Behind Japan’s tradition of eating KFC on Christmas Eve

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Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

It’s one of the food capitals of the world, but bizarrely, Japan turns to an unlikely figure to sort out their festive feast year after year – Colonel Sanders. 

That’s right – in an unusual twist of fate, KFC is the unsung hero of Christmas in the East Asian country, and it has become traditional for diners to tuck into a bag, bucket or bowl of Kentucky-fried chicken every year in the build up to the big day. 

But where did the Japan KFC Christmas tradition come from, you may ask? Here at Twisted, we did some digging…

Why do Japan eat KFC on Christmas?

While to Western, traditionally Christian countries, munching on a KFC near to Christmas Day would be seen as a bit strange (what about a turkey, spuds and sprouts?), the fast-food phenomenon is down to one man: Takeshi Okawara. 

The story goes that as manager of the first ever KFC branch in Japan – which opened its doors in November 1970 –  the enterprising individual had a dream shortly after he started his new role, in which he created a ‘party barrel’ full of chicken to be sold around the festive season.

Customers flock to KFC to purchase their party barrels every Christmas. (Credit: Alamy)

Okawara claimed that his vision was brought on when he overheard some expats complaining about how much they missed their roast turkey while visiting his shop. 

He then set off on a one-man marketing campaign, and four years later, his idea went national with the slogan ケンタッキーはクリスマス!(Kentucky is Christmas!). 

The plan took off quickly, and so did the Harvard-educated Okawara, who climbed through the company ranks and served as president and CEO of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan from 1984 to 2002.

“It filled a void,” says Joonas Rokka, associate professor of marketing at Emlyon Business School in France in an interview with the BBC. “There was no tradition of Christmas in Japan, and so KFC came in and said, this is what you should do on Christmas.”

Now, it’s estimated that a whopping 3.6 million Japanese families tuck into a KFC on Christmas Eve, with the special dinner package making up over 30 percent of the company’s yearly sales in the country.

japan kfc christmas

Japan’s KFC Christmas tradition is a longstanding one (Credit: Instagram/ Japan KFC)

According to figures released by the American fast-food chain, KFC Japan pulled in 6.9 billion yen (roughly £51.8 million) from December 20 to 25th in 2018, with lines out the door starting on December 23rd.

“This is another sign of globalisation, where consumer rituals spread to other countries and often get translated in different ways,” Rokka continues. “It’s not abnormal now to have an Ikea store everywhere in the world. This KFC for Christmas is just taking our consumerism and turning it into a holiday.”

For millions of families (an estimated 3.6m to be precise) across Japan, buying a KFC has become a huge part of Christmas, which is staggering in a country where around just 1 percent of the population celebrate the holiday.  

“My kids, they think it’s natural,” local resident Ryohei Ando adds to the publication. “It’s kind of a symbol of family reunion. It’s not about the chicken. It’s about getting the family together, and then there just happens to be chicken as part of it.”

Another resident, known as Naomi, agrees with Ryohei, telling how every year she orders a party barrel to eat with her families, and reflecting on the KFC commercials that people look forward to every year.  

Inside the Japan KFC Christmas menu

Now this is a tradition we can get behind… (Credit: Instagram/ Japan KFC)

So what’s actually in the party barrel? Of course, the all-important fried chicken is included in the Japan KFC Christmas meal. 

It doesn’t contain any of the usual side dishes – although these favourites, such as fries, are available to purchase as an extra – but customers receive a dessert offering of a whole Japanese Christmas cake instead.

The fun doesn’t stop there, either. To show that fast-food isn’t just for children, the deal also includes a bottle of wine to help get you into the festive spirit.

KFC and wine? Sign us up…