Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tradition?

Kentucky Fried Chicken is still at it. The fast food giant has convinced the Japanese that Americans celebrate the Christmas holidays with a big ol' bucket of fried chicken.

Seeing this link on Japan Probe made me think about a story I wrote years ago for a now-defunct website about Okinawa. Although Internet-Okinawa no longer exists, my husband was able to find it on a great website that archives the World Wide Web. Because of the Wayback Machine, we were able to retrieve my first attempts at writing.

Here's the text of my article:

Okinawans are koo-koo for KFC. When Thanksgiving or Christmas rolled around, my aunt Nae-san couldn't wait to get that finger-lickin' goodness for her family's holiday meal. “Kentucky! Kentucky!” she would gleefully shout in anticipation. When my Mom first told me that story, I thought her sister was nuts. It wasn't until I read TR Reid's Confucius Lives Next Door that I realized Nae-san wasn't insane, but merely the victim of a clever advertising campaign.

Reid, who served five years as The Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief during the 1990s, states that the venerable fast food establishment brought a taste of the Western traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas to Japan by making the Japanese believe that all Americans consider KFC when planning their holiday menus.

“Kentucky Fried Chicken was probably the most successful of the major fast food chains in terms of sheer marketing to Asians. Somehow, the KFC folks successfully sold Japan, Korea, and parts of China on the notion that fried chicken is the classic American fare for Christmas dinner. (One of my own daughters, American born and bred, saw the commercials so often that she came to believe this.) The idea has gone over so well in Japan that you actually have to make a reservation, a week or two in advance, just to get a carry-out box of chicken at any time on December 24 or 25. Beginning in early December, KFC puts up giant signs outside each store telling how many reservations are still available.”

The marketing has worked, at least for my family in Okinawa. When my husband, Marc, my Mom and I arrived in Okinawa for a visit in 2001, my cousin Tsuyoshi and his wife, Tomiko, had prepared a traditional meal of rice, miso, Okinawan vegetables, Orion beer - and a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken! We're still not quite sure if they picked up the chicken because it was convenient, or because they liked it, or because they thought we would enjoy the taste of home. To be honest, we don't frequent KFC in the States, but that night the Colonel’s original recipe sure was tasty!

I somehow felt compelled to find out more about the phenomenon of KFC's presence in Japan. An Internet search yielded many interesting facts. I found the KFC Group website, which provided a timeline of the fast food chain’s activities in Japan. KFC set up a restaurant in March of 1970 as an experiment and established The Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd. with Mitsubishi Corporation four months later. The concept of KFC was a fascinating one for the Japanese to grasp, since “fried chicken” wasn't really a part of the food culture, nor was the custom of using one's hands to eat batter-dipped drumsticks. Perhaps curiosity fueled KFC's success: By 1979, less than a decade after its experiment began, KFC had 200 restaurants in Japan.

As for Okinawa, had an intriguing tidbit. In 2002 a Dentsu Okinawa advertising agency survey reported that Okinawans ranked KFC their third-favorite fast food restaurant, behind the omnipresent McDonald's and second-place Mister Donut (Mister Donut?!), and ahead of Mos Burger and A&W. I don't know where KFC ranks in the United States, but I was honestly shocked by its third-place finish in this survey. Maybe TR Reid is right in Confucius Lives Next Door; KFC has learned how to market its product to the Japanese. It must be the Colonel.

In the early days people confused a newly opened KFC restaurant on mainland Japan for an electrical appliance store or a barber shop because of the store's red and white color scheme and bright lighting. To combat this confusion, the management placed a life-like statue of KFC's founder, Colonel Sanders, in the storefront. The Colonel, of course, is synonymous with KFC, so it didn't take long before most KFC establishments adorned their entrances with the Colonel's likeness. However, the KFC Group website mentions, some stores were unable to accommodate the 180cm, 90kg (5ft 9in, 198lb) statue because he blocked the sidewalk, or, as the website puts it, “in business quarters it becomes the interference of transit.”

The Colonel causes no such interference before the KFC near Tsuyoshi's house in Itoman. During our stay in 2001, Marc and I walked down to KFC for lunch, simply to see what it was like. The food was basically the same as an American menu - I don't recall seeing many Japanese food items - and it was a pleasant experience from the gracious service, to the store’s cleanliness, to the noticeable lack of greasy stains on the plate of chicken fingers we ordered. The wet-nap, which I kept as a souvenir, sums it up:

“Always Delicious, Always Sincere. Colonel Sanders, the founder had been stubbornly particular about bringing you the irreplaceable taste and service.”

The KFC Group’s website indicates that the first Christmas campaign took place in December 1974, and I wonder if that corresponds to the start of the “Americans eat fried chicken at Christmas” advertising extravaganza referred to in TR Reid's book. The KFC restaurants nationwide dress up their Colonel Sanders statues in Santa suits. (There are the occasional stores that dress up the Colonel in Imperial Palace togs in March and a Japanese warrior outfit in May, but I think the Santa costume is standard and consistent with all storefronts.)

Marc and I returned to Okinawa in November 2002, and the KFC in Naha was decked out in Christmas holiday finery. Green and red banners encircled the outside of the restaurant, and the figure of Colonel Sanders, dressed as Santa, stood proudly outside the door. Just as TR Reid described, a large sign near the entrance implored the Okinawan populace to plan ahead by pre-ordering holiday boxes, and banners with the words “Christmas party” written in katakana lined the street.

We were impressed by all of this. After visiting Okinawa and Nikko in Northern Honshu, Marc and I went to Tokyo on Thanksgiving Day. And what, you might ask, did we do for dinner? What any red-blooded Americans would do - we ate at KFC!

That brings us back to today, which is already tomorrow – and Christmas Day! – in Japan. The KFC-Christmas connection is in full force, with advertisers using cute little children to entice parents to buy chicken for Christmas dinner.

It seems to work for the franchise in Japan. Perhaps KFC is on to something; they should do a Christmas campaign in the States and take the stress of cooking out of Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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