KFC for Christmas? How the fast food chain became a holiday hit in Japan

Kentucky Fried Chicken has become a huge hit in Japan during the holiday season, with queues around the corner and huge sales. Japanese YouTuber Yoko Ishii gave Fox News a glimpse of how the fast-food chain has become a holiday phenomenon over the past 50 years.

KFC Japan records its highest annual sales figures in the run-up to Christmas, with December 24 being considered the “busiest day of the year – 10 times busier than KFC Japan’s annual average,” according to the company’s website. Ishii said both she and her husband separately witnessed the massive lines in their hometown of Fukuoka.

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“I went home and saw KFC inside the big one [train] station nearby and I saw the line,” Ishii told Fox News. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?'”

“I realized they were headed to Kentucky for Christmas,” she said.

US-based restaurant chain KFC began operations in Japan in 1970 and four years later launched its first holiday marketing campaign there.

A statue of Colonel Sanders of KFC dressed as Santa Claus is seen in Tokyo, Japan on December 23, 2020

A statue of Colonel Sanders of KFC dressed as Santa Claus is seen in Tokyo, Japan on December 23, 2020
(Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Ishii said she was familiar with the “Kentucky for Christmas” slogan because she grew up promoting it on television. The origin of the campaign dates back to an unidentified foreigner visiting a KFC restaurant in Tokyo on Christmas Day sometime in the early 1970s, according to the KFC website.

“I can’t get turkey in Japan, so I have no choice but to celebrate Christmas with Kentucky Fried Chicken,” the customer noted, according to the KFC report. “A team member of KFC Japan’s sales team heard the remark and used it as inspiration to launch the first Christmas campaign and its tagline – Kentucky for Christmas.”

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KFC Japan’s first Christmas dinner consisted of a bucket — known as a “keg” in Japan — of fried chicken and a bottle of wine, along with a suggestion that the meal be enjoyed at a Christmas party, according to the KFC website.

Since then, the annual Christmas dinner promotions have expanded. Many Japanese place Christmas orders at KFC months in advance, as restaurant lines often stretch to the city streets on actual holidays.

People line up in front of a KFC on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.

People line up in front of a KFC on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.
(Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

According to Shared Research, KFC Japan earned about 7.1 billion yen (about US$53 million in current US dollars) in 2019.

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Many Japanese have embraced commercial aspects of Christmas, although only about 1% of the population is Christian. Ishii said the willingness of Japanese people to incorporate foreign celebrations into their lives helped Kentucky celebrate Christmas.

“I think we’re just happy people celebrating whatever we can,” she told Fox News.

To learn more about how KFC built an enduring Christmas marketing campaign in Japan, click here.

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