Japan’s Christmas KFC tradition began in 1974, when the company launched a new holiday marketing campaign. It’s thought that it was inspired by the Western Christmas tradition of a turkey dinner. Back then and still today, turkey is virtually impossible to find in Japan. So when Japan’s foreign Christian population couldn’t get their hands on any come December, they settled on the familiar fried chicken brand instead – the next best thing to turkey. Japan’s KFC marketing team saw this as an ideal opportunity to launch a Christmas campaign targeted at locals and foreigners alike, and the slogan ‘kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!’ or ‘Kentucky for Christmas!’ was born.
Christmas in Japan is not a national holiday and isn’t celebrated for any of its religious connotations since very few Japanese identify themselves as Christian. Nevertheless, it’s still a festive occasion, and many host Christmas parties or decorate their homes, offices and stores for the holidays. It’s also an opportunity for companies to market commercial goods associated with Christmas. KFC was a pioneer in modern Christmastime marketing in Japan.
Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan still reports record earnings at Christmastime each year. With wait times as long as two hours, all available employees come out to help, including top-level executives and typically behind-the-scenes staff. The restaurant is so popular at this time of year that some dinner specials can only be ordered in advance. A ‘Kentucky Christmas 2016’ dinner, complete with cake and salad, will set you back around 5,000 yen or 50 USD.
There are a few explanations for KFC’s widespread, lasting popularity around Christmas in Japan. The first is the simplicity of the concept. Eating chicken at Christmas – especially now that it’s been cemented as a cultural tradition in Japan – is something that could potentially never go out of style. The company’s catchy Christmas slogan doesn’t hurt, either. Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii rolls off the tongue a lot easier than kurisumasu ni wa makudonarudo for McDonald’s.
Another lucky coincidence is the Kentucky Fried Chicken mascot’s physical similarities with Santa Claus. Santa makes appearances in Japan through pop culture and media, and thanks to the likeness of the two figures, many Japanese children confuse the two. The company further encourages this by dressing up their Colonel Sanders statues with festive red-and-white outfits each time the holiday rolls around.