KFC is preparing for Wednesday, typically among its most profitable days in Japan as a bucket of fried chicken has become – through savvy marketing, lack of cultural awareness, and some deception – a traditional Christmas dinner.
On its Japanese website, KFC sells a variety of “party barrels” and family packs to celebrate the holiday, despite Japan hosting only a 1.5 percent Christian population. The offerings range in price from 650 yen ($5.94) for a barbecue chicken leg to 5890 yen ($53.85) for a “premium roast chicken.” In between are fried chicken bucket packs that hover around 3000 yen ($27.50).
This year, KFC is enjoying even more viral popularity than usual due to a bizarre chicken recipe going viral in Asia, after starting in Japan, known as “Devil Cooked Rice.” To make the meal, place KFC chicken in a rice cooker with rice, soy sauce, and chicken broth. Online users who have tried it swear by it, and KFC’s international social media presence is now trying to expand on its popularity.
The origin story of KFC as annual Christmas tradition begins in 1970, when Takeshi Okawara gives up a lucrative job offer in Germany to open the first-ever KFC in Japan. Okawara narrated his story in a holiday edition of Business Insider’s “Household Name” podcast, lamenting that he had lied on national television in claiming that Americans eat fried chicken – not roast turkey, as is traditional in some home – to sell more KFC. He noted that he chose KFC because he was inspired by the true story of Colonel Harland Sanders and the fact that he created the iconic brand at age 60.
Okawara noted that KFC was initially extremely unpopular in Japan because, among other things, “the sign was written in English … no one knows what the hell they are selling … Is it a barber? Is it chocolate?”
Eventually, a local Catholic school approached him to cater a school Christmas party, aware of his prior Jesuit education. They asked him to dress up as Santa Claus, since he had a passing understanding of Western tradition, and they would buy his chicken. Okawara noted he was desperate at the time.
“I had no other choice because she’s going to buy our chicken, so I get myself into the Santa Claus costume and I start dancing holding the bottle of chicken, [singing] ‘Kentucky Christmas! Kentucky Christmas!'” he narrated. His performance was a hit and guaranteed a few more schools’ business. He then began using Christmas to market the product. After a few years, he was successful enough that NHK, one of Japan’s largest broadcast networks, interviewed him, asking if it was true that Americans ate fried chicken to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
“I know that the people are not eating chicken, they are eating turkey, but I said yes. It was lie,” Okawara told Business Insider. “I still regret that. But people, people like it because [it’s] something good in the U.S. or European countries. People like it.”
The podcast went on to note that the official KFC version of the story is somewhat different than Okawara’s and somewhat more favorable to him. Some have reported that KFC became a Christmas following the inspiration of a group of foreign Christians stranded in Japan on Christmas, who settled for the fried chicken as the closest thing to a Western Christmas dinner they could find. KFC has a history of embracing local culture on its menu – Hialeah’s KFC reportedly boasts one of the best flan desserts in Florida – and “Kentucky for Christmas” became an official brand campaign in 1974 and has become iconic for Japanese ever since, who some reports say sometimes struggle to tell the bearded men of Christmas, Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus, apart.
The tradition has made it around the world yet again this year in the form of Japanese students in the United States celebrating Christmas, and baffling American peers, with KFC. The Northerner, the student newspaper of Northern Kentucky University, noted that the school’s Japanese club ended the semester with a “Christmas dinner” of KFC chicken.
“There’s a lot of Kentuckians that have adapted to it, like my parents basically started doing it every year now. It’s funny, we’re doing it because [the Japanese] do it, and they do it because they think we do it,” Catherine Chandler, a student at Northern Kentucky University, told the school newspaper, noting that her family now eats KFC for dinner, as well.
KFC has become so popular in Japan that Tokyo welcomed a KFC all-you-can-eat buffet in November. KFC’s Japanese menu includes some local deviations from the American menu, such as “Special Fried Chicken Soup Curry.”
At home, KFC debuted its annual “Colonel Santa” bucket in November, designed by children’s book author and illustrator Nicholas John Frith.