The story behind KFC’s biggest day of the year in Japan, Christmas Eve

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TOKYO, JAPAN – DECEMBER 23: A statue of Colonel Sanders in Santa outfit is pictured on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. KFC at Christmas has become something of a tradition in Japan with some attributing its yuletide popularity to a kindergarten delivery being made in a Santa Claus outfit which was such a success it was requested by a number of other schools and subsequently gave the company the idea of associating its product to Christmas. The chain launched its first Christmas campaign in December 1974, and has continued to do so every year at all its outlets nationwide. In 2018, KFC Japan posted all-time high sales of roughly 68 million USD for the five days from December 21 to 25. Roughly 10 percent of its annual turnover for the entire year. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Christmas is near, and in Japan that means that many families will be heading out together to pick up their feast for the celebration … from KFC.

The popular American fast food restaurant has been embedded in Japanese Christmas culture dating back to the 1970s, according to KFC Japan, which sees its highest sales of the year during the holiday. Christmas Eve has traditionally been KFC’s busiest single day of the year – with roughly 10 times more customers than normal.

Google reports that every December there is even a spike in KFC-related searches in the country.

TOKYO, JAPAN – DECEMBER 23: People queue in front of a KFC restaurant on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. KFC at Christmas has become something of a tradition in Japan with some attributing its yuletide popularity to a kindergarten delivery being made in a Santa Claus outfit which was such a success it was requested by a number of other schools and subsequently gave the company the idea of associating its product to Christmas. The chain launched its first Christmas campaign in December 1974, and has continued to do so every year at all its outlets nationwide. In 2018, KFC Japan posted all-time high sales of roughly 68 million USD for the five days from December 21 to 25. Roughly 10 percent of its annual turnover for the entire year. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

While the Japanese population is only about 1% Christian, the holiday is a big – if slightly different – deal than it is in the states.

Christmas markets, decorative lights, trees and Santa-themed displays can all be found in Japan in late December, but the country has also developed its own traditions – along with Kentucky Fried Chicken, strawberry cake and romantic dinner dates often mark Christmas, according to TimeOut Japan.

So where did the fondness for crispy fried chicken at Christmas time come from?

The origin story has different versions. Some say that Takeshi Okawara, who managed the first KFC in Japan, untruthfully marketed the chicken as a traditional American Christmas dish, according to CNN. Okawara would go on to become CEO of KFC Japan.

Another theory is that a delivery person in a Santa Claus outfit made such an impression on a class of kindergartners that other schools started placing their own orders, inspiring the company to market its product for Christmas.

According to KFC Japan, it all dates back to 1974 after a KFC Japan sales team member overheard a foreign customer complain about not being able to get turkey and making do with fried chicken for Christmas.

From that overheard remark was born the first “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign, the story goes, and the tradition lives on to this day. The original holiday meal came with a bottle of wine and was marketed to adults hosting Christmas parties.

The special holiday meal – which can be reserved as early as October – continues to evolve, including items like a “premium chicken that’s hand prepared and stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, baked fresh in the restaurant.”

While waiting in long lines has become an annual Christmas ritual for KFC fans in Japan, the company announced changes this year in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters reports.

To limit queues outside of restaurants, KFC Japan is now encouraging customers to place their orders online and giving them a pick-up time to arrive at the restaurant.

As of Tuesday, Japan has confirmed roughly 80 cases of the omicron variant in people arriving from abroad, the Associated Press reports. Japan is under strict border controls barring nearly all foreign visitors but experts believe community spread is imminent.

The country has recorded almost 1.73 million cases of COVID-19 resulting in more than 18,000 deaths.

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