Cherry Blossom Festival celebrating 50 years and embracing the future

San Francisco’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary with organizers hoping to present a celebration of Japanese culture that is bigger than ever. This year, the two weekend-long event will host a 50th anniversary gala, more than 200 guests from Japan and expanded entertainment, including a scavenger hunt.

Richard Hashimoto, who previously served as festival co-chair with Allen Okamoto, returns with new co-chairs Kiyomi Takeda and Shinichi Seino to head what they described as one of the largest and best cherry blossom festivals in the country.

“I wanted the bridge between Japan and United States or Japanese and Japanese Americans, I wanted to see if Mr. Seino would be able to be a bridge for Japanese companies here, get them more involved,” Hashimoto said.

Seino, who chaired the festival some 25 years ago while working at Kinokuniya Book Stores of America, said he joined to rekindle Japanese connections to the event and to seek out sponsorships.

“I hoped to tap into those who were young students that I met when I was working at Kinokuniya in the 1970s. There are some folks from back then who have since become the presidents of rather large companies,” he said in Japanese.

Takeda, on the other hand, was invited to help build a new generation of organizers to oversee the festival in the future. According to Takeda, while the festival has a strong and stable team of leaders, many of them would like to pass on the reigns.

“I think people have always thought about, ‘How do I get in, how do I make myself more useful in this community, in this particular event?’” she said. “I think now that they realize there is a need, they’re thinking about it more.”

Growing audiences
The festival started 50 years ago to coincide with the completion of the Japanese Culture and Trade Center, but the festival was once much smaller. According to Hashimoto, the festival was first driven by Isao Inoue, an employee of Japan Food Corporation (now JFC International), to promote Japanese culture and improve perception of products made in Japan during a period of Japan bashing. But, for many, they did not envision the public would embrace Japanese culture or the festival as a whole, so well.

According to Michiya Hanayagi, head of the Hanayagi School of Dance, the first sakura matsuri was held March 29 through 31 in 1968. The parade was called the “Daigyoretsu” (The Great Procession) and featured cultural programing in the Miyako Hotel’s Imperial Room (now the Hotel Kabuki).

Organizers called on cultural arts practitioners such as Fujima Rokushige, Hanayagi and members of prefectural organizations to wear kimono to parade down the street.

Hanayagi and her students, however, did not dance in the inaugural parade, as they have come to be known for.

“We had never done a parade before,” Hanayagi said in Japanese. “So we didn’t dance the first year, we just wore our kimono and walked the parade.” She said they figured out how to choreograph a dance from the second year on, and rented a mobile speaker to play music as they danced down the street.

“Things really change in 50 years, no one (outside of the Nikkei community) knew what tofu even was.

Now, everyone knows. … Now people have a much better appreciation of Japanese culture.”

Steve Hirabayashi has coordinated the festival’s cultural performances for decades. Since becoming involved in the 1980s, Hirabayashi said the festival’s cultural programming has experienced several changes. Most recently, it added the Sakura 360 stage in 2015 to showcase more modern aspects of Japanese pop culture.

One major difference he noticed is the number of groups wanting to perform. “We used to finish at like, 3 o’clock on the Peace Plaza stage,” he said. “A lot shorter, a lot fewer groups trying to do stuff on the stage.

Over the years, it’s grown and … now I try to stay within 6:30 p.m. Because our sound permit only goes to 7 p.m.”

While there are more groups, he said the arts they present are different now. “The (Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California) stage has become more diverse, it was almost strictly nihon buyo (Japanese classical dance) and koto back then, … but now we’ve gotten choral groups and ‘ukulele groups, we got all kinds of different groups doing performances,” he said.

Hirabayashi noticed that there are fewer koto groups, as teachers pass on or retire teaching an instrument that does not have a lot of interest among younger people. The new koto schools that do join have a more contemporary sound, like the works of Brian Mitsuhiro Wong. Hirabayashi also noted high school Japanese clubs performing yosakoi dances and a more diverse number of martial arts groups, particularly iaido (the Japanese art of drawing a sword) groups that have started to present at the festival.

Another tenured icon of the festival is the taru mikoshi (portable shrine). “I was in school, a student then,” said Nosuke Akiyama, one of the founding members of the taru mikoshi group. “We just got whatever different taru (barrels) — sake, soy sauce barrel, just junk.” At the time, the mikoshi was a group of students getting together to enter a parade float contest. The first mikoshi was small with only 30 carriers and Akiyama rode on top. He said the first parade started at Octavia and Bush streets, continued down to Post Street, then to Fillmore Street, up to Bush Street again, then to Buchanan Street and down to the Peace Plaza. He said the first parade was sparsely attended and few people were watching as they went up Fillmore and Bush streets. “I was so scared, just standing on top, being carried,” he said.

RIDING ON A SHRINE — The taru mikoshi, a portable shrine that’s believed to be inhabited by a deity, has been a part of the festival since 1968 (above).
photo courtesy of San Francisco Taru Mikoshi Ren

That mikoshi, however, was the starting point for many members of the festival’s leadership. Seiichi Tanaka, grand master of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, watched the first parade from the sidelines and joined in from the second year as the parade’s solo taiko drummer. “I started doing taiko as a ‘cheerleader’ for mikoshi. It became it’s own thing in 1970,” he said in Japanese.

Tanaka said he participated in the planning committee meetings in the early years when they were conducted in Japanese. “The festival was really like a local celebration, it wasn’t that polished,” he said.

“We gradually began to modernize the festival as the Sansei joined the planning committees, it was around then we started to conduct the meetings in English, too.”

From Figurehead to True Leadership
Another longtime leader, Benh Nakajo, also began his involvement with the festival carrying the taru mikoshi for its first two years. Nakajo, however, is more known for his work as the program chair of the festival’s queen program, which he started supporting in the early 1980s.

The festival has, since its first year, crowned a queen to represent the Japanese American community of Northern California each year except for 1988. Nakajo said the pageant was cancelled that year and replaced with the inaugural festival scholarship, which was awarded to Jon Osaki, now the executive director of the Japanese Community Youth Council in the ethnic enclave, and Miriam Yuko Murase.

“At the time there was a lot of outcry against beauty pageants, … it was really controversial,” Nakajo said.

Citing it was not politically correct, they had cancelled the pageant, but it was brought back a year later in 1989. “There was a lot of talk in the community that came out in the papers, like the Nichi Bei (Times) and the Hokubei (Mainichi), … saying, ‘there’s something missing, we need a queen, we need somebody that embodies the festival.”

The festival resurrected the pageant and featured princess Miki Katsuyama (now Miki Novitski). While Novitski was not crowned queen, she would return to the program to volunteer. Today, she is the program director and choreographer of the queen program.

“Before it was a pageant, it was produced because the festival needed a queen. But it’s become more of a community service oriented leadership program,” Novitski said. The program is a “work in progress,” but it started to take shape into what it is today starting with the 1995 court, according to Novitski. “That court was this catapult to this new type of group effort. Before then, it was just the title holders that would attend events. … There were seven of them, they became the queen and court, and not just the queen, first princess and Miss Tomodachi.”

What has persisted over the years as tradition within the program, however, is the annual presentation of the kimono. In a symbol of goodwill, the Fujiyasu Kimono Company in Tokyo has donated a beautiful furisode kimono to each queen beginning in 1972, a reciprocation of goodwill after then-president Seishichi Ato realized that the relief goods that sustained him immediately after the war came from Japanese Americans.

And while Ato passed away in 2015, the tradition continued after his death, and more than $1 million in kimonos have been donated by the Fujiyasu Kimono Company.

Continuing the Festival
While the festival has changed since its inception in 1968, many of its longtime volunteers hold the event with high esteem.

“I was honored with a certificate of appreciation for taking part for 10 years (in 1977), but I think part of why I continued to help was because of everyone involved,” Hanayagi said. “That’s why I continued for 50 years.”

Akiyama no longer climbs on top of the mikoshi, he said he retired from that position 20 years ago, but he still guides the carriers each year from the side. “I’m not the leader anymore,” he said. “But I just want to touch the mikoshi (each year).”

PIONEERS OF TAIKO ­— The first taiko group to form in the U.S. was the San Francisco Taiko Dojo (above), with Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka (L) and Nosuke Akiyama (circa 1968).
photo courtesy of San Francisco Taiko Dojo

Tanaka said the festival holds a special place in his heart, as well as the Dojo. “We’ve built up our fan base over the years and many people come to see us play at the festival,” he said. “And I’ve played at Carnegie Hall, … but I get more nervous playing here than at Carnegie Hall.”

Meanwhile, the festival itself is looking toward securing its future. “I’m very fortunate in my role. People look upon me as a leader, but I’m not a leader. … It’s a team of people that makes a festival of this magnitude successful,” said Hashimoto. “Most of all, we need to get these companies, in order to have a festival of this magnitude, it takes a lot. Our budget is quite tremendous this year.”

Seino, who pursued sponsorships from Japanese entities, however, reflected on the difficulty to attract sponsors overall. “A big reason was the uncertain outlook due to President Trump,” he said. “Japanese companies express they understand and wish to promote Japanese culture through the festival, but cite they are unable to help for economic reasons.”

For the next generation of leaders, Takeda said she hoped the younger generations can see the level of dedication it takes to run the festival. “If people didn’t realize how important their dedication was, it just simply wouldn’t be,” she said.

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