A big part of my job here in Japan is community relations and outreach. For those of you who remember when I was the public affairs officer for the Seabee Base, community relations and outreach are a very important part of the gig. In many cases, my job in Mississippi was to simply show up to places and interact with people from different captive audiences. Mississippians love their military. Sometimes the people we would engage with were school kids, Boy Scouts, retirement home residents, Rotary club members, etc. The list goes on and on.
In Japan, my job is similar, but there always seems to be a unique spin on things. Many of the Japanese are so fiercely anti-war, they do not appreciate the presence of the U.S. military. Unfortunately, this causes me to find interesting ways to engage with people who enjoy engaging with us. There is a bit of precision needed for community relations here.
One particular community relations event that I was roped into recently was a Christmas party for autistic children in an Okinawan school. Not only did the teaching staff appreciate our efforts, but also the satisfaction of playing and laughing with these kids who are easily disregarded and discarded by general society was touching to me on a human level. The U.S. government was paying me to do this engagement, but on a secret personal level, I would’ve done it for free anyways. Shhh, don’t tell Big Brother that or they might start docking my pay.
All kidding aside, there is a big reason we spend considerable resources to do these “fun” events often. A part of the U.S. Army Japan’s Lines of Effort (LOE = guiding principles) is building strong and enduring bonds with the Japanese community and our allied military partners. These type of events supports our number one LOE.
Because I am white, tall, and much fatter than your average Japanese man or woman, a local Japanese woman named Chisaki got one good look at me and decided that I was a perfect Santa Claus.
My boss, who brought fake Rudolph antlers and a nose, was told he wasn’t going to get off that easy and was handed a head-to-toe Frosty the Snowman costume. It was 80 degrees. Lt. Col. Barker, a.k.a. Frosty, was already melting inside the fleece costume before we even started the event. Also, I forgot to mention that my Santa Claus costume was fitted for a Japanese man…It was tight. It was so tight. It was like I was wearing a Santa-colored SCUBA suit.
And that brings me to the third costume. I had surprised our newest public affairs employee, Henry, by bringing him to the school without telling him what was going on or why we were there. My bad…everything that went wrong from this point can be directly blamed on me.
Henry saw that we were putting on costumes and as the good sport he is, asked for a costume as well. At that moment, I was proud of our new guy. He was already getting into the groove of things. Little did I know how it would actually turn out.
Chisaki was apologetic that she did not have another Christmas costume, but in true hospitable Japanese fashion, she dug through a closet of discarded Halloween costumes from October and produced a banana costume. Henry didn’t question it at all. He threw it on and the three of us were off to the main hall where the children were getting primed into the Christmas spirit with Japanese versions of Christmas songs, arts and crafts, and possibly a diabetes-inducing amount of sugary treats.
Like I said before, the school is a special needs school. All the children had different levels of abilities due to their personal afflictions. They were all equally beautiful, charming, and special in their own ways as well.
If you know anything about autism is that the affliction affects different people in different ways. Some people have tactile or touch sensitivity. Some are sensitive to lights or fast movements. Some are very affected by sudden loud noises.
Chisaki opened the doors and gave me the go sign. I walked in and gave a half-hearted “Ho Ho Ho” to not startle the more sensitive bundles of sunshine I would encounter. I took my seat waving at the children.
Frosty, entered with a nice and appropriate “Konnichiwa.” The children were smiling and waving. Frosty took his seat, smiling.
Then Henry, the Christmas Banana, entered the room by leaping into the room with his arms in the air and growled a scream that rivaled any WWE star entering the ring “BAAANNNAAANNNAAA.” All the children’s heads snapped around toward the entrance in a startled stare.
Half of the children laughed or screamed back in joy. Some yelled Banana in retort. About a third of the students covered their ears, eyes, or both and started crying and screaming. Some sat in a shocked catatonic state.
Henry made his way to his chair and sat next to Frosty. Frosty, who has a child on the spectrum, explained to Henry that some autistic kids can’t process loud noises like the general population.
Henry sat looking unfazed by this information. It was loud in the crowded room and he may not have understood Frosty’s advice. After a fun program of the children singing our trio songs, it was then time for the children to come up one by one and meet Santa. I handed them a gift and said “Ho Ho Ho” slightly louder than the conversation level. Frosty, said “Arigato” and gave each child a bag of candy.
The initial shock had faded and Henry forgot the sage advice given to Frosty. Since he was an unplanned extra in the program, he didn’t have a gift for the children. So, he decided to give hearty high fives and then scream banana again. Just like before. It was a mixed bag of reactions.
It was definitely a moment in time that will stick with the children for quite some time whether it is good or bad.
There is one thing I have noticed about my time here. Americans are generally louder than Japanese by quite a few decibels. Many Americans learn to tailor their volume levels, but some never learn to regulate their volume.
Since I have been here more than a year, I now understand the meaning when others call us “loud Americans.” I can definitely see it for myself. When I am in public, I now notice that my kids just need to hear themselves. Whether they are making noises in general or talking about absolute nonsense. My kids, like many Americans, are like songbirds. Just singing away throughout the day.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of SuperTalk Mississippi Media.