How a bucket of fried chicken came to symbolize a magical sense of no-questions-asked familial harmony in Japan
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.
The ads start running in November, and once they do, they’re everywhere. In recent years, they’ve featured Haruka Ayase, a nationally beloved actress often typecast as a cheerful airhead who always manages to rise above various trying circumstances. In one commercial, clad in a red ensemble that is short enough to show a little leg, but loose enough that it isn’t overtly sexual — and a Santa hat, of course — she hands out barrels of chicken to children, as other children behind her do the same, gamely offering them to smiling mothers, glowing grandfathers, and laughing fathers. KFC Christmas Joy is intergenerational: enjoyed by grandparents, parents, and children alike, playing into a larger value of domestic harmony.
The original ads are perhaps even more revealing of the underlying emotional architecture of KFC Christmas, with a signature jingle, “Suteki na Holiday”; it means “Wonderful Holiday,” but it’s widely called the “Kentucky Christmas Song.” Sung by Mariya Takeuchi in a pleasant, slightly nasal mezzo-soprano that hearkens to the vocal qualities of Japanese pop music past, the first verse of the song sets up an appropriately Christmassy scene, describing children clutching teddy bears and waiting for snow, until the surprisingly sad chorus:
“Christmas is approaching this year again, as if to erase away
the sad things that happened. Let’s take off our pajamas now
and go outside, running through the tree-lined streets
that are turning slowly white.”
At the end of each of the ads, a chorus of children’s voices shout “Mama, papa, kotoshi wa kentakkii yoyakushitene!” (“Mama, Papa, this year please reserve Kentucky!”), as if Mama and Papa forgot to reserve a barrel of Kentucky Fried Chicken last year, leaving the family disappointed and hungry. This wistfulness points back to Takeuchi’s oddly melancholy chorus, asking for Christmas to “erase away the sad things that happened.”
The promise of KFC becomes not merely one of togetherness, but of erasure. It’s not just that everyone comes together around a heap of fried chicken, but that with KFC the family can indulge in some selective amnesia, forgetting whatever hardships may have occurred in the year before. Passing around the KFC Party Barrel, arguments and misfortunes, disappointments and disasters fade away in the glory of the deep-fried moment.
After dropping my parents off at home, my sister and I took the subway to the edge of town. An APITA, the Japanese approximation of a suburban mall, complete with futuristic walkways made of brilliant white chrome and glass, loomed over clusters of awkwardly flirting high school students just released for winter break. My sister and I pushed through the crowd and made our way to the third-floor food court, anxiously anticipating long lines of customers and general fried chicken-induced frenzy at the KFC.
I wish I could tell you that the food court KFC was full of rosy-cheeked shoppers, cheerily waving receipts, standing in a snaking line for a pressed paper bag of crisp chicken. I wish I could tell you that my father and mother greeted us at the door, glowing with delight as we brandished our chicken spoils. I wish I could tell you how we sat around the low table in our rented apartment and laughed merrily. I wish I could tell you that that the chicken was juicy, the breading so crunchy it cut our soft mouths, the meat so flavorful, with notes of garlic and pepper, that the taste clung to our palates for hours. I wish I could tell you that we felt that singular harmony so relentlessly advertised, that the disappointments of the year had simply melted away.
Instead, when we reached the mall’s food court, we found a large open space, rapidly emptying. By the KFC stand was a lone cart pushed to the side. At the register stood a few young people, glancing at the menu, clearly bored. In the cart sat 20 or so neatly wrapped paper packages with clearly numbered tags. A figurine of Colonel Sanders stood watch, his grin broad and cartoonish under a Santa hat. It was as festive as an airport baggage claim. After picking up our chicken package, my sister and I tried to walk home and got hopelessly lost. By the time we made it back to our rental, we were worn out again, the excitement of our first-ever KFC Christmas transmuted into a weary disillusionment.
My family shuffled around the living room in our pajamas, quiet and exhausted, settling in various positions on the floor. We kept the TV on, periodically glancing at the game shows flickering on the screen. My mother had lit a candle and placed it on an upturned tangerine box, since the table was too small to fit everything. We silently munched our chicken, passing sides between us, contentment spreading throughout the room. The shattered hospital feeling had not dissipated, nor did any of the other sadness and disappointment the year had accumulated. And yet, there was an unspoken contentment we experienced, gnawing on a chicken leg each. Perhaps that was our Kentucky Christmas: less dancing children, more quiet togetherness, relieved that we had survived yet another year.
Life in Chains is Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible.
Nina Li Coomes is a writer and a research assistant at the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University.
Angie Wang is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Los Angeles.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
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