Global Marketing

Why KFC Christmas in Tokyo is a Really, Really Big Thing

What's on your Christmas menu this year? Perhaps a nice big hunk of prime rib, a clove-studded ham, or if you're the non-traditional type, maybe Chinese takeout? That is, of course, unless you're in Tokyo, where chances are good you'll be feasting on KFC. That's right - good old American Kentucky Fried Chicken, first hawked by the late Colonel Sanders, is the meal of choice among folks in Japan, where, ironically enough, Christmas day isn't even a holiday. In spite of that technicality, KFC's "Christmas Party Barrel", a combo of 'premium' chicken, salad and chocolate cake that's only available on December 23rd, 24th and 25th in Japan, is the must-have Christmas meal. It can be pre-ordered at any of Japan's 1,200 KFC outlets up to two months in advance, and folks are rumored to wait in line hours to get their Christmas day KFC fix. Rumor also has it that KFC Japan sells twice as much chicken in December than any other month, and that it's all-hands-on-deck (executives included) at Japanese KFC outlets during this insanely busy season. So, how did this American take-out standby become a wildly popular Japanese holiday tradition? Brilliant marketing, that's how. The Colonels' chicken debuted in Japan in May, 1970, at the Osaka World Expo, where over 4,500 KFC meals were served - every single day! In July 1970 KFC Japan was established, with the flagship store opening that same year. In spite of their best efforts, KFC's launch in Japan was dismal - until 1974, when their now-famous "Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii" (Kentucky for Christmas!) campaign was launched, urging Japanese diners to enjoy a gourmet KFC meal for the holidays. Right about now, you're probably wondering just why anyone would want KFC for Christmas, right? Urban legend has it that the KFC Christmas craze was inspired by an American who, unable to find a proper turkey holiday dinner in Tokyo during the early 1970s, headed to the nearest KFC for a chicken meal, telling the manager, "I just have no choice but celebrating Christmas with KFC chicken". That brief encounter is said to have spawned KFC Japan's 1974 winter ad campaign that promoted celebrating the highly-commercialized Japanese version of the holiday with a time-limited meal from KFC. Since that time, KFC's "Christmas Party Barrels" and premium holiday meals have evolved into a 40-year old tradition based in Tokyo, where advertisements promoting KFC are synonymous with the winter holiday season. To understand just how KFC managed to corner the Japanese Christmas meal market, you need to know two things - Japanese consumers are obsessed with all things foreign, and they have a special affinity for American pop icons; and KFC Japan is a very, very different place than the Colonel's restaurants stateside. They have a plethora of items unavailable on the menus back in the US, including but not limited to whole 'premium series' chickens and marinated chicken drum sticks. In fact, KFC's in Japan are considered to be upscale dining establishments, where meals sell for upwards of 25$ per person, and in the case of the KFC ROUTE 25 in Tokyo's Shimokitazawa Station, patrons can even order fine Scotch from the fully-stocked whiskey bar. So if you're visiting Japan this holiday season, why not make like the locals and feast on KFC?
Image credit: Chris Gladis
Written by Stephanie Lindgren

Steph has a knack for video games, photography and urban exploration. She spends her free time in her apartment that smells of rich mahogany, and is filled with many leather bound books.