Turkey is the staple Christmas dish – one roasted turkey on the middle of the table can bring a family together in holy cheers for the holidays.
However, what happens when you happen to celebrate Christmas in a land where turkey is not as abundant? One man, in 1970’s Japan, was determined to bring cheer for the people around him with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and a little “white lie.”
A turkey-less Christmas
Christmas decorations and Santa-themed displays are common in Japan during this time, but the people there have developed their own ways to celebrate the holidays. KFC chicken is a common meal for Japanese Christmas culture – it is even reported from Google that KFC-related searches in Japan increase every December.
It is almost customary to have a statue of Colonel Sanders, founder of KFC, wearing a Santa suit at the entrances of businesses to greet customers.
So, when did this culture start? How did Japan come to embrace KFC’s chicken as a substitute for the traditional turkey?
Even back in the 1930’s, Japan was already beginning to feel the spirit of Christmas, despite the eventual chaos that followed in the 1940’s. Newspapers advertised “The Old Man of the North,” with families also giving gifts and celebrating in Christmas dances and theater shows.
As Japan recovered from the aftermath of the Second World War, its economy began to skyrocket to the top. U.S. influence began to shape Japan’s interest in Western culture, including foods. According to the documentary titled “Colonel Comes to Japan”, the country’s fast-food industry grew 600% between 1970 and 1980.
However, Japan still needed one thing – the traditional Christmas turkey, or at least, something like it.
A ‘white lie’
The origin of KFC’s thriving business in Japan has multiple stories. One of which included foreigners requesting a substitute to turkey, culminating in a campaign called “Kentucky for Christmas” which allowed the franchise to blossom in the country.
There is another story that has become prevalent, involving one Takeshi Okawara, the manager of Japan’s first KFC. Recently, he has come forth admitting that his role in KFC’s success in Japan was somewhat untruthful. While KFC itself denies the story, it still represents the commitment to give to others for the holidays.
Inspired by the success of Colonel Sanders, Okawara joined KFC as an in-store manager after declining a previous offer for an administrative position within the company.
“By doing that I can learn and study about how to make wonderful fried chicken, by myself, from scratch,” he told Business Insider.
Okawara worked at KFC’s first Japanese outlet in Nagoya that opened in 1970. However, business did not go so well for the manager. As he told Household Name, people couldn’t tell what the building was selling, as they looked at the red-and-white striped roof and English signage.
“No one knew what the hell we were selling.” Okawara said. “They’d come in and say, ‘Is this a barber? Are you selling chocolate?’”
Not wanting to give up, Okawara was committed to carry on with his business, backed by the delicious treat of KFC’s chicken.
“The more I tasted it, the more I was convinced this business will be okay,” he told Household Name. However, the delectable taste of Sanders’ chicken could not quash the taste of defeat as the shop continued to stumble. Business was failing so badly that Okawara was almost homeless, forced to sleep on flour sacks in the back of the store to save money on rent.
Then, when all hope seemed lost, salvation came in the form of a nun from a nearby Catholic school. According to Okawara, the nun asked him if he would like to take part in a Christmas party with KFC’s fried chicken for the event.
Pressed to succeed, Okawara agreed and attended the party. In fact, he even went the extra mile and dressed up as Santa, or as they called him, Santa-san. Holding a bucket of chicken, Santa-san began singing “Kentucky Christmas, Kentucky Christmas, Happy Happy,” a song he made up.
“I made up a song and danced around. Kids liked it.” he told Household Name.
Soon enough, another kindergarten asked him to do another party for them. It was then that Okawara decided to make the idea his own and went all out.
This is where the ‘white lie’ comes in.
Okawara then decided to market KFC’s chicken as a replacement to the traditional Christmas turkey – something that the Japanese had seen on TV and movies. He dressed the Colonel Sanders statue outside his store with a Santa suit and promoted chicken and sides together in “Party Barrels.”
As word of the Christmas “Party Barrels” spread across the nation, national broadcaster NHK had an interview with Okawara. They asked if fried chicken was actually a common Christmas tradition. Tempted by the success of KFC’s business, Okawara said yes.
“I… know that the people are not eating chicken, they are eating turkey,” he said. “But I said yes. It was [a] lie.”
To this day, Okawara still regrets telling the country his lie. However, he does not ignore the significance the marketing move had.
“I still regret that, but people liked it because it was something good [they thought came] from the U.S. or European countries,” he told Household Name.
Not long after, KFC Japan thrived after the business move, growing to 75 locations across the country and the Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakki (Kentucky for Christmas in Japanese) promotion ran at every store. By 1986, 600 locations were established. Okawara was promoted to CEO of KFC Japan itself, giving birth to a new tradition.
With Christmas taking over Japan, plus the resemblance of Colonel Sanders to Santa Claus, KFC Japan continues to be a staple.
“In the 1970’s KFC and other family restaurants were seen as trendy and hip, not just fast and convenient,” writes Dr. Eric Rath, professor of Japanese history at the University of Kansas. “One could bring a date there and not feel ashamed,” Rath said.
“Christmas has an association with a kind of exotic and romantic view of ‘the West’ that is entirely divorced from history, religion, or any other inconvenient facts.” Dr. Nathan Hopson, professor of Japanese history at the University of Nagoya said.
KFC Japan has not responded to any comments regarding Okawara’s story, and the NHK interview with Okawara has not been found.
Nevertheless, it does not take away the importance of tradition, and KFC was able to bring millions of families together to enjoy a joyous meal. No matter if it was the romanticized vision of turkey or the edible modern taste of fried chicken, the message is the same – everyone can unite and celebrate together, no matter what is served.