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

Kentucky Fried Chicken has become a huge hit in Japan during the Christmas season, with lines winding around the corner and generating huge sales. Japanese YouTuber Yoko Ishii gave Fox News a look at how the fast food chain has become a holiday phenomenon over the past 50 years.

KFC Japan records its highest annual sales in the run-up to Christmas, and December 24 was “the busiest day of the year – 10 times higher than KFC Japan’s annual average,” according to the company’s website. Ishii said that both she and her husband separately witnessed large queues in their hometown of Fukuoka.

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“I was walking home and I saw KFC in a 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 in line for Kentucky for Christmas,” she said.

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

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

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

Ishie said she was familiar with the Kentucky Christmas slogan from growing up hearing it advertised on TV. The origins of the campaign go back to an unidentified foreigner who visited a KFC restaurant in Tokyo on Christmas Day sometime in the early 1970s, according to KFC’s 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 KFC’s account. “A team member in the KFC Japan sales team heard the remark and used it as inspiration to launch the first Christmas campaign and its slogan — Kentucky for Christmas.”

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

Since then, the annual Christmas meal promotions have expanded. Many Japanese place their Christmas orders at KFC months in advance, as restaurant lines often spill out onto city streets on the actual holiday.

People line up outside KFC on December 23, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.

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

KFC Japan earned about ¥7.1 billion in 2019 (about $53 million in current U.S. dollars), according to Shared Research.

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Many Japanese have embraced the commercial aspects of Christmas, although only about 1% of the population are Christians. Ishii said the willingness of Japanese people to assimilate foreign festivities into their lives has led to the success of Kentucky Christmas.

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

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

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