"Kentucky for Christmas": Here's how KFC became Japan's go-to Christmas dinner

Japan began embracing American fast food after WWII, and the country's KFC holiday offerings go beyond the bucket

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published December 24, 2022 4:30PM (EST)

KFC Christmas meal boxes are pictured on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)
KFC Christmas meal boxes are pictured on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

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

Here in the U.S., Christmas dinner staples include roast turkey (usually set atop a bed of herbs and festive fruit), glazed ham and mincemeat. In Spain's Catalonia region, sopa de galets — a hearty soup made with minced beef and pork meatballs and pasta shells — is a must-have for Christmas lunch. In Denmark, there's julesild — a pickled herring seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and sandalwood — and in Southern Italy, there's the Feast of the Seven Fishes — an elaborate spread of seven fish dishes consisting of clams, mussels, halibut, shrimp, anchovy, calamari and scallops.

Even those who don't observe Christmas per se, may still celebrate on the day with Chinese food, which has become a customary meal among Jewish folks. The tradition first started in New York's Lower East Side, where Chinese cuisine shared similar flavor profiles of classic Jewish cooking.

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

The history

Japan's welcoming of American fast food took off shortly after World War II, when the country's once-devastated economy experienced a record period of growth. Consumerism was at an all-time high and Western franchises — notably Baskin-Robbins, Mister Donut and The Original Pancake House — were successfully being introduced nationwide. Western fashion, foods and travel were also well-liked due to the United States being a culture powerhouse at the time.

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

It didn't take long for "Kentucky for Christmas" to gain traction amongst consumers. The campaign was known for its clever advertising, which hailed fried chicken as a luxurious meal and appealed to Japan's cultural values tied to family. Per CNN, such early advertisements often showed a family enjoying a grand feast of crispy fried chicken while the song "My Old Kentucky Home" played in the background. The chain's "Christmas Party Barrels" of fried chicken, coleslaw and a holiday cake were also popular showcases that consumers typically enjoyed with 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 this desire to eat together," Ted Bestor, a professor of Social Anthropology at Harvard University, told CNN.

KFC in Japan today

Come December, many KFC restaurants feature life-sized Colonel Sanders statues dressed as Santa Claus. It's hard not to mistake Sanders for Father Christmas, especially with his white facial hair, potbelly and festive get-up.

Colonel Sanders in Santa outfitA statue of Colonel Sanders in Santa outfit is pictured on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Today, an estimated 3.6 million Japanese families enjoy KFC during the Christmas season. Because the demand for fried chicken is so high, KFC Japan "starts advertising and taking pre orders and reservations for its holiday specials as early as late October," according to the chain's official website. Lines outside the restaurants start on Dec. 23, with Christmas Eve being KFC Japan's busiest day when the chain usually sells about five to 10 times more than typical days.

In addition to their signature "party barrels," KFC Japan offers seasonal items like a premium roast chicken, which KFC describes as "a locally grown and sourced, premium chicken that's hand prepared and stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, baked fresh in the restaurant." The buckets also change each year and feature different side options, a new festive bucket design and a fun commemorative plate inside.

People queue in front of a KFC restaurant on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, JapanPeople queue in front of a KFC restaurant on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

"While the design of the bucket and the sides may change each year, KFC's famous fried chicken stays at the center of the party bucket, and the Christmas holiday in Japan," KFC said. "Kentucky for Christmas is a Japanese tradition that's here to stay."

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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Christmas Explainer Food Fried Chicken Japan Kentucky Fried Chicken Kfc World War Ii