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Circus with 80% foreigners to stay in Japanese city for 11 months due to pandemic

Professional clown Roosevelt Valencia Santander, right, and his son Junior, left, are seen performing on stage in the city of Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshio Araki)

IIZUKA, Fukuoka -- Happy Dream Circus, now being held at a former fish market site in this southwest Japan city, will remain there until the end of February 2021 as performances have been postponed and events have repeatedly been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic since they set up their tents there in April.

    A circus usually performs for two to three months in one place, visiting around four locations per year, so an 11-month stay in a single location is out of the ordinary. The Mainichi Shimbun asked the circus, in which 80% of the performers and staffers are foreigners, about their life in Japan amid the pandemic.

    Roosevelt Valencia Santander, a 30-year-old Colombian who is a professional clown in the circus, has been holding Spanish language lessons every Friday evening at an international exchange center in front of the former residence of Edo period industrialist Ito Denemon in the city of Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture. He uses simple Japanese and repeats Spanish sentences like "Que hora es?" (What time is it?) to teach the language.

    Professional clown Roosevelt Valencia Santander, center, is seen teaching Spanish in the city of Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 16, 2020. Hisashi Muta is seen sitting in the far right. (Mainichi/Toshio Araki)

    The exchange center was established in September 2019 by Hisashi Muta, a resident of Iizuka who was transferred to Spain when he was still working as an office employee. He aimed to invite foreign students so people could learn about their cultures. The 73-year-old happened to come across Santander in May during a stroll and spoke to him in Spanish.

    "I heard he didn't have work because of the coronavirus, so I suggested that if he had time, he could come over and teach Spanish," Muta recalled. The Muta family got close to the Santander family, and they now pick weeds at the center together. The families also dine together.

    Happy Dream Circus is operated by Osaka-based Dream Circus, established in 2001 by 60-year-old chairman Koichi Maeda, who performed in a Chinese acrobatic team for 10 years. The troupe's roughly 40 members include about 25 performers -- hailing from Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Ukraine and five other countries. They came to Iizuka for the event in the Chikuho area. The circus was originally due to stage performances from April 18 to July 6, but they were postponed and held from July 10 to Sept. 22. The number of spectators at each performance was limited to half, or about 370 people, and as result, the circus was dealt a significant financial blow as it attracted only around 9,000 people in total, or a mere 20% of its target amount.

    Santander's 28-year-old wife Katherine Delgado performs on a trapeze and their 8-year-old son Junior, who is in the third-grade at a local elementary school, also performs as a clown. It is common overseas for all family members to take part in a circus, and there are two other families with a total of six members just like the Santander family. Though food and utility expenses are covered by the company, staffers do not get paid unless they perform on stage.

    As staffers register as residents wherever they go, members have received subsidies including the 100,000-yen special cash payment and monetary compensation for business closures, but performances that had been planned to follow the Chikuho event, such as one in the southwestern Japan city of Miyazaki, were canceled one by one, and staffers were left with nowhere to go.

    A tent set up for Happy Dream Circus, which is going to stay in the same place until February 2021, is seen in city of Iizuka, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 13, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshio Araki)

    Santander has been involved in circus performances since when he was just 14. He came to Japan four years ago after performing in many countries. "It's my first time to be in one place for such a long time. Everyone practices properly even when we're not performing, so that we don't get injured during the actual performance," he explained. Santander, however, added, "We can't focus on practice if we don't have any opportunities to perform in front of an audience. I and several others asked the company to allow us to perform even for free."

    The troupe initially planned to stay in the city without holding additional performances, but since the Iizuka Municipal Government decided to continue leasing the land for free, members will be holding two shows per day on every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday until Feb. 23, 2021. The number of programs will not be reduced, but the price will be lowered to about half the normal cost, to 1,700 yen ($16.29) even for a box seat right in front of the stage.

    Dream Circus Chairman Maeda explained, "This is an act to repay the city. It's a complete loss, but is like an investment for the circus to grow into a greater group. Being able to know the members' determination was the best thing we've got out of the coronavirus pandemic."

    Santander described Japan as "being safer than other countries, with lower rate of infections," adding that it "is blessed with subsidies like the cash handouts." He said he even wants to settle down here in the future. His son told the Mainichi, "I've made around 10 friends. I'm excited about the field trip we're having in November. I hope I don't have to change schools."

    The professional clown smiled and said, "I want to put a flyer for the Chikuho event in a frame and think back on this when times are hard, as motivation to get over them." For more inquiries, please call the administrative office at: 0948-43-8622.

    (Japanese original by Toshio Araki, Chikuho Bureau)

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