‘Kentucky for Christmas’: This is how KFC became the Japanese Christmas dinner

Christmas means different traditions for those who celebrate, whether it’s white elephant gifts, viewing holiday lights, volunteering, caroling with good company or participation in various foods.

Here in the US, Christmas dinner staples include roast turkey (usually placed on a bed of herbs and holiday fruit), glazed ham and minced meat. In the Spanish region of Catalonia, biscuit soup — a hearty soup made with ground beef and pork meatballs and macaroni shells — is a Christmas lunch must-have. In Denmark there is Julesild — marinated herring seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and sandalwood — and in southern Italy there is Feast of the Seven Fishes — a complex range of seven fish dishes consisting of musselsclams, halibut, shrimps, anchovies, squids and clams.

Even those who do not observe Christmas per se can still celebrate the day with Chinese food that has become a common food among the Jewish people. The tradition first began in New York City’s Lower East Side, where Chinese cuisine shares flavor profiles similar to classical Jewish cuisine.

In Japan, however, Christmas feasting comes from a distinctly American source. Family, friends and loved ones gather around the dinner table to enjoy buckets of hot and fresh Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Here’s a closer look at the history behind this fast food tradition and its relevance today:

The story

Japan’s welcome to American fast food began shortly after World War II, when the country’s once devastated economy experienced a period of record growth. Consumerism was at an all-time high, and Western franchises—especially Baskin-Robbins, Mister Donut, and The Original Pancake House—were successfully introduced across the country. Western fashion, food and travel were also well liked due to being the United States cultural center at the time.

In 1970, Japan’s first KFC opened in Nagoya, and by 1981, the chain had opened 324 stores and made approximately $200 million annually. Four years after its establishment, KFC launched its first marketing campaign Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii or “Kentucky for Christmas”, created by Takeshi Okawara, manager of the first KFC in Japan, whose source of inspiration still remains a mystery today. Some say that Okawara was inspired after attending a Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus, while others claim that foreign customer request for fried chicken on Christmas Day that piqued his interest. Nevertheless, Okawara’s campaign immediately became a national phenomenon.

It didn’t take long for “Kentucky for Christmas” to gain popularity among consumers. The campaign was known for its clever advertising that hailed fried chicken as a luxury dish and appealed to Japan’s cultural values ​​of family. per CNN, such early ads often showed a family enjoying a grand feast of crispy fried chicken while the song “My Old Kentucky Home” plays in the background. On the chain “Christmas Party Barrels” fried chicken, coleslaw, and holiday cake were also popular showcases that consumers typically enjoyed in large crowds.

“Being able to share food is an important social practice in Japan. So a bucket of fried chicken both tastes familiar and fulfills that desire to eat together,” said Ted Bester, a professor of social anthropology at Harvard University. CNN.

KFC in Japan today

In December, many KFC restaurants feature life-size statues of Colonel Sanders dressed as Santa Claus. It’s hard not to mistake Sanders for Santa Claus, especially with his white facial hair, belly and holiday attire.

A statue of Colonel Sanders dressed as Santa Claus is pictured on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

today, about 3.6 million Japanese families enjoy KFC during the Christmas season. With demand for fried chicken so high, KFC Japan “starts advertising and accepting pre-orders and reservations for its holiday offerings as early as late October,” according to the chain’s official website. Lines outside restaurants start on December 23, with Christmas Eve being KFC Japan’s busiest day when the chain usually sells out about five to 10 times more of typical days.

In addition to their signature “Party Barrels”, KFC Japan offers seasonal items such as Premium Roast Chicken, which KFC describes as “locally raised and produced premium chicken that is hand-prepared and stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, baked fresh in the restaurant. The buckets also change every year and feature different side options, a new holiday bucket design and a fun commemorative plate inside.

‘Kentucky for Christmas’: This is how KFC became the Japanese Christmas dinnerPeople line up outside a KFC restaurant on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

“While the bucket design and sides may change every year, KFC’s famous fried chicken remains at the center of the party bucket and Christmas celebrations in Japan,” KFC said. “Kentucky for Christmas is a Japanese tradition that’s here to stay.”

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