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Japan and Fried Chicken: A New Christmas Tradition? - 2003-12-24

This Christmas season, tens of thousands of Japanese will join together with loved ones for a festive meal, not of turkey, not of ham, but of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the popular American fast food brand.

At Christmas time, sales are unusually brisk at this Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in the Ebisu district in central Tokyo. The branch doubles its regular sales at this time of year, and some outlets sell five times as much as normal.

Much of the additional business comes right at Christmas, when dozens of people will line up in the winter chill alongside the statue of KFC's founder, Colonel Harlan Sanders. The life-size statue stands outside every one of the more than one-thousand KFC outlets in Japan, and is dressed for the season as Santa Claus, in a jolly red-and-white suit and hat.

A large chart on the wall lists customers' reservations for the limited number of chicken dinners available on December 23, 24 and 25. Kentucky Fried Chicken is so popular on these three days that ordering ahead is the only way to guarantee getting the meal.

Americans are far more likely to be eating home-cooked ham and turkey, plum pudding and mince pies at Christmas. But thanks to a highly successful marketing formula, people here eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and believe they are taking part in an American tradition.

Shiro Yoshizawa, a spokesman for Kentucky Fried Chicken, says it took KFC some time to catch on in Japan, where people ate relatively little meat and poultry when the chain first opened here. It was a Christmas promotion that finally attracted customers and kept them coming back.

"Fried chicken was very unpopular in Japan when our company first came more than 30 years ago," he says. "So a decision was made to market it [the chicken] as a special treat, especially at Christmas. Our employees even wore Santa Claus costumes to help customers make the connection."

Mr. Yoshizawa says the promotion turned from a wild success into a tradition. "In Japan, people associate Kentucky Fried Chicken with Christmas. For more than three decades, we have advertised our chicken as a special Christmas meal," he says. "Parents buy it on their way home from work on Christmas Eve, and young adults buy it to bring to parties."

Japan is a Buddhist nation, and most people here do not celebrate Christmas in the traditional Western way. But the Christmas holiday, itself, was imported by the occupying American military after World War II. Yuko Kawanishi, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University, says that period prompted wide-spread Japanese fascination with American customs. "American cultural influence has been very strong in this country after World War II, and Christmas is one thing that was brought and was very much popularized," he says. "It is fashionable and [it is] the time you can eat meat with a bone, which was quite a luxury in those days."

This year, the connection is as strong as ever. KFC's special holiday menu includes salad and chocolate cake, along with the chicken of course. It comes in a big green-and-red plastic bucket festooned with Christmas tree decorations. Diners can also order whole roast and smoked chickens - still novelties in a country where chicken meat is almost always boneless, and where most people's tiny kitchens do not have ovens for roasting.

One housewife says she buys the fast food chicken every year at this time, and she expressed her surprise when she was told that people across America do not do the same. "Really?…I always crave this chicken at Christmas, and I enjoy bringing it to share at parties," she says.

The Christmastime trend this year gives Kentucky Fried Chicken some much-needed holiday cheer. The chain's sales in Japan have been slightly down, because of competition from other fast food restaurants that have slashed prices to attract customers.