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How a White Lie Gave Japan KFC for Christmas

Seiko

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How a White Lie Gave Japan KFC for Christmas
One cunning business maneuver created a tradition and saved a franchise.

Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind.
Atlas Obscura l Luke Fater



kfcimage.jpg

The real-life Harland Sanders didn’t found KFC until he was into his 60s—a feat of entrepreneurial perseverance that inspired a young Okawara to open Japan’s first KFC. Credit: MShades / Wikimedia.

In 2019, millions of people across Japan will celebrate Christmas around buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Families will order “Party Barrels” weeks in advance, replete with this year’s offering of cole slaw, shrimp gratin, triple-berry tiramisu cake, and, of course, fried chicken. Santa-clad Colonel Sanders statues will stand at attention outside storefronts, grinning mutely through December as KFC Japan sales multiply tenfold, earning the chain a third of its annual income. The corporate promotion is one of Japan’s longest-standing Christmas traditions.

As with most Christmas traditions, it all started with a marketing campaign. For years, English-language media cited company spokespeople, who said the idea came from expats looking for an alternative to turkey. There was never a reason to doubt the company’s account, until the man who brought KFC to Japan spoke up. Takeshi Okawara, manager of Japan’s first KFC, came forward in recent years with a confession that upended years of innocent origin narratives—a confession that KFC denies. The man who brought the Colonel to Japan says it started with a lie.

After visiting a KFC test-store in the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, a young entrepreneur named Takeshi Okawara was smitten by the late-stage success of the company’s founder, Harland Sanders. A restless businessman himself, Okawara was humbled by the jovial American who job-hopped into his 60s before hitting the big time with his first KFC. When a recruiter offered Okawara an administrative position, he declined, opting instead to be the in-store manager of Japan’s very first KFC. “By doing that I can learn and study about how to make wonderful fried chicken, by myself, from scratch,” he told Business Insider’s podcast Household Name.

The KFC that Okawara opened in Nagoya in 1970 failed so miserably that Okawara was left nearly homeless, sleeping on sacks of flour in the kitchen to save on rent. The red-and-white striped roof and English signage confused pedestrians. “No one knew what the hell we were selling.” Okawara told Household Name. “They’d come in and say, ‘Is this a barber? Are you selling chocolate?’”

The only thing that kept him going was the magical taste of Sanders’s fried chicken. “The more I tasted it, the more I was convinced this business will be okay,” he told Household Name. On the verge of defeat, Okawara’s shot at redemption came from a nun at a nearby Catholic school.

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Christmas "Party Barrels" across Japan this year will feature a special shrimp gratin. Credit: Nippon Kentucky Fried Chicken Co., Ltd.

In his telling, Okawara was hired to dress as Santa-san and hand out fried chicken for a kindergarten Christmas party. Knowing his business was on the line, however, he went above and beyond the call of duty. With the spirit of Colonel Sanders and Santa-san wrapped in one, he stole the show. “I started dancing, holding the barrel of chicken. ‘Kentucky Christmas, Kentucky Christmas, Happy Happy,’ like that,” he told Household Name. “I made up a song, and danced around. Kids liked it.

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mdchachi

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I wonder if it's still ok to take a date to KFC. The young lady will be impressed by the sophisticated young man who knows his way around a KFC menu.
 
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