For my CIP, I chose to take calligraphy lessons. Sensei and I would often have random conversations, but the one which most gripped my attention was about Kentucky Fried Chicken in Japan. For those unaware, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas has become a tradition in Japan. For 4000 yen, one can order an “original party barrel”, which comes with eight pieces of chicken, a “Christmas salad”, a chocolate cake, and Christmas themed plates. Or, for a more upscale KFC Christmas bash, one can splurge on a 5880 yen whole roast chicken.
I had heard about this mysterious collaboration before I studied abroad, but it never really hit me until one day I passed by a KFC with a banner which read: “Now accepting reservations for Christmas”. It was only early November. Surprised by how early the Christmas mood was starting for KFC, I decided to ask sensei about the origins of this tradition at my next calligraphy lesson.
Confronted with my sudden question, sensei fell silent. After a few moments of deep contemplation, she laughed, coming to the realization that she had no idea, nor did she ever consider the question. The connection between KFC and Christmas had simply become common sense in her mind.
Upon further inquiry, sensei dug deeper into her memory and revealed what she knew about the issue. During her childhood, Christmas itself had not yet become a widespread tradition. At the time, Japan was just getting back on its feet after the defeat. However, celebrating Christmas began to catch on around the time she reached late elementary school or middle school. Sensei seemed to vaguely recall that it was custom to eat roast chicken and such on Christmas. Then, sometime around 40 years ago, KFC capitalized on that existing custom by marketing itself as the thing to eat on Christmas.
However, sensei admitted that she didn’t have much confidence in her account. Determined to get to the bottom of the issue, I conducted a quick Google search and stumbled upon a BBC article reporting on the exact same topic. According to the KFC Japan spokeswoman interviewed by the journalist, the tradition started thanks to Takeshi Okawara, the manager of the first KFC ever in Japan. He heard a couple foreigners in his store talking about how they missed eating turkey for Christmas. Then, as with many great revelations, the idea to marry KFC and Christmas suddenly came to him in a dream one night. He soon began to market the iconic “party barrel”, and in 1974 the company deployed the campaign at the national level, resulting in massive success almost instantly. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Although Japan’s unique traditional culture, such as tea ceremony, understandably often gets the most attention from foreigners, the “melting pot” aspect of Japan culture revealed in customs such as these is interesting in its own right. After enjoying a hefty bucket of KFC for Christmas, Japanese go on to hear the joya no kane, a bell in a Buddhist temple struck 108 times leading up to midnight on New Year’s Eve, and visit a Shinto shrine for hatsumōde. This post had absolutely nothing to do with calligraphy, but perhaps the most important things one learns in calligraphy lessons is not calligraphy itself.