Colonel Sanders saves Tokyo's Christmas

Come to think of it, Harlan Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken does look somewhat like Santa Claus. So, Japan can be forgiven for apparently confusing the Kentucky Colonel with Saint Nick. "Of all the odd mutations of American culture to be exported abroad, Japan’s KFC Christmas tradition may be one of the oddest," writes Molly Osberg. "This month, KFC Japan will bring in revenue up to ten times greater than what it earns during other months of the year."

Throughout Japan just for Christmas, "life-size Colonel Sanders statues—a staple in the country—are dressed in red attire and Santa hats."

Santa, of course, is one of the targets defended by Kirk Cameron in this Christmas season's surprise movie hit, "Saving Christmas." But fried chicken wasn't exactly on his mind. Cameron's focus was on defending the annual celebration of Christ's birth.

In Japan, only a tiny fraction of the population is Christian and the holiday is, as Osberg puts it, "a secular-slash-commercial affair" where "yuletide cheer goes hand in hand with a Christmas-branded bucket of chicken—or, as the Japanese call KFC, simply “Kentucky.”

Santa and Sanders seem to have become blurred together in the Land of the Rising Sun. "On Christmas Eve, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s lines 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 KFC’s signature blend of 11 herbs and spices.

"And not having KFC on Christmas in Japan is a real bummer," writes Osberg. "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,” Osberg says that friend wrote from Tokyo last week. He said he has “blown countless Japanese minds” by suggesting that Western KFCs may even close on Christmas.

Apparently, the Japanese tradition began in 1974 when a clever marketer rolled out the “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) campaign in Japan.

"KFC’s spokespeople have told journalists that the idea for Japan's Kentucky Christmas was born when a Western visitor couldn’t find turkey on December 25th and visited a KFC for chicken instead," writes Osberg. "Legend has it that an enterprising franchise manager noticed and passed on the tip.

"The first Kentucky Christmas meal sold for a pricey $10 (almost $48 in 2014 money) and contained fried chicken and wine; now, KFC’s Japanese Christmas meals cost about $40 and come with champagne and cake.

Last year, Masao “Charlie” Watanabe, the president of KFC Japan, bought one of the Colonel’s 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.

Osberg finds Japan's tradition ironic -- particularly since "after my family has unwrapped our gifts on Christmas morning, we’ll all head to Boston’s Chinatown" for a traditional Chinese buffet.

But as Kirk Cameron knows, the reason for the season remains the same ... regardless of the language or seasoning.