KFC in Japan at Christmas: Why Colonel Sanders rules Christmas in Japan

The Japanese have a special message for the rest of the world this festive season: you're a turkey if you don't devour Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Day. Well, that's a rough translation but the truth is that Colonel Harland Sanders has nearly as much Yuletide cache as Santa Claus in Japan at this time of the year.

Despite the official national religion being Shintoism, with just one per cent of the country's rapidly-declining population identifying as Christians, the Land of the Rising Sun adores Christmas in all its unfettered consumer and sentimental glory.

On one busy Tokyo subway platform last week, brief bursts of Jingles Bells greeted each and every (spot-on-time) train, with incessant Christmas carols pervading every department stores and often-grandiose Christmas trees dominating hotel lobbies.

But one of the most visible signs of Christmas, Nippon-style, are the life-sized Colonel Sanders San models or statues, positioned directly outside most KFC outlets, attired in red and white Santa Claus regalia.

In a nation that boasts one of the world's most refined cuisines, it's a surprise that KFC should have any appeal at all to the sophisticated Japanese palate, which first succumbed to the Colonel-Sanders-at-Christmas tradition following an ingenious, if not cunning, marketing campaign in the mid-1970s.

Since then, Christmas sales of KFC, made between December 23 and 25, now account for nearly five per cent of annual takings. Indeed most Japanese will confirm to foreigners, devoid of any shame let alone embarrassment, that, hai, they will be tucking into KFC with family, friends and even lovers at Christmas with the brand's outlets providing four-page, rush-beating leaflets for pre-ordered Yuletide finger-lickin' meals.

Japan Airlines has even served KFC as its inflight meal during the Christmas season. 

Japan's love affair with KFC doesn't end at Christmas with the "curse of Colonel Sanders" rating as one of the greatest pieces, as it were, of Japanese baseball folklore.

In 1985, jubilant fans of a championship-winning team threw a Colonel Sanders model into a river. A near two-decade long losing streak duly ensued, with the statue eventually exhumed from its watery grave by divers after 10 years and returned to KFC Japan.


However, the damage had been done, and not just to the Colonel Sanders statue - though the man himself still sported his trademark grin.

But while snooty westerners may be perturbed by the KFC Christmas tradition, let alone the baseball-induced superstitions around the brand's founder, it's all merely another facet of the endearingly quirky, if not confounding, Japanese character.

Traveller editor Anthony Dennis recently visited Japan as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation. See jnto.org.au 

See also: Flying turkeys: What airlines are doing for passengers on Christmas Day