A KFC in Nara, Japan (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By Sam Ceisler

As we’ve discussed before on the JapanBall site, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders has a special place in NPB lore. The Hanshin Tigers were supposedly cursed by the Colonel after a group of fans celebrating the team’s 1985 Central League pennant threw a statue of the fast-food icon into the Dotonbori Canal. The Tigers won that year’s Japan Series, but have yet to win another one since.

Granted, the infamous curse of the Colonel is more fiction than fact. JapanBall writer and Hanshin Tigers superfan Trevor Raichura put together an impressive writeup explaining the Tigers’ plight on his website, which you can see here.

However, the Colonel isn’t just known for baseball in Japan. Americans may not realize it, but for many Japanese households, KFC is a longstanding Christmas tradition. Each holiday season, more than 3.5 million Japanese families flock to the American fast-food restaurant to partake in the company’s special Christmas Party Barrel promotion.

The tradition extends back almost fifty years and was the brainchild of Japan’s first KFC restaurant manager, Takeshi Okawara. His new restaurant was struggling to gain customers when he was invited to bring chicken and dress up as Santa Claus at a Catholic school Christmas party. He sang and danced with a bucket of chicken and was a huge hit with the kids.

Knowing that the turkey was difficult to obtain in Japan, he began to market KFC as a substitute for the traditional western holiday dinner over the next few years. To promote this, he dressed up the Colonel Sanders statues in front of KFC franchises as Santa Claus, which effectively attracted customers. He also publicly claimed that eating KFC was an American tradition, capitalizing on what he perceived as a Japanese tendency to emulate American popular culture. In 1974, KFC began a marketing campaign called “Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii,” or “Kentucky for Christmas.”

These marketing campaigns featured commercials like the one above that showed happy Japanese families gathering around the table to enjoy a classic red and white KFC bucket, overflowing with fried chicken. Other commercials featured a song that has since become a holiday classic in Japan, even though it’s not typically considered a Christmas song in the United States: “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Over the years, Japan’s KFC Christmas tradition has continued to develop. Each holiday season, statues of the Colonel outside of KFC restaurants continue to get dressed up like Santa Claus (some Japanese people are even known to get the two characters mixed up!). The menu has continued expanding as well. Now, instead of just fried chicken, different Christmas dinner packages can include wine, chocolate cake, side dishes, or a whole roasted chicken,

Out of Japan’s population of more than 126 million, only around 1.5% of the citizenry (or 2 million people) are practicing Christians. Despite this, the “Kentucky for Christmas” promotion increases revenue at certain KFC Japan locations by a massive amount. A 2018 financial report analyzing monthly trends for KFC Japan shows that monthly sales in December of 2018 were almost double the monthly sales of May 2018. A CNN report states that December 24 is KFC Japan’s busiest day of the year; KFC restaurants in Japan can sell upwards of five to ten times as much food on December 24 as they would on an average sales day at a different time of the year. KFC has also said that Christmas dinner packages make up around a third of the company’s yearly sales in Japan.

For many people, this year’s Christmas is going to be unlike any other year before. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us won’t be able to travel or gather with our loved ones this year. For those families that normally cook an entire turkey, that’s going to leave a lot of leftovers.

So, maybe this year we can try an international tradition instead. Forget about the turkey – why not a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas?

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