Santa San...Christmas in Japan.
“Hello, this is the Tanaka Event production company. Can I speak to a Mister Lichiardo San please?”
Lichiardo was how the Japanese pronounced my name, Richard.
A guarded “Speaking.”
“We want you to be a Santa San. Very good money...easy job... only few days. Can you do?”
The money was good, in fact so good, I couldn’t possibly refuse. If I remember, it worked out at about £250 quid a day for three days.
“Yes, can do,” I answered and was at the Tanaka company in a seedy part of Osaka within the hour to discuss terms and conditions.
I was especially concerned that some of my friends might recognize me and I would end up being the butt of many jokes for years to come.
“No, you will be completely covered up,”Tanaka assured me.” You will have a large, white beard and eyebrows and your belly will be made much bigger and you will be wearing a big red hat.”
“So, why do you need a gaijin for this work if nobody can tell who I am? Surely it would be cheaper to hire a big, fat...I mean, slightly portly Japanese to do the job?”
Tanaka rolled his eyes.” Must have Gaijin,”he said. “Gaijin equals Santa San. Gaijin equals the real Father Christmas in Japanese eyes.”
He puffed on an obnoxious fag which quickly stunk up the tiny cubicle he called his consulting room.
“The picture is this,” he said.” We have imported real reindeer at big cost from Finland. As you speak, they are waiting for us on a farm outside Osaka with their reindeer trainer from Lapland. You will be on a big sleigh and will hand out little presents to lots of children and some parents all day. Then at night, you will lead the Carol Singing service and there will be hundreds of children carrying little, bright candles and singing as well. Very beautiful,” he said closing his eyes and visualizing the scene.
I closed my eyes and visualized the scene as well. For one thing, I couldn’t sing. Most people think they can...and embarrass themselves big time in the karaoke bars and drive customers away with their awful caterwauling. I, on the other hand, knew full well that my singing voice was non-existent and in fact, I was the only person I knew who never sang in the bath.
“So,” I spoke slowly,” not only am I required to work in the day time handing out presents to kids, but you also want me to work at night...singing?”
“Ah...extra money will be given.”
“Done, I said,” and signed with a flourish on the dotted line.
“Oh, one more thing,” interjected Tanaka. “There will be about twelve Santa elf girls with you. They will be dressed in red capes and red mini-skirts with red pom pom hats and they will be dancing around you in a circle all day. There will also be a ...a...how do you say...yes, a Welcome woman who will welcome the children and mothers to have their photos taken with you.”
I just nodded.
“So, we will see you in two days when you will be measured for your Santa suit and trimmings,” he said.
Two days later, I met the Santa elves for the first time. They were actually a morose looking bunch of delinquent,hostessy looking girls with dyed brown hair and continually dragging on the same type of stinky cigarettes favoured by Tanaka San.
All their conversation consisted of was gara ....which meant guarantee or money....dosh, to us more common folk.
But, then again, who was I to be so moralistic?
That was the only reason I was there, after all. Christmas, is a big business occasion in Japan...a chance for department stores to rake in money through the buying of presents; a chance for restaurants to cash in on Christmas dinners and pubs to fleece the drunken revelers at Christmas parties. There was little of the real Christmas spirit about the whole thing in Japan. No Christmas cheer or bonhomie. The real family occasion is actually New Year's Day in Japan when girls put on the beautiful kimono and head to the local shrines to pray and then return home for a special dinner.
It was all filthy lucre, I sadly sighed, whilst mentally computing my three days work would be enough for a nice new computer plus perhaps dinner for Yuki and myself at a fine French, Froggy restaurant I knew in Osaka.
And so we arrived at the first day.
It was actually just outside Kyoto Station. Now, when I had first arrived in Japan, it was when dinosaurs ruled the earth and Kyoto station was just a tiny, little shack of a place.
Now, it had been transformed into an ultra modern mega building fueled by the incredible boom period of Japan’s economic miracle. Escalators shot off all over the place reaching far into the heavens and chrome and glass gleamed in the weak winter’s sunshine.
Waiting for me outside the station were the pouting elves, already complaining about the cold and moaning that the mini skirts were too short and everyone would be able to see their knickers.I had my very own stylist and dresser in a little caravan. I liked what I saw. Yes, the black boots pinched a bit, but the uniform was warm and cozy and the beard, mustache and eyebrows were sufficiently white and bushy enough to prevent anyone realizing that in fact, the lovable Santa in front of them was actually the evil, money grabbing Richard.
I left the caravan with my heavy bag of swag (kids presents) over my shoulder and took my position in the sleigh.
Yes, the reindeers were there with their Lapland trainer, but hey, what was this?
The reindeers had taken the opportunity to shit all over the shiny new station area.
It stank of....err...reindeer shit!
The elves...or my Santa-ettes, as I now preferred to call them were forced to skip and dance to a horrible CD collection of Christmas hits from the 1890’s whilst watching their steps so they didn’t skid into the shit.
A wind blew up from the north exposing their white knickers and forcing them to prance around with one hand over their skirts. Christ, I didn’t half snigger. This might turn out to be fun after all.
Halfway through the day, the reindeer’s antlers or horns fell off. Apparently, though I am no expert on reindeers, this happens once a year and usually at this time of the season. The Laplander said that maybe the stress of flying from Finland to Japan might have made it happen sooner.
“Or the different food and conditions,” she added.
“Yes, it must be all that rice wine they drink and the sushi they now have to eat” I gravely told her, but the joke went far over her head.
Have you ever seen a reindeer before?
With antlers they look magnificent, noble beasts and full of the imagery of Christmas. Without antlers they look like sad, undernourished cows. They looked around the bustling, noisy scene at Kyoto station and shat themselves again.
A Santa-ette shrieked. She had momentarily forgotten about the many reindeer pats now dotting the dancing area and had skidded into one of them. It was one of the meaner, if prettier girls who had kept her cigarette in the corner of her mouth the whole time of the audition. I had a feeling she was the ring-leader of the Santa-ettes. I couldn’t repress a giggle and she shot me a look of pure hatred.
The Welcomer was exhorting them to dance faster whilst encouraging mothers to have their kids’ photos taken with a real life Santa San.
Now, most of the kids were around five years old and had never been in the presence of a real life Santa with a huge, busy white beard and speaking a strange, garbled and muffled mixture of English and Japanese to them.
I knew they would cry...hey, I did when I was their age, and my Santa had been English. They must have thought their mothers had delivered them into a foul den of reindeer shitters, sulky elves and a foreign devil.
“Yo ho ho,”I began, and picked the first wailing kid up.
Like an electric eel on steroids, it tried to wriggle out of my grasp, but I held it firm, and gave a cheesy smile whilst the photographer took a couple of photos. I then handed it a present from my bulging sack.
I have no idea how much the mothers had to pay for this joyous Yuletide experience. Doubtlessly they got ripped off.
I suppose they could tell their friends at the local mothers meeting that their lovely kid had met a real, foreign Santa and had seen some real reindeer, but to my jaundiced way of thinking it was just a big con.
As the day wore on, tempers started to fray. The reindeers had got fed up with standing and were now sitting around doing nothing much except thinking perhaps of their faraway homeland in Lapland and the Santa-ettes had become knackered and puffed out. Many had painted expressions of forced jollity on their faces. The worst thing of all though, was the continual shrieking of The Welcomer who, aided with a loud microphone was exhorting mothers to bring their kids in for the thrilling experience of a lifetime.
She said the same words over and over again till they were burned into my brain.
“ Mina San...Santa San isho ni sashin toremashoku ka? “Everybody. Let’s have our photos taken together with Santa San.”
It was mind numbingly dull and horribly noisy. I had a headache and was starting to feel a strange pain in my forearms and biceps. At lunch break, I collapsed into a stupefied heap in the corner of the caravan. “Those kids weigh a ton,” I gasped.
Yuki tried to cheer me up.” But you have been saying for weeks that you want to join a sports club. Look, now you are getting a hard work-out all for nothing. You will be an iron man of muscle at the end of it all.”
I groaned. I could already see the future and it looked bleak; it involved more arm pain, more head pain and more photo snapping.
Suddenly the amount of money offered didn’t seem quite so enticing. This was bloody hard, monotonous work.
I now understood why lots of Santas look so glum and gloomy in department stores after a hard days Santa San...ing.
The next day with arms now on fire, I had to push myself to make the long trip into Kyoto. Sometime during the middle of the day, I got recognized.
I really thought it would be impossible, but a couple of students from the Ladies college where I was teaching at that time, came close to me and peered up at me ensconced on my sleigh.
“Lichiardo San...hisashibri desu neh.” we haven’t seen you for a long time.
I grinned mirthlessly at them.
“Why are you working here as a Santa San?”one asked.” Doesn’t the college pay you enough?”
“No, I just want the children to have a real English style Christmasy experience,” I lied weakly.
“Can we have our photo taken with you as well?” asked the taller of the two girls.
I had visions of it being bandied about the college after the winter holiday. My new profession would quickly become known in the classrooms and staff room. Anarchy would reign. I would never be able to control them again. No, it had to be nipped in the bud right away.
I pointed to the Welcomer. “She is in charge of the whole thing. The photos are only for children and their mothers,” I whispered hoarsely, for by now, the hundreds of kids I had lifted up and the close proximity to them was starting to give me a bad cold, and I had always prided myself on hardly ever getting ill.
“But, if we pay her?” persisted the student.
“Look,” I argued desperately,” I will have a word with her tonight and maybe the day after tomorrow...”I left the sentence hanging it the air. The day after tomorrow I would have finished with this horrible highly paid nightmare once and for all. “
“Yes, sensei ...teacher...we will be back...we promise.”
By the third day, I was all in. My arms were now on fire and it was an effort to lift the lightest kid.
I had gone down indeed with the dreaded cold and had a sore throat so bad I could hardly whisper.
I was being bombarded with the awful Christmas canned music and the Welcomer’s shrill, mad sound and pleadings for even more kids and mothers to share the Christmas experience.
I wished I could curl up like the shitty reindeers and go to sleep...to sleep... perchance to dream.
Some of the Santa-ettes had already scarpered, beaten never to return, but their places had been miraculously filled by others, no doubt lured into it by the promise of easy money.
But now, at last, it was over. I had lifted my last kid; had given out my last present and had breathed in my last reindeer fragmented aroma and had listened to the last of the Welcomer’s drone. I had done it! It was all finished.
Brand new computer and Froggy restaurant awaited and maybe a little trip to Thailand, if there was enough dosh left.
I staggered out of my sleigh and tottered to my caravan.
Tanaka rushed up to me.” Well done,” he breathed.” Very hard work wasn’t it?”
“Um mm.”I replied. I was in no mood to chat.
“Well, here is you money,” he said, and he handed me the dosh in a special envelope which was the normal way to pay someone in Japan. I didn’t count it. I knew it was all there by the feel of the envelope and he was, in his own way, a trustworthy guy.
“Now,” he continued,” for the singing.”
Oh God! I had forgotten all about it.
I was all in. done for...kaput...The Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch kept appearing in my brain...bereft of life, it is an ex-parrot.
But, as it turned out, it was quite a lovely and moving experience.
There I was, at the very apex of the huge, triangular platform at night and all I could see were hundreds and hundreds of lit candles below me, held by the mothers and children in the dark evening sky. They looked like tiny fireflies.
“Could you begin to sing Silent Night,” began The Welcomer, “and all the children will join in with you. They have learned it especially.”
“You know I’ve got a crap, singing voice and I have a...”
“I will join in with you as soon as you begin. Don’t worry,” said The Welcomer.
I was handed a microphone and began to sing. The Welcomer joined in with me and then the voices of the tiny kids began to sing also filling the air with sweetness and light. Kids’ voices singing Christmas carols are definitely better than grumpy old men with a bad cold. Yuki took a video of it. I still have it somewhere. I have even watched it once or twice.
Ahhh...nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
At the end, I was almost dead to the world. I thought I would fall asleep in the Froggy restaurant and was wondering whether to cancel it or not.
Just as I entered my caravan to change back into human’s clothes, a little boy came up to me with his mother in tow.
“Look, mummy...its Santa San,”he chortled.
I pulled off my white beard. “Nope, little boy,” I muttered...“just a well paid gaijin.”
I heard his cries of bewilderment and his mother trying to placate him as we trudged away.
Sometimes I can be a really horrible sod!
Word Count 2542