The man who helped make eating KFC at Christmas a Japanese tradition says the practice is built on a lie that he still regrets — but that saved his business

  • KFC fried chicken has become a Christmas tradition in Japan.

  • Takeshi Okawara, who helped launch KFC in Japan in the early 1970s, played a major role in creating the tradition, casting Colonel Sanders as a pseudo-Santa Claus figure.

  • Okawara even says he lied to the media, claiming that fried chicken was a Western Christmas tradition — a claim he says he still regrets today.

  • To hear the full story of how fried chicken became a Japanese Christmas tradition, subscribe to Business Insider's podcast "Household Name."

The Japanese tradition of eating fried chicken on Christmas may be built on a lie.

The first KFC opened in Japan in 1970. The store manager, Takeshi Okawara, struggled to drive sales. Customers didn't know what to make of the red-and-white striped roof and the English signs, unsure if the store was selling candy or cutting hair. Okawara told Business Insider's podcast "Household Name" that at times, he had so little money he slept on flour bags in the back of the store.

Christmas was not a major event in Japan at the time, where less than 2% of the population is Christian. However, a nun who worked at a nearby school asked if Okawara would get involved in a Christmas party if it served KFC's fried chicken. Okawara agreed, telling "Household Name" he even dressed up as Santa Claus himself, dancing around the classroom with a bucket of fried chicken.

The party was a success, and soon another kindergarten class asked for a KFC-themed Christmas party. Okawara decided to take the idea and run with it, putting Santa costumes on Colonel Sanders statues outside of KFC stores and marketing fried chicken as a replacement to the American turkey Christmas dinner.

News of KFC's Christmas spirit spreed. Soon, national broadcaster NHK asked Okawara if fried chicken was actually a common Western Christmas tradition.

This is when, according to Okawara, he lied.

"I ... know that the people are not eating chicken, they are eating turkey," Okawara said. "But I said yes. It was [a] lie."

"I still regret that. But people ... like it."

KFC Japan says that Okawara's story isn't quite accurate. According to parent company Yum Brands, a visiting foreigner suggested that KFC start selling chicken on Christmas instead of the traditional turkey.

Whatever the origin, Okawara's decision to link KFC and Christmas took the chain from near failure to massive success, as well as resulting in the creation of a new winter tradition. KFC's Christmas marketing went national in 1974, and Okawara went on to run KFC Japan.

KFC's sales continue to skyrocket around Christmas. Locations across the country dress Colonel Sanders statues up in Santa Claus gear for the holiday season. Even other chains that sell chicken now push Christmas deals in Japan, as shoppers hunt down holiday buckets of chicken.

Today, Okawara's alleged lie has created such a phenomenon that people wait in line for hours and reserve buckets of chicken weeks in advance — all to carry on the tradition of a fried chicken-filled Christmas.

Listen to the full story on "Household Name."

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