Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Curse of the Colonel: Fried Chicken, Baseball, and Christmas in Japan

This was originally a "briefing" that I gave to the Encampment of the Kentucky Colonels Toronto Command on April 26, 2013.

Japan Airlines serves Kentucky for Christmas

The most famous Kentucky Colonel, Harland Sanders, the inventor of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is usually seen as a benevolent figure.

Who can think that Colonel Sanders can do any harm, with his grandfatherly appearance, his two large charitable foundations, and a life free of scandal, unlike that of most of today's celebrities?

But, like King Tutankhamun, there is a curse associated with him. It involves two of Japan's great traditions: baseball and fried chicken at Christmas.

The Japanese are quite adept at taking foreign traditions and turning them into their own. Baseball is one of these. They saw Americans playing it in the nineteenth century and adopted it as their own national sport. Japan, like the United States, has two professional baseball leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League, who play each other for the Japan Series, their version of the World Series. Baseball is so popular that there are even soap operas and comic books about baseball teams.

Let's talk about fried chicken. The Japanese first noticed fried chicken when they saw American soldiers eating it during the Occupation after World War II. KFC soon followed the U.S. military into Japan. Thus they associated fried chicken with the United States.

In the 1970's, foreigners looking for turkey for Christmas dinner could not find any turkey in Japan. Instead, they ordered fried chicken from KFC. KFC saw an advertising gimmick here and launched an campaign called "Kentucky for Christmas", which promoted the false idea that fried chicken is a traditional American Christmas dinner.

"Kentucky for Christmas" became wildly popular, and today, you need reservations to go to KFC on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If you don't make a reservation, you might wait 2 hours in line. You can even get a Christmas dinner of fried chicken, cake, and champagne on Christmas at KFC.

Kentucky for Christmas advertisement

You might wonder how Christmas became a big holiday in a country where less than 1 per cent of the population is Christian. That's because the Japanese adopted Christmas and turned it into a second Valentine's Day. If you hear a Japanese song about a lonely girl who has nobody to spend Christmas with, it's not that she doesn't have a family to visit. It's that she has no boyfriend who will take her out to KFC, the most romantic restaurant in Japan.

Kentucky for Christmas advertisement

So how did the Curse of the Colonel arise?

In 1985, the baseball team the Hanshin Tigers won the Japan Series. An American first baseman on their team, Randy Bass, was a major reason for their victory.

Wild celebrations broke out in Osaka. Tigers fans gathered on a bridge across a river. A fan who resembled a Tigers player jumped into the river.

Nobody in the crowd resembled Randy Bass, who was an American with a beard. However, a fan stole a life-size plastic statue of Colonel Sanders from a nearby KFC and threw it into the river.

Kansai Tigers fans throw Colonel Sanders into the river.

Unfortunately, the Hanshin Tigers never won the Japan Series again. Hence, a legend developed that Colonel Sanders had cursed the team and that they would not win again until the statue was recovered.

Tigers fans apologized to the KFC store owner, but still, the Kansai Tigers kept failing to win the Central League Championship, much less the Japan Series.

Numerous TV shows broadcast attempts to find the Colonel, but all such attempts failed, to the dismay of Tigers fans.

The years passed. Colonel Sanders died in 1980, leaving behind two charitable foundations and a Christmas tradition in Japan. Randy Bass became a baseball legend in Japan, left the sport in 1988, and was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate in 2004. The Hanshin Tigers continued to lose the championship.

State Senator Randy Bass

The curse seemed to lift in 2003. After 18 years, the Tigers finally won the Central League Championship again. This time, 5,300 Tigers fans jumped off the bridge and into the river. Everyone thought the curse was over. But it was not: the Tigers lost the Japan Series.

Tigers fans intensified their efforts to find the Colonel. Finally, in March 2009, divers thought they saw a dead body at the bottom of the river. But Tigers fans knew better: that was the missing Colonel. The divers recovered the statue, which had lost both hands and the glasses over the previous 24 years.

The divers found the right hand a day later, but the left hand and glasses are still missing.

The Colonel Restored (but missing his left hand.)

Still, the Tigers' losing streak continued. They have yet to win either the Central League Championship or the Japan Series again. Japanese baseball fans say that the curse will never end until the left hand and glasses are found.

The moral of this story: never throw a Kentucky Colonel into a river. Never underestimate a Colonel's supernatural power to control the fate of your baseball team.