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How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

07/11/2015 23:51

How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

Of all the odd mutations of American culture to be exported abroad, Japans KFC
Christmas tradition may be one of the oddest. This month, KFC Japan will bring in
revenue up to ten times greater than what it earns during other months of the year.
Life-size Colonel Sanders statuesa staple in the countrywill be dressed in red
attire and Santa hats. On Christmas Eve, Kentucky Fried Chickens lines will snake
down the block, and those unlucky enough not to pre-order their special chicken
buckets a month in advance may have to go without KFCs signature blend of 11 herbs
and spices.
And not having KFC on Christmas in Japan is a real bummer. In what appears to be
one of the most successful fast food marketing campaigns of all time, KFC has for
more than thirty years maintained a uniquely on-brand alternate history in Japan,
one that makes fried chicken ubiquitous on the day of Jesus birth.
The prevailing wisdom here is that Americans eat chicken on the 25th, a friend
wrote from Tokyo last week. He said he has blown countless Japanese minds by
suggesting that Western KFCs may even close on Christmas. In Japan, where only a
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How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

07/11/2015 23:51

tiny fraction of the population is Christian and the holiday is a secular-slashcommercial affair, yuletide cheer goes hand in hand with a Christmas-branded bucket
of chickenor, as the Japanese call KFC, simply Kentucky. The Japanese version of
the Colonel is grandfatherly and at times kawaii-cute. There are anime-eyed mascot
costumes styled in his likeness, and service employees of KFC Japan wear uniforms
loosely modeled after his signature white suit and long black ribbon tie.
In the 1980s, KFCs popularity exploded in
Asia while becoming a trickier sell stateside.

Having spent time in the state where Colonel


Harland Sanders perfected his recipes, I

found it hard to imagine the man who so successfully sold the image of the Old South
to a global audience would have been pleased by his Japanese doppelgangers. When I
hear KFC, I think of the portrait of him and his wife hanging in the Claudia Sanders
Dinner House in Shelbyville, Ky., the restaurant the Colonel opened in 1968 either to
compete with or taunt the KFC franchise once hed become disillusioned with the
realities of true mass production.
Inside Claudia Sanders, which is massive and columned like the Big House on a
plantation, right next to a dim, carpeted spiral staircase, theres an oil painting of two
severe-looking senior citizens posed stiffly in horn-rimmed glasses. As an East Coast
kid visiting my mothers family of tobacco and beef cattle farmers in Baghdad, Ky.,
less than ten miles from the Dinner House, I always associated that portrait with the
iron-clad sense of propriety and traditionalism vital to a particular generation in that
part of the world.

Harland Sanders wasnt born in Kentucky, and he didnt even start cooking there
until he was nearly forty. A native of Henryville, Ind., he dropped out of school in
sixth grade and job-hopped for most of his life. He was a railroad laborer and a farm
hand, a ferry boat owner on the Ohio River and an insurance salesman (until he was
fired for insubordination). He falsified documents to enlist, briefly, in the army. He
became a lawyer through a correspondence course, only to be disbarred when he
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How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

07/11/2015 23:51

assaulted his own client. During the Great Depression, he was offered a Shell service
station in Corbin, Ky., in exchange for sharing his profits. It was there where he began
cooking for roadside customers, serving fried chicken, steaks, and country ham in the
residential building attached to the station.
Sanders was so successful that he moved his restaurant into another building across
the street and, in 1935, was named an honorary Kentucky Colonel by Governor Rudy
Laffoon. When construction of an interstate through Kentucky made roadside traffic
all but vanish, Sanders was forced to close the original Corbin business and travel
according to his biographer Josh Orzesky, in a Cadillac with his face painted on it
to other restaurants in an attempt to get them to sell his original recipe. It was the
mid-fifties; Sanders was 65. Around that time he started wearing that white suit
everywherelinen in the summer, wool in the winterand bleaching his beard and
mustache to match his hair. He allegedly began to insist that friends and colleagues
refer to him as The Colonel.
Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1964 and was retained as a goodwill
ambassador, though the goodwill part didnt exactly work out. He later suedand
settledover the misuse of his image and opened his own restaurant, Claudia
Sanders Dinner House, where Kentucky Fried Chickens headquarters once stood and
where I used to cower in front of his portrait as a kid.
In 1974, the same year an irate Colonel tasted KFCs new Extra Crispy Chicken recipe
and called it a damn fried doughboy put on top of some chicken, KFC Japan rolled
out its Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii! (Kentucky for Christmas!) campaign. The first
restaurant had actually come to Nagoya in 1970, when the company launched KFC
Japan in partnership with the Mitsubishi corporation. But after flexing the brands
muscles at the World Expo in Osaka to favorable results, exploiting Japans industrial
boom and burgeoning mania for retrofitting American culture seemed to the company
like a good bet.

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How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

07/11/2015 23:51

KFCs spokespeople have told journalists that Kentucky Christmas was born when a
Western visitor couldnt find turkey on December 25th and visited a KFC for chicken
instead; legend has it that an enterprising franchise manager noticed and passed on
the tip. Whether or not thats true, Sanders imageand the echo of a proper, vaguely
antebellum south telegraphed by his stately attirestuck. The first Kentucky
Christmas meal sold for a pricey $10 (almost $48 in 2014 money) and contained fried
chicken and wine; now, KFCs Japanese Christmas meals cost about $40 and come
with champagne and cake.
Following Sanders death in 1980, KFCs popularity exploded in Asian markets while
becoming a trickier sell stateside. In case the awkwardness inherent in pushing an old
white guys vision of good ol fashioned Southern cooking during the eighties isnt
self-evident enough, the 1984 commercial spot KFC Rap! in which the Colonel and
his image are remixed and scratched into an overenthusiastic hip-hop jamremains a

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How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

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matter of historical record. In the nineties, Kentucky Fried Chicken, sensitive to the
tastes of gym addicts and health-food nuts, cut the Fried out of its name and
rebranded to be known as simply KFC, but to no availrecently, Bloomberg referred
to the company as an also-ran to McDonalds Corp.

If America is oversaturated with fast food empires and too well-acquainted with the
Old Souths history to reinterpret it as a fun and exotic myth, in Japan there has been
no such problem. There are currently more than 1,200 KFC locations in the country,
including an Adult Kentucky Fried Chicken bistro serving pasta dishes with beer
and KFC Route 25, a posh KFC in Tokyo stocked with a full whiskey bar. Not to
mention the whole Christmas thing. Theres a countdown to Christmas on KFC
Japans website and banners celebrating Kentucky Christmas 2014.
Colonel Sanders remains an icon there, perhaps one as famous as Babe Ruth: In 1985
the Harshen Tigers, a Kansai-area baseball team, won the Japan Series for the first
time, but during the ensuing celebration, reveling fans took hold of one of Osakas
ubiquitous KFC Colonel Sanders statues and dumped it into the Dontonbori River.
The Tigers havent won a series since they triggered the Curse of the Colonel. In 2009,
divers found the statue and it was returned to the KFC closest to the stadium. Still, the
story goes, the Colonel is mighty disappointed and he wont lift his curse on the team
until the statues missing hand and glasses are recovered.
Last year, Masao Charlie Watanabe, the president of KFC Japan, bought one of the
Colonels signature white suits for $21,510 at an auction in Dallas and promptly tried
it on. Every child in Japan knows Colonel Sanders face and his uniform, an ecstatic
Watanabe told an AP reporter through a translator, posing in the baggy suit for a
photograph and flashing a thumbs-up sign. As far as I can tell, the last collector
holding onto a large portion of the Colonels effects in Shelbyville sold it all off about a
decade before; he believed the assorted items might be valuable one day, since
Sanders put Kentucky on the map.
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How Colonel Sanders Became Father Christmas in Japan

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To trace the transition of Colonel Harland Sandersa remarkably surly man, if


Shelbyville gossip is to be believedfrom aggressive Depression-era cook to beaming
cartoon icon to a twisted Father Christmasis to see the bizarre logic of the global
market at work. But placed next to, say, the spawn of shopping holidays that run
from Black Friday to Giving Tuesday, it all seems downright sane. And after my family
has unwrapped our gifts on Christmas morning, well all head to Bostons Chinatown
and eat dim sum, a tradition Im told took root among non-celebrating Americans
precisely because Asian restaurants were some of the only ones open that day. As our
secular and religious spheres collide across the globe, the idea of a hard-and-fast
holiday tradition has become close to obsolete. Celebrations are marked by
incongruities and contain vacant spaces ripe for new interpretationsor new brands.
Molly Osberg is a writer based in New York. Shes on Twitter @molly__o.

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