CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Christmas tree is up, and the presents are bought. Better pre-order the batch of KFC fried chicken — if it’s not already too late.
Christmas and KFC may not be a natural pairing for a lot of Americans. But for many Japanese, the holiday is as much about KFC as Santa Claus and blinking lights.
Families and couples across the country will no doubt spend Christmas Eve and Christmas sitting around a big cardboard bucket of the American-based fast-food chain’s chicken. And if you want to get in on the local tradition, don’t waste any time.
In Japan, some mark KFC off their holiday to-do lists before Americans have even finished eating their Thanksgiving turkey. The Japanese have been known to order Christmas dinner weeks or even months in advance. Those who tarry risk spending their holiday waiting in long lines.
So how did greasy Southern fast food become a holiday staple in Japan?
According to company lore, it started with ex-pats, then took off through a wildly successful marketing campaign.
As KFC tells it, a foreign family visited one of its Tokyo restaurants shortly after the company opened its first location in Nagoya in 1970. The family told the staff they decided on fried chicken because turkey wasn’t available — that most-iconic of American holiday dishes is exceedingly rare in Japan, and most homes don’t have a large Western-style oven capable of cooking a whole bird.
Savvy marketing staff at KFC saw the family’s story as an opportunity to firm up its position in Japan, and a now-famous “Christmas with Kentucky” ad campaign was launched in 1974.
KFC has expanded to 1,182 restaurants in Japan, and sales at all its locations are usually five to 10 times higher in December, spokeswoman Tomoko Moro said.
Popular does not mean cheap. The basic KFC Christmas family meal, which includes a Japanese-style cake, costs the equivalent of about $48, a strikingly high price for foreigners accustomed to dollar menus and other cheap U.S. fast food. KFC is offering a holiday meal in the U.S. — eight pieces of chicken and dozen cookies — for $19.99.
Still, a week before Christmas, a KFC near Kadena Air Base on Okinawa had already nearly sold out its dinner-time slots from Dec. 23 through the holiday, though the restaurant said a few were still available.
“We know people from foreign countries are amazed to see a crowded KFC restaurant during Christmas time or a long line at the drive-through,” Moro said.
About two decades ago, the company also started selling commemorative plates showing nostalgic holiday scenes with Santa Claus as part of its Christmas campaign. Now, it also offers a full roasted chicken similar to a traditional American holiday meal.
“It is interesting when there’s nostalgia for other people’s food,” said Kyle Cleveland, an associate professor of sociology at Temple University’s Japan campus, who teaches Japanese pop culture. “What you’re dealing with is a manufactured tradition.”
Cleveland said KFC has likely just found a comfortable niche within Japanese customs that already existed, such as the country’s love of fried chicken and its heavy reliance on take-out food.
Fried chicken called karaage is sold in most Japanese restaurants and convenience stores, which provide a huge percentage of meals in the notoriously overworked country, he said.
So, a take-out bucket of chicken would be a natural fit for a celebration like Christmas, which is widely popular but does not merit a day off for Japanese workers.
Whatever the reason for its popularity, the KFC Christmas is likely to stick around in ritual- and brand-obsessed Japan now that Colonel Sanders — and his Santa hat — have become synonymous with the holiday.
“Once the tradition has been established, the people are almost ritualistic in following it,” Cleveland said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.