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Shogun Santa Adds To The Festivities In LA's Little Tokyo

NOEL KING, HOST:

All around the country, Christmas shoppers are making panicked trips to the mall today. And for kids, that might include a visit with Santa.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. But in LA's Little Tokyo district, some families get to meet a very special mall Santa.

MIKE OKAMOTO: Shogun Santa is Santa's cousin from Japan.

GREENE: That's Mike Okamoto of the Little Tokyo Business Association. He's been the man behind Shogun Santa for the past three years.

KING: The Shogun were military rulers of Japan from the 12th through the 19th centuries. And as Okamoto tells it, Shogun Santa has the traditional white beard, but it is his outfit that really stands out.

OKAMOTO: It's a red - predominantly red costume with a golden helmet with some sort of sword-like ornament on top of it.

GREENE: All of this started in the 1980s as the Little Tokyo Business District was just in development.

OKAMOTO: They needed to have some kind of festive character to get everybody to come to Little Tokyo.

GREENE: But as time went on, this tradition went away. A few years ago, though, nostalgic parents and shopkeepers demanded that Shogun Santa make a triumphant return, and he has been an LA mainstay ever since then.

KING: KPCC's Josie Huang reports that Shogun Santa is the only known Asian Santa in Los Angeles.

JOSIE HUANG, BYLINE: A lot of these parents wanted their kids to also be able to take a picture with an Asian Santa like they did when they were little kids.

KING: One of those kids is Mike Okamoto's granddaughter.

OKAMOTO: She is so proud of Little Tokyo. And the best thing that she finds in Little Tokyo, she says, is the Shogun Santa.

GREENE: And when she came to visit this year, Shogun Santa could barely contain himself.

OKAMOTO: She whisper into my ears in Japanese, I want so and so - like, you know, the Christmas gift. So I was not supposed to laugh, but I - it was so adorable.

GREENE: But I got to ask, why are Mike Okamoto and Shogun Santa never seen in the same place?

OKAMOTO: That's a secret (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST CHRISTMAS FEAT. MICAELA BRAITHWAITE")

GUNNAROLLA AND MICAELA BRAITHWAITE: (Singing) Last Christmas... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.