Just like with Halloween, Christmas isn’t celebrated in nearly the same way as it is in the western hemisphere. As you might already know, Christianity never really took hold in Japan so very few members of Japan’s population identify as Christian making this holiday more of a secular, unofficial event. In fact, people don’t even get the day off which means it’s not uncommon to see holiday traffic jams in Tokyo as people attempt to get to work that day.
Also like Halloween, this isn’t really a holiday for children. While it’s common for families to exchange gifts on the day, the real people that businesses target on this day are couples in love. This is a holiday where men and women will shell out big bucks for special holiday dinners at fancy restaurants along with extravagant presents to prove how much they love the person they are with. As noted in my Halloween article, Christmas is the holiday that Japanese people will collectively spend the most money on annually.
What if you don’t feel like having a special dinner out with your beloved though? Well, in that case, you’ll be making your way to the top pick for traditional Japanese Christmas food… KFC. What? Not what you were expecting? That’s alright, most people outside Japan are confused the first time that they hear this tidbit of information about Japan but the story of how this came to be is actually quite interesting if not a little vague.
There are actually a couple of different stories going around about how the tradition of fried chicken on Christmas became the norm. In one story, the manager of the first KFC in Japan, Takeshi Okawara, overheard a couple of ex-pats in 1970 talking about how they wished they could find turkey to eat on Christmas in Japan which led to him having a dream about selling a ‘party bucket’ on Christmas as a substitute. Another story is that a Christian school in Japan ordered KFC for their Christmas party and asked the manager if he would dress up as Santa Claus for the kids, a request that was obliged, and led to more Christian schools ordering chicken for their parties.
Regardless of which story is the actual truth, in 1974 KFC saw a chance to seize the market and launched a brilliant nationwide ad campaign called Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii (Kentucky for Christmas) and wow, did it work! Now, it’s become an annual tradition for KFC to advertise their special holiday packages in the last part of the year.
Ever since that fateful year, KFC and Christmas in Japan have become synonymous with each other. These days people will reserve their party buckets (which now come complete with sides, Christmas cake, and champagne) weeks in advance and those who forget will stand in line for hours to get their traditional holiday meal of fried chicken.
While this might seem unthinkable in other parts of the world, it just goes to show that Japan, in many ways, is unlike any other.