985 by celebrating fans of the Hanshin Tigers, a sort of Japanese version of the Boston Red Sox; they then had a Japanese version of the Curse of the Bambino - the Curse of the Colonel - and lost horribly for 18 years straight.
Uh, okay. Thanks. So KFC is pretty popular?
Sort of. Today, there are about 1,100 Japanese KFCs (or “Kentakki” as they are commonly known), compared to around 4,000 in the U.S. - which is a lot! But by comparison, McDonald’s Japan has 2,900 units.
And though they’ve been performing better recently, KFC Japan isn’t wildly popular - they only do about $1 million annual sales per restaurant, which really isn’t very good (the average McDonald’s does $1.7 million in sales). Most customers - about 60% - say they only go once or twice a year at, you guessed it, Christmas. That 5-day Christmas period is, thus, really important for them - last year they did 7.1bln yen in sales.
Yeah! Some of those articles you linked to said on Christmas KFC Japan does about 30% of their annual sales during the Christmas period!
They do say that, and it makes for an amazing sounding fact, but it’s wrong. From what I can tell, patient zero for that inaccuracy is this BBC article from 2016. They seem to claim that data came directly from the company, but something was lost in translation - the company actually shares both their Christmas sales and their total sales, and 30% isn’t remotely correct. Some other articles say it is 10%, but that’s not right either (it’s not worth explaining, but they don’t understand how franchise accounting works). The correct percentage is 5% of total sales (Wikipedia amazingly gets this correct despite the misinformation out there).
These articles also breathlessly discuss the lines out the door at KFC on Christmas to pick up Christmas Party Barrels, and the billions of yen in sales done in this time. But, of course, 1 billion yen is only about $10 million. To put it all in context, during the Christmas period, the average KFC in Japan does about twice the business an average U.S. McDonald’s location does on an average day. So it’s a good business, but it’s not total madness.
Okay - but why do people eat KFC on Christmas in Japan at all?
Most articles get this right in that there is no agreed upon answer. It definitely revolves around a location in Aoyama, Tokyo in Christmas of 1973. The official company account says that a foreigner came into that KFC around Christmas time and said that since there is no turkey in Japan, chicken for Christmas would have to do, and it sparked an idea. The other origin story (which is also occasionally the official company account) comes from Takeshi “Shin” Okawara, a store manager who would eventually become the company president from 1984 to 2002 (here he is as COO in 1981).
He claims he was convinced by nuns at a nearby Catholic school to dress up as Santa and visit the students; he went in costume with buckets of chicken and danced and sang and shared drumsticks, and the kids loved it. He later had a fever dream about a “Christmas Party Barrel,” a method for packaging the food to sell for Christmas parties. Because KFC was struggling at the time, he thought it could work as a marketing approach to drum up sales. To top it off, he also claims he told a news reporter a white lie - that eating chicken on Christmas is a big tradition overseas - and it became a craze.
Which do you believe?
I think both accounts can be true. Strangely, despite one story being about about nuns asking a fried chicken store manager to dance around dressed like Santa Claus, I think the news interview part is actually the most dubious bit - from what I can tell nobody has a copy of the news interview, and I’m not sure I believe one news report would actually incite a nationwide craze. Instead, I’m pretty sure that was driven from the message “Christmas = Kentucky Fried Chicken” being pressure cooked into the national consciousness through aggressive advertising - I mean, just watch this very subtle commercial from 1981. Geez.
The important thing is - they marketed it, and it became popular. It’s a boring, old marketing success story. If you think it would make for a good Harvard Business Review case, it has.
You seem to know a lot about this, so how popular is this Christmas chicken thing?
Again, I’ve never had chicken on Christmas in Japan. But I asked my friends, and it is very popular. Many of them have fond memories from childhood of their mom making them chicken - always drumsticks - with festive wrapping around the stick end. The KFC commercials - for the last two decades always featuring a song called “Sutekina Holiday” by Mariya Takeuchi - are ubiquitous. And now chicken, fried or roasted, is available everywhere at Christmas - convenience stores, super markets, and department stores. This is probably why in 2018, KFC expanded the Christmas promotion period from 3 days to 5.
My friends also pointed to the practicality of it - turkey is hard to come by in Japan, and even if you could get a turkey, Japanese homes don’t have an oven to cook it in. Even if you could cook it, most Japanese people just celebrate with their immediate family or a few friends or their significant other, so you really don’t need a whole turkey. Chicken kind of looks like turkey and is cheap, available, and small, so that’s good enough.
Wait, why do Japanese people celebrate Christmas at all?
I mean, essentially because the U.S. is a hegemonic cultural beast. As soon as Japan opened its economy during the Meiji restoration, Christmas culture started to be imported. This accelerated after World War II. My aunt, who grew up on a farm in Wakayama in the 1960s, remembers getting presents and eating cake at Christmas. A friend who grew up in the earlier 70s remembering eating meatloaf.
Keep in mind only 1% of Japanese people are Christian, so they were looking for a way to celebrate a holiday completely out of context. Which is why people in Japan also eat Christmas cakes and also treat it like a romantic event for young couples and set-up elaborate winter “illuminations”. None of it is really much weirder than, well, anything having to do with Christmas. I’d argue that it’s stranger that in the U.S., a country where 70% of the population is Christian, Christmas is celebrated with a pagan symbol, another pagan symbol, a modified image of a turkish monk, a character created by a department store, another character created only 15 years ago, and generally gauche commercialism. And think of other traditions around the world - in Barcelona, they feed a log and then hit it until it defecates candy. In Austria, people roam the streets in Krampus costumes looking to flog people.
Ultimately, as weird as people want to make it, eating fried chicken on Christmas in a country that only sort of celebrates Christmas is just not that strange. Maybe it’s just a cosmic counterweight for American Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas. Final answer.
Your Christmas present for reading this far:
A note from the editorial team: