Japanese government honors NorCal Cherry Blossom Festival leaders

HONOREES NOT TO BE ABRIDGED ­— (From left to right): Richard Hashimoto, Seiko Fujimoto, Allen Okamoto and Benh Nakajo received commendations from the Japanese government in recognition of their efforts to promote relationships across the Pacific. photo by Shigeru Kimura/PMP

Dozens of community members associated with the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival gathered at the official residence of Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata on the evening of May 30 to honor the work of the festival’s General Committee. The evening celebrated the presentation of the Commendation of the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Committee and Benh Koreyoshi Nakajo of the NCCBF Queen Program.

Inomata also presented a consul general commendation to Richard Hashimoto, co-chair of the festival, and Seiko Fujimoto, chair of the festival’s Japan Groups for their promotion of Japantown and friendship between the two nations.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs awarded the committee, as well as Nakajo, for promoting mutual understanding and cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the gift of cherry blossom trees to the U.S. from Japan. This year was the 45th iteration of the festival.

Inomata offered his “sincere commendation” to those at the event. “Each committee expends tireless efforts to make this festival … one of the most successful,” said Inomata.

He told the Nichi Bei Weekly that he cherishes the festival for its long history and strong support for Japan after the earthquake last year. “Last year, many people came to aid Japan [at the festival], I was really touched,” he said. “I wanted to take this opportunity to invite those involved and thank them.”

“I’m sure I speak for all of us in giving thanks,” said Allen Okamoto, co-chair of the festival. “If we could break the award up into tiny pieces to give a piece to each of you … it would not be enough,” he said, speaking on behalf of the committee, which this year included approximately 50 members. Okamoto said the award is also for the thousands of volunteers who have helped the festival throughout the years. Okamoto had previously been involved with the first festival’s Queen Program, but he left to build his family and business. It was not until the 1980s when he reconnected with the festival. “I was just helping other committees when Yukio Kitagawa, co-chair of the festival, asked me to co-chair,” Okamoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

According to Okamoto, Sumitomo Bank (now California Bank and Trust) and Union Bank traded off as co-chairs and selected another community person to co-chair with them each year. “I’ve been co-chair with a lot of people, four times with Richard. I lost count, 10, 11, 12 times?” Okamoto said he and Hashimoto are trying to bring younger people into the festival’s committee and pass on the torch.

Nakajo, who has been involved since the first festival, has been working with the Queen Program for more than 20 years, according to Inomata. Nakako expressed his deep appreciation for this honor. “There are a few of us here that started 45 years ago (and are) still here — ikebana, koto, taiko — people still involved will continue to be involved,” Nakajo said. He also spoke about the future generations. “So many young and dynamic people have come through [the Queen Program]. It renews my hope that the community will remain.” Nakajo told the Nichi Bei Weekly he first got involved when his friends from Japan recruited him to help with the taru mikoshi. “I never thought I would become the old guy looking around and talking about the old days,” he said.

Hashimoto called Japantown his second home as he accepted his commendation. He admitted he hardly spent any time with his family and thanked their patience with him. “We can’t lose Nihonmachi. … I hardly spend any time at home, but I always have a home,” he said. Hashimoto, born in Los Angeles, moved to the city in 1960 from Seattle; he moved around while his father served as a merchant seaman. After participating in the first festival, he began serving on various committees as he started working in Japantown. “This festival has great meaning to the Japanese American community,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It is increasingly difficult to run the festival … I’ve heard suggestions to reduce the festival to only one weekend, but not on my watch.”

Fujimoto, who first served as an advisor for Japan Groups and now serves as its chair, was instrumental in getting Japanese groups to come to the festival each year to perform. She moved to the U.S. in 1971 and was asked by festival organizers to help suggest authentic Japanese culture groups to invite to the festival. “Japanese people love festivals, without it, it’s not Japanese,” Fujimoto told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “I love Japantown… It is for the best to have a festival to bring people to Japantown.” She said she hopes to bring more groups from northern Japan as well as groups from along the Japan Sea for next year’s festival.

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