LA's Asian Santa Is Back In Little Tokyo
The fluffy white beard on Shogun Santa is standard-issue bird's nest, but there's no mistaking him for your typical mall Santa.
A golden samurai helmet cradles Shogun Santa's head as he sways to pop-ified carols in Little Tokyo's Japanese Village -- with zori sandals on his feet and a crimson robe roomy enough to hide a paunch full of mochi and red bean cake.
And instead of 'Ho, ho, ho,' this Santa bellows, "SHO-GUN!"
"This is the first time I've ever seen an Asian Santa," said Eddie Yu, a Chinese American student from Sacramento State, who shook shaggy green hair out of his eyes to take a free photo with Shogun Santa.
"I'm so excited about this, genuinely," said his Filipino American friend, Marc Omas, who threw a thumbs up for their pic. "I feel like you just never see an Asian 'anything' in general, as diverse as California is."
In a majority-minority city like Los Angeles, it's surprisingly hard to come by an Asian Santa -- really any ethnic Santa in general.
Ruddy-cheeked Santas of the Coke ad-variety rule the mall circuit -- and the popular imagination of what one of childhood's most important figures looks like, even though St. Nick's origin story comes from Asia Minor.
Maggie Aguirre was delighted to stumble across Shogun Santa while shopping with her family. Her son is Armenian and Mexican, and she had been looking for a Santa of color, "someone he could identify with."
"But I just couldn't find one that was not white," Aguirre said.
In L.A., only Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza advertises that it has an African American Santa.
After debuting in the 1980s, Little Tokyo's own Santa went into hibernation for decades, until the local merchants' association revived the tradition in 2014 with Japanese American actor and activist Rodney Kageyama filling the role.
Kageyama, most-recognized as the head-banded middle manager in the movie Gung Ho, not only posed with shoppers at Japanese Village but showed up as Shogun Santa at local Christmas celebrations. Bossy by nature, as friends remember him, he would direct people where to stand in photos with him.
Kageyama wanted everything picture-perfect, said his friend Ellen Endo.
"He would say, Ellen, is my helmet on straight? Is my beard slipping? Can you adjust it for me?" laughed Endo, who co-chairs the Little Tokyo Business Improvement District. "So I was kind of his personal assistant for a while."
But Endo knew Kageyama's run would have to end one day because of escalating health problems.
He reluctantly turned to understudies when he was feeling too weak. And then last December, his body just gave out, after years of fighting HIV and failing kidneys. Kageyama died in his sleep at age 77, just days before he was to don the suit for the fifth season in a row.
A celebration of his life this past January at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple drew hundreds, including Joshua Nishinaka, 14, who played his sidekick elf for several years.
"It's not the same without Rodney," Nishinaka said of the Shogun Santa tradition. "Rodney was a true character and knew how to make everyone laugh."
THE BIRTH OF ASIAN SANTA
Three decades before Kageyama put his stamp on Shogun Santa and turned him into L.A.'s best-known Asian Santa, merchants at Japanese Village were simply trying to attract more shoppers during Christmastime.
"But we didn't want to have the same Santa everybody else had," said Joanne Kumamoto, who worked for the association of merchants. "We didn't want him sitting on a throne. So we said, 'A tea house! He could sit in a tea house!"
In 1986, Shogun Santa made his debut in Little Tokyo's Children of the World Parade, carried down Central Avenue on a litter. His final destination was a custom-made miniature tea shop at the Japanese Village, its footprint the size of two tatami mats. There he sat for photos with spectators on both sides of him.
Over the years, Shogun Santa has been played by an assortment of Little Tokyo actors and community leaders, including David Hyun, the Korean American architect who helped develop Japanese Village.
The character attracted generations of Asian Americans from all over -- Boyle Heights, the San Gabriel Valley and South Bay. Endo remembers taking her own children to visit the local icon.
"For my kids, it was so important for them to see a reflection of themselves," Endo said. "People, without really intellectualizing it, know that there's a connection that an Asian Santa can have with an Asian child that no one else can have."
But priorities shifted at Japanese Village when it was sold to a new owner and the Shogun Santa tradition petered out during the 1990s, according to the Japanese-English newspaper Rafu Shimpo.
The Shogun Santa tea shop and costume disappeared -- to this day, nowhere to be found.
THE REBIRTH OF SHOGUN SANTA
A couple decades later, Japanese Village was on its third owner, and Little Tokyo was undergoing rapid development, fueled by projects by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The authority had opened a Gold Line station by the plaza in 2009.
Then in 2014, the authority broke ground on the massive subway project, the Regional Connector, which has yet to be completed. Business leaders were worried construction zones would disrupt commerce in the area.
"We wanted to make sure the businesses were supported and that people knew it was okay to come to Little Tokyo," Endo said.
Both Endo and Kumamoto decided Shogun Santa was their answer.
"We wanted to bring him back," Kumamoto said, "because the little children who used to come and take pictures with him all were young parents and they would come to Little Tokyo and say, 'Where is he?'
Kageyama was the natural choice to portray Japanese Santa. His outsized personality was perfect for drawing in strangers, and he personified the spirit of Little Tokyo.
He was well-known for his theater work with the East West Players, volunteering at the Japanese American National Museum and emceeing events during Nisei Week, an annual cultural celebration.
Joshua Nishinaka got looped by Kageyama, a family friend, into volunteering as Santa's elf, and handed out hundreds of candy canes, while his mentor worked the crowds.
"Pugs are his favorite dogs," Nishinaka said. "So whoever was walking around who had a pug or dog, he would always beg them to take a picture with him."
THE NEXT CHAPTER
After Kageyama died last holiday, Mike Okamoto, an architect and president of the Little Tokyo Business Association, stepped into his slippers.
Okamoto, who had filled in before when Kageyama wasn't feeling well, is an affable Santa but more reserved, waving at passersby rather than bantering with them.
Shogun Santa remains the only known Asian Santa tradition in the L.A.-area. The L.A.-based International University of Santa Claus told LAist that of its 4,200 graduates, only a handful have had Asian heritage.
So even though he is 70, Okamoto said he is up for playing "Santa's cousin from Japan" for the foreseeable future. Nishiknaka has returned to be his elf.
As he sat on a bench last Sunday in between visitors, he wriggled his feet -- they were a reminder of Kageyama. It's tradition to pair white socks with the slippers, he said, but Kageyama told him to wear red.
"It's a way of saying okay, this is not really Japanese, you know? But with some twist," Okamoto said.
As he and his friends lined up for a photo, Marc Omas, who grew up straining to find Asian Americans in the media, said he loved Little Tokyo's Santa hybrid and the message the character sent to kids.
"There's not just one way that things are right," Omas said. "Being able to show people at a young age, this is also for you? That's important."
For more on Santas in Los Angeles, read our story on what it's like to be a professional party Santa.
Shogun Santa will be at the Japanese Village on Dec. 21 and 22.