During Christmas, throngs of people in Japan line up in front of KFC restaurants to get their hands on KFC’s crispy fried chicken. This tradition has become so integrated into the country’s Christmas celebration that about 3.6 million households partake in it each year, boosting KFC’s daily sales ten times higher than usual around the holiday. So, how did KFC become so associated with Christmas in a country where around 1% of its population are Christians?
KFC first came to Japan during the 1970 Osaka Expo thanks to the effort of Mitsubishi. KFC entered the market when Japan was experiencing rapid globalization and expansion of the fast-food industry. At first, KFC was not much of a success in Japan. The reason KFC became a huge hit during Christmas is relatively unclear, and surrounded by a bit of local legend. Some people attribute it to KFC’s effort to cater to Westerners’ demand for turkey during Christmas, which Japan lacks, and replace it with fried chicken. Some people attribute it to a branch manager’s initiative.
In one version of the story, which is considered official by KFC, a Western customer requested KFC sell chicken as a substitute for turkey, wanting something similar to Christmas dinners back home. This gave KFC the idea of promoting KFC as a part of the Christmas celebration in Japan.
In another version of the story, a store manager, Takeshi Okawara, was asked by a nun at a Christian kindergarten to provide fried chicken for a Christmas party. Okawara agreed and even went above and beyond by dressing up as Santa Claus and entertaining the children there. The event became so successful it gave Okawara the idea of serving fried chicken during Christmas. The news of this curious event spread throughout Japan and the rest was history. KFC, from a near miss in Japan, became an enormous success; as did Okawara, who went on to become KFC Japan's CEO from 1984 to 2002.
Whatever the real reason behind KFC’s success during Christmas time in Japan, the story shows the combined forces of globalization and the will to adapt global brands to local customs.
Tri Vo is a participant of the Young Professional Program of the East-West Center. He recently graduated from the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.