What makes for the perfect Christmas dinner? In my house this year, we’re doing a variation of surf and turf (special request from my fiance’s sister), and a delicious herb-rubbed prime rib will be paired with some not-so-local king crab legs. I got lucky and fell for a man who loves to cook, so the two of us will be immersed in the cookery all day together, which is exactly how I like it. But while this has been a tradition for us since we first met, Christmas dinner doesn’t look anything like our cute little domestic tableau when you skip across the Pacific to Japan.
Ever since I learned about it, I’ve been utterly fascinated by Christmas in Japan… because of KFC. While we’re sitting around the table gnoshing on our roast beasts, Japanese tradition calls for a bucket of the Colonel’s best recipe, Kentucky Fried Chicken. I can’t tell you how incredible I found this when I first stumbled across it years ago. I thought it was a joke when one of my exchange student friends started to explain it all, but sure enough, I did a little digging and the Colonel is the king of Christmas overseas.
If you hit YouTube, Japanese housewives even have dozens of recipes and tutorials that walk you through a potentially much healthier and tastier version of KFC, but nothing says “Christmas” on the archipelago quite like a giant tub of fried chicken. This somewhat low brow fast food is actually so popular, that in many locations, you even have to make reservations to pick up your yuletide takeout (and if you think I’m spinning a yarn, think again!). Santa-Colonels grace each shopfront reminding shoppers and passers-by of the unique seasonal importance of the admittedly tasty fried bird bits, and in spite of the fact that only 1% of the population is Christian, everyone turns out for Christmas dinner.
So, after getting confirmation that this really is a thing, I wanted to know how on earth Christmas became synonymous with the Colonel in Japan, and learned that it actually makes for a really interesting story. KFC first made it to Japan in 1970 when it partnered with the Mitsubishi Corporation. For a host of really impressive sociopolitical reasons, this was an excellent deal for KFC, but over the course of the next two years, the fast food chain was a relative failure in Japan. It wasn’t until 1973 that both Mitsubishi and KFC could actually agree on an effective placement strategy that would allow the chain to survive, let alone thrive.
In spite of the new stability, KFC Japan wasn’t nearly as successful as their World Expo debut had promised and the partners knew they needed something big to jumpstart the franchise. Interestingly enough, they took their cue from a few foreign visitors. The group had looked everywhere to find some turkey on Christmas Day to no avail, so instead of settling for ramen (which I personally think would have been awesome), they trucked it over to KFC. In 1974, KFC Japan took this as a stroke of brilliance and launched their “Kentucky for Christmas” campaign. It was a full frontal advertising assault, and its incredible success sealed the Colonel’s fate as the harbinger of greasily delectable holiday meals.
And so, Japanese Christmas dinner is almost always battered and fried (this season’s bucket-o-goodness also comes with a wine pairing and a Christmas cake all for about $40!). It’s a case of finger-lickin’ good marketing born of international collaboration, but I suppose we really shouldn’t be surprised since Wendy’s Japan happens to be the home of the foie-gras-and-truffle burger…