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Located in a remote section of a remote prefecture of Japan, Kumamoto’s Amakusa City faces the same problem a lot of rural towns do: its population is dwindling as children born there generally have to leave to pursue an education or career, and few move back.

As part of an effort to boost the remaining residents’ spirits, as well as hopefully garner a little tourism publicity, Amakusa recently held a World Santa Congress.

Although other cities have hosted the World Santa Congress before, this was Amakusa’s first time to put on the event, as indicated by signs announcing “1st The World Santa Claus Congress in Amakusa.” That peculiar bit of syntax was our first hint that something about the event might be just a little off.

▼ That and the zombie Santas at the entrance

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With “congress” right there in the event’s name, we expected delegates from around the world to be engaging in serious discussions about our modern world’s most pressing Santa-related topics. Will humanity ever be able to completely suppress the specter of raisins in the cookies left for Kris Kringle? Is St. Nick responsible for scooping and bagging any little “presents” his reindeer leave behind? How does one resolve the moral dilemma of elves blatantly violating copyright law by manufacturing iPods versus denying good boys and girls what they really want for Christmas?

Instead of a symposium to tackle these issues, though, the majority of the event’s schedule was dedicated to something called the Santa Claus Winter Games Japan Delegate Tournament. Dressed in Santa’s traditional red and white, participants underwent a series of trials to determine Japan’s best Santa. Some of the skills required seem like they’d indeed be useful in properly performing Santa’s duties, such as climbing chimneys and a contest to see who could finish off a serving of cookies and milk the fastest. Contestants were even judged on how well they could belt out a hearty “ho ho ho!”

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A few of the events left us a little confused, however. The Santa karaoke contest was surprising, but this is Japan, where you could ask a group of random strangers on a train car, “Anybody feel like karaoke?” and probably get a few takers.

Weirder still was a sack race. Sure, it’s a staple of summer camps and backyard barbeques, but how would Santa end up stuck inside his own sack of presents? Did this happen to him every year when leaving my childhood home, where we left him wine instead of milk?

▼ OK, Santa, give us your keys.

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For that matter, Santa is, well, rotund. That’s why he had to get himself a team of flying reindeer. Rosy cheeks and a jolly laugh are his distinguishing traits, not fleetness of foot, and some of the participants in this dexterity test fared exactly as well as you’d expect.

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▼ We’re impressed that a marketing exec at local carrier Amakusa Airlines (AMX) managed to convince his boss with “We’ll get tons of exposure putting our names on burlap sacks at this Santa event!”

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In the end, victory went to a woman in her 20s from Hiroshima Prefecture, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is absolutely never a time when Japan will pass up the opportunity to put a cute girl front and center. That said, she did bring plenty of energy and enthusiasm to the role.

▼ As well as giving by far the best courtesy we’ve ever seen from a Santa

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▼ Skinny Santa also seemed OK with the judges’ decision, and decided to commemorate the occasion with a photo of the winner’s butt

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Just when we thought they’d forgotten about the whole “congress” business, the organizers issued a proclamation declaring Amakusa an official Santa Center. But how was Amakusa, a rural Japanese town, chosen for this designation as an official Santa-related location? Well…

During the 17th Century, the Amakusa area was the site of a rebellion against the ruling shogunate by a group of oppressed peasants, many of them Christians. The uprising was violently put down, and a centuries-long period of government-sanctioned Christian persecution began. Due to the ban, surviving Christians in Japan were forced to practice their religion, including celebrations of holidays such as Christmas, in secrecy. The Santa Center certification was bestowed upon Amakusa in their memory.

While this recognition may have eased the souls of some of Amakusa’s long-deceased residents, the World Santa Congress might have emotionally damaged some of the city’s current citizens. As part of the festivities, a group of Santas from around the world, selected by Greenland’s International Santa Claus Association, attended the event.

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But while Santa’s costume is great for traipsing around in the snowy weather of December, this event took place in early September, at the tail end of one of Japan’s hottest summers in a decade. After their photo ops, several of the visitors ducked behind the venue’s buildings and peeled off their Santa suits, revealing normal, decidedly un-Christmas-like attire underneath, in plain view of passersby. Many of them also decided that since they were no longer in costume, it was as good a time as any to light up a smoke, and while St. Nick has often been depicted with a pipe, we imagine it still must have been a shock for the little kids in attendance to see that Santa’s first priority after punching out is to get a nicotine fix.

▼ We’d say it’s 50-50 whether this Mrs. Claus will give you a gingersnap or a shank in the kidney

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In fact, aside from the organizers and direct participants, the event failed to excite most of the attendants. Just 30 minutes after its start, we spotted families heading for the parking lot to beat the traffic home, and we overheard people saying, “We really don’t need to come back again next year, right?

So while we didn’t have the greatest time, we’re still happy we made the trip to Kumamoto, seeing as how it’s uncertain if there will ever be a 2nd The World Santa Claus Congress in Amakusa.

Images: RocketNews24