Since the early 1970s, George Yamasaki Jr. has been the voice of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. As emcee, Yamasaki narrates the Parade action as it runs its course ? and has had plenty of experience thinking on his feet as floats stall or the order of participants changes without notice. Yamasaki, who got involved in the first Festival as the lawyer for the Japan Center’s developer, also has had a distinguished career as a public servant. First appointed to the Human Service Commission by Mayor Joseph Alioto in 1975, Yamasaki has served as vice president and president of the Commission, and is currently serving with distinction his 10th four-year term as commissioner.
Nichi Bei Weekly: What’s your role in the Festival?
George Yamasaki Jr.: I’ve been the Parade emcee since the early 1970s. I’ve also emceed the programs in the Peace Plaza from 1970 on, and I’ve done the Queen Program before.
NBW: And you’ve done it continuously since then?
GY: I missed one year because I was recuperating from surgery, but that’s the only year I missed.
NBW: How did you get involved in the Cherry Blossom Festival?
GY: The Cherry Blossom Festival had a very simple commercial basis: The Japan Center opened. So, the last week of March in 1968, there was a dedication of the Center and the first Cherry Blossom Festival. It was three days only. I was the lawyer for the developer.
NBW: How did you get involved as emcee?
GY: I wasn’t a true volunteer, because I worked for National-Braemar Inc., a Honolulu group. I got so involved that I went from being their lawyer to actually managing the Japan Center for about three and a half years. So the reason I got involved is that it was part of my responsibility to try and build business. There were a surprising number of people in the cultural area who got involved because Japanese culture was important to them, so they were purely altruistic. But others were there ? and this isn’t a criticism ? because it was in their best interests to be there. They were shop owners. Although we like to talk about it as a showcase of Japanese culture, the motivation was not the perpetuation of Japanese culture in the United States; the motivation was commercial, though it had admirable cultural components.
NBW: How has the Festival changed since you first started?
GY: It’s changed in the way that the world has changed, at least America has changed. It’s gotten politically correct, whether it’s terminology or structure. You have to be really careful. When I do the stage announcements, I get these cautions: “Don’t say this, do say this.”? But this isn’t typical of the Festival alone. That’s just the way it is.
The old-timers, who handled the cultural events, there was a group of people who took it upon themselves to organize all these things, the ikebana, the bonsai, the shigin ? they did everything. I’m not sure they are truly replaceable. I hope it will continue. But you had this unusually qualified group of people, many of whom were born in Japan. So as a Sansei from Hawai’i, I’m painfully aware that you get that far removed from the real thing.
NBW: What’s your motivation to stay involved?
GY: Even though we recognize that the Center is a commercial development, a shopping center, what we had to say publicly, is that the Festival is ? and it is! ? a showcase of Japanese culture. We’ve gathered most of the important elements of Japanese culture conveniently in one place. You can go from one spot to another and see the greatness of Japanese culture. That’s why I do it. I think it’s wonderful culture, a fabulous culture, and I’m very proud of it. “I do it because I respect and admire, though I don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the culture, but I think it’s a wonderful thing that it can be perpetuated among Japanese Americans and shared with the greater community.
NBW: What’s your favorite Festival memory?
GY: One year we had a drought, a bad drought. Essentially, the Parade is the last event of the Festival; things wind down after that. Just after the taru mikoshi came down, the last unit, it began to drizzle. So I said ? I was still on the public address ? “Now the Cherry Blossom Festival proudly presents … rain.”? It got a chuckle.
Anne and I were really impressed by this. One year Toshiro Mifune was the grand marshal. What a sport! Nowadays some of these people show up in sweats or things like that; they don’t care. The idea of being a star is not what it used to be. In my generation, they dressed like stars. Toshiro Mifune put on his full samurai regalia, with the makeup and everything. And he was very gracious. I was so impressed.
NBW: Why is the Festival important?
GY: When I first became involved actively was 1970, and I remember I tried to listen in on people’s conversations, to see how they liked it, what they didn’t like. In those early years of the Festival, I heard over and over again, the same kind of remark: “Oh, it’s so nice to see you again, I haven’t seen you since camp”? I thought, “Oh, we’e doing a great thing.” Because there wouldn’t have been the impetus to come if we hadn’t put on the Festival, and they wouldn’t have run into these old acquaintances. I thought, if for no other reason, we’re doing a great service.
NBW: I heard that your wife was really sick during the time of the Festival last year, and she passed away soon after. It’s impressive that you still acted as emcee, despite that. Did you consider dropping out?
GY: Not really, because Anne was as committed to the Festival as I am. After we got married, she was a fixture at the Festival. She would hand out programs, and guide people around; she loved the Festival. She wanted me to do it.
NBW: What do you think about the future of the Festival?
GY: It has to do with the future of Japantown. Many of the shop owners are retired or about to retire. In many immigrant communities, there were not opportunities for people to get employment in a big organization, so the alternative was starting a business, so that’s what, in many cases, ancestors of the current owners did, and the current owners took over. There is another generation shift in progress and, in many cases, the handoff has not and is not going to occur because now the people who are starting out in the employment world, there’s no overt discrimination to getting a job that pays benefits and doesn’t require the headaches and uncertainty of being an entrepreneur. So a large number have decided, “I’m not going to struggle the way my parents did.”? Understandably. So what might happen is that there will be a turnover in ownership and the character of Japantown will be lost. The worst case is that it will be like a Disneyland, with storefronts that look Japanese, but the people aren’t Japanese.
NBW: What’s your favorite Festival food?
GY: Anne’s favorite always was the Kimochi burger.
NBW: What’s your favorite Festival event?
GY: Anne’s favorite was the tea ceremony. … I like ikebana. I like the beauty, the design elements, the flowers themselves, the creative things that the artist can do.