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.
Is your teacher a fan of Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Now I really want KFC! Sounds like an interesting experience. Was doing calligraphy enjoyable or were the conversations the best part of it?
What other interesting things did you end up talking about with your sensei?
Calligraphy is okay. To be honest I think I prefer writing with a pen. There were many interesting things we talked about, but unfortunately I cannot remember any of them.
I love how you chose to focus on a specific conversation for your blog post rather than summarizing your entire experience. It made for an engaging and informative read! I too have wondered about the connection between KFC, so I was immediately excited when I realized that was what you’d chosen to write about.
I find the idea of Japan as a “melting pot” fascinating given that the country is known for being isolationist in the past. You’re right though: I have noticed the influence of Western culture (and other Eastern cultures) far more often than I expected to. For instance, early on in the semester, I was talking to a Japanese student about food, and, when she mentioned taco rice, I thought of it as tako and assumed she was talking about a food with octopus and rice. Only after she explained the contents did I realize she was talking about a Japanized Mexican dish.
Yes, I think that the image of Japan as isolated is problematic: from its founding to the modern day Japan has continuously received influence from its neighbors and, starting in the 16th century, the west. Even when “closed” in the Edo period, trade continued with China and the Netherlands. To me it seems like there is not much which originated in Japan, but rather Japan has always been skilled at taking pieces of different cultures and making it its own.