Friday, January 25, 2008

Kernel Thunders

The picture that launched many entertaining descriptions.

Back when I was working in a Japanese office and correcting student (correspondence-based) homework as part of my daily duties, there was a lesson in which students were presented with a drawing of an older gentleman and asked to describe him (shown above). It was not the least bit rare for students when describing this man to say variations on several rather entertaining things:
  1. "He is the Uncle of Kentucky."
  2. "He is a dandy."
  3. "He is kernel thunders."
As a further clue, I can tell you that it is often noted that "he has been on a diet" and "he has lost weight."

People who have lived in Japan and especially those who have been English teachers, probably have a clue what these statements are about. For those who don't know, the answer is in the picture below.

Click this picture to see a larger, more detailed picture. Note the poster of a Japan-only KFC food monstrosity to the right of the statue. It's a "mince nan sandwich" (a breaded, deep-fried cutlet full of fatty minced meat served on Indian-style bread). Note the proud display on the burger of the 4th Japanese food group, mayonnaise.

In front of most KFCs in Japan, there is a statue of the Colonel so nearly every Japanese person is familiar with his likeness, though they aren't necessarily all that clear on his name if the reports I corrected are any reflection of reality. It's my guess that Colonel Saunders's visage is so well-known that any older-looking foreign man with glasses, a suit, white hair and a mustache may bring him to mind.

Yes, there is vandalism in Japan.

The statues of the Colonel that I've seen are always clean and very well-kept. The one in the previous picture is so clean that it's super shiny. I imagine that these same sorts of statues would be vandalized rather badly if they were in the U.S. and left out in front of shops overnight. Mind you, it's not that there's no vandalism in Japan, but either the Colonel is not a big target for it or he is quickly cleaned up if it occurs (or they block access to him through gates that they pull down after closing).

I'm not sure why the Japanese franchise owners decided to put statues of the Colonel in front of nearly every shop, but, if I had to guess, I'd think it had something to do with the fact that Ronald McDonald statues used to be in front of a lot of McDonald's. It could be that they felt KFC needed a similar, easily recognizable icon associated with its food.

This papier mache "Hello Kitty" stays in front of this tea shop year round. The owners just change her wardrobe to reflect the changing seasons and holidays. In summer, she wears a bikini and it's frankly a little creepy.

It could also be that the Japanese, in general, have a habit of putting out statues of their corporate mascots in front of shops to attract attention or raise brand awareness. There used to be a Fujiya sweets shop near one of our local stations and a statue of the Fujiya girl ("Peko-chan") licking her upper lip in anticipation of a tasty Fujiya-made treat was placed in front of it. I've also seen statues of various lesser-known mascots in front of other miscellaneous establishments such as a cutesy elephant in front of a drug store and, of course, the omnipresent "Hello Kitty" often shows up in an unofficial capacity.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Colonel, in all his overly-stylized glory, is rather rare as a mascot in Japan that is based on a real (or even fake) person. In fact, I had a discussion with a student last week about Betty Crocker and how a fair number of American mascots resemble real people (or are based on real people) whereas almost all Japanese ones are based on cartoons or cartoon-like images. It's a difference that we don't tend to notice because corporate mascots are part of the background noise of marketing to which we're exposed, though we are all quite aware of and familiar with them in our respective cultures.


Alex said...

This is unconfirmed, but a Japanese friend of mine once told me that a lot of Japanese eat KFC on Christmas. The reason is that Colonol Sanders and Santa Clause resemble each other. (White-haired and rotund, grinning, white men)

My friend might have been just pulling my leg, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's actually somewhat true. If I remember to, I should conduct a small survey.

Shari said...

I wouldn't be surprised if this were true for at least a certain number of people. For all I know, making a connection between Santa and the Colonel was part of a Christmas campaign in the past. I should try to remember to ask my students about this some time as well.

Thanks for the interesting comment!

Chris ( said...

When I read "Mayonnaise - the 4th Japanese food group" I almost laughed my coffee all over my desk..

My favorite Col Saunders outfit is the full samurai regalia that some stores dress him in for Boys Day in May.

Kanagawa G said...

I was told that Japanese eat KFC on Christmas because there isn't a tradition of eating turkey in Japan. People would see pictures of Americans eating turkey and think that it was chicken. What is more American than chicken from KFC?

I love the comment about mayo being the 4th food group in Japan. You can't turn around without tripping over something covered in mayo!

I think it is funny how Ronald McDonald is known as "Donald McDonald" in Japan.

mike said...

Mayonnaise! LOL! I am reminded of the weird "Kewpie" Japanese mayo that I've seen at Jungle Jim's world market.

I've never seen a Colonel statue at any of the KFCs I've been to in the states. Of course, I eat Lee's Fried Chicken more often because it tastes better to me.

It would be interesting to find out how many people in Japan eat KFC on Christmas. To be honest, if it was up to me and I had a choice between turkey and chicken, I'd pick chicken...

Oh, and the guy in the picture at the top looks like Mr. Generic Businessman.

brian d said...

enjoyed the "kernel thunders" commentary. i live in niigata prefecture, and often seem to find the colonel in full (j1 soccer club)niigata albirex regalia on game days. this colonel-sports club connection is common, i gather: recall that, when the hanshin tigers won the japan series (1985?), he got tossed in the river. apparently, he bore a striking resemblance (to the japanese eye, at least) to slugger randy bass. the dress-up story about hello kitty sounds a bit like mannekin pis, in brussels (where i'll be traveling in march). i do enjoy the seasonal touches!

mike said...

Also, your pic of the vandalized phone. I'm shocked to see exposed phone cabling. In the states this would be a big vandalism target...the cabling is always hidden. And the phone is still there! How many booths and kiosks have I seen sans phone...

What's kinda sad is that AT&T is getting rid of 90% of their payphones within the next year as well. They are no longer cost effective, apparently.

ThePenguin said...

@Mike: public telephones are disappearing in Japan too (though they're still more common than in many other countries).

As for the Colonel... it can only be a matter of time before some entreprising soul dresses him up in a Hello Kitty outfit.

mike said...

@ThePenguin: Colonel Sanders + Hello Kitty = DO NOT WANT! :)

Payphones were kinda cool "back in the day". (How cliche!) There's a website called The Payphone Project that has a database of payphones throughout the world and encouraged people to call random ones (that would take incoming calls) and see who picks up. The most unusual was the Mojave Desert payphone, out in the middle of nowhere California. I even remember the number...(760) 733-9969. It is, unfortunately, gone now. Here's a link to the story: Desert Payphone. Pretty wacky, that!

tornados28 said...

I loooove Japanese mayonaise. It's way better then regular mayo. That minced meat burger looks really good.

I would say that a very large number of corporate mascots in the U.S. are also of the cartoon type variety also. One of the current popular ones is an annoying gecko that has an English accent for a car insurance company (Geiko Insurance).

Jon said...

Lol, my girlfriend and I used to take pictures with the Ronald McDonald outside our closest MCDonald's.

Shari said...

Thanks to everyone for the comments. I enjoyed them all, though my free time these days doesn't give me time to answer as many individually as I'd like. I hope to get back on track this week with my workload going down a bit.

Just a note about mascots in the U.S., while there are cartoon ones, there are a ton of human ones and I can't think of one human mascot in Japan that is of Japanese origin. In addition to the obvious ones in the post, there's also Orville Reddenbacher, Wendy from Wendy's, and the little girl on Sun-Maid raisins.