The True Meaning of KFC Christmas

How a bucket of fried chicken came to symbolize a magical sense of no-questions-asked familial harmony in Japan.

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At 3 in the morning on Christmas Eve, my mother woke up shaking and unable to breathe. After several minutes of trying to calm her down, we pulled on our coats and filed into the damp December night, hoping to flag a taxi. We caught one outside of a 24/7 convenience store, hailed it with wildly flailing arms, then piled in. On the way to the hospital, my sister and I held my mother’s hands in the back of the car, rubbing tiny concentric circles into her back.

My family had arrived in Japan earlier that day to visit my grandparents, and it turns out that emergency rooms feel the same in Japan as they do everywhere else: The lighting is garish, the waiting interminable, the vending machine sparsely stocked. Next to us, a miserable-looking girl with an intestinal infection vomited quietly into a plastic bag every few minutes. Everything seemed vaguely grimy and overexposed. A few hours and a barrage of tests later, my mother emerged from the examination room while a young doctor explained that it was most likely a panic attack.

Bone-tired, eyes blinking away a grainy film, our bodies heavy and sluggish, it didn’t feel like Christmas Eve at all. But then we remembered Kentucky Fried Chicken. For years, like many Japanese people, my family has eaten fried chicken on Christmas Eve, but this year was different: Instead of generic supermarket fried chicken, for the first time ever, we had reserved a coveted KFC Christmas Barrel.

Much has been written about Japan’s predilection for Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas, but most of it fails to understand just what it is that a cardboard bucket of fried chicken on Christmas exemplifies — KFC, as a Westernized holiday ideal, has come to represent a culturally aligned yearning for a no-questions-asked familial harmony.

Precisely how that happened is opaque. On the website of the Mitsubishi Corporation, which first brought KFC to Japan in 1970 for the Osaka World Expo, it’s noted that by 1974 the Christmas Party Barrel was widely promoted, thus “beginning the uniquely Japanese lifestyle of eating KFC on Christmas.” In some articles, former KFC Japan CEO Takeshi Okawara says that the idea of Kentucky for Christmas came to him in a dream. In others, KFC for Christmas is proffered as the closest substitute to turkey for lonely expats.

More recently, in an interview with Japanese newspaper the Sankei Shimbun, Okawara said it was none of those things: Instead, he told a story about a local kindergarten near a recently opened Aoyama branch of KFC in 1973, who came to him with a request. In exchange for ordering Kentucky Fried Chicken for their annual Christmas party, would Okawara dress up as Santa Claus and visit their classroom? He agreed, telling the Sankei that the children greeted him with such delight that he could do things he normally wasn’t comfortable doing, like dancing around the room. Word spread, and neighboring schools also started ordering KFC for Christmas, hoping a costumed Okawara would deliver the fried chicken. Okawara was eventually interviewed on TV about the connection between KFC and Christmas, and when asked if Americans ate fried chicken for Christmas, he answered, “Yes, of course!”

The belief apparently took root from there, adding itself to the small pile of Western holidays that Japanese people hold dear, including Valentine’s Day and more recently, Halloween. In a country where New Year’s celebrations dominate and the morning of December 26 means a swift and brutal decoration change from ribboned wreaths to the traditional shimekazari, a rope made out of rice straw, hung in doorways, KFC became the most convenient avenue for enjoying a Westernized Christmas celebration, with a defining sensory experience of eating hot, American-style fried chicken.