The sixth annual Japan Day @ Central Park took place on a warm Sunday May 13. Over 40,000 people attended the event, which featured live performances, Japanese games and language lessons, and the four-mile “Japan Run.” This year also marked the triumphant return of food tents, where volunteers dished out free sushi, udon, Pocky, and other Japanese vittles to hungry visitors.
According to their homepage, the goals of Japan Day are to build bridges of understanding between the people of Japan and the U.S., showcase the local Japanese community’s appreciation toward New York, and facilitate stronger grassroots connections within the local Japanese community. This year, the JET Alumni Association of New York (JETAANY) teamed up with Japan Society, a New York City-based organization that deepens understanding between the U.S. and Japan, to offer traditional Japanese “yo-yo fishing.” In this addictive game, participants try to win a colorful balloon by using a paper hook to lift it from a pool of water. Volunteers from the Japan Local Government Center, Mitsubishi, K Line Logistics, Mirai IT International, and the Bronx Science Key Club also provided much appreciated help at the tent.
The cute yo-yos look deceptively easy to make. In fact, they are tricky to make and can get messy. Volunteers showed up hours before the event began to blow up the balloons, which tend to deflate over a few days and thus couldn’t be made in advance. Japan Society’s director of special events and JET alum Christy Jones (Nagasaki-ken, 1995-98) served as the yo-yo activity organizer on behalf of the Society, encouraging Japan Society’s staff and JET alums to prepare thousands of paper hooks before the big day.
I wasn’t keen on waking up at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday, so I signed up for the afternoon shift. When I arrived, the yo-yo tent was a blur of activity with volunteers making balloons in the back, directing the line of customers, and encouraging visitors at the pools. Veterans of previous Japan Days directed volunteers new to the yo-yo activity to ensure that everything ran smoothly. At times when the line was very long, the volunteers shifted from allowing families to take their time to hurrying them along to make sure people didn’t have to wait too long.
I started my shift by attempting to make a few balloons and promptly made a mess despite the fact that I had learned the technique a few days earlier. After a few more failed endeavors, I finally succeeded in making a balloon that wasn’t itching to explode. I made a few more and then decided to go encourage fishers at the pools, which was a lot more fun for me. People were very excited and there were a lot of adorable kids who reminded me of my days on JET teaching elementary school students. I even used a bit of my horribly underused Japanese speaking with the Japanese parents and kids.
The rule that we all agreed on prior to Japan Day was to allow one balloon per person. However, the allure of the colorful bouncing balloons proved too much for most of our visitors and many of them absconded with at least two each. Some volunteers also found the rule difficult to enforce when they saw the pleading eyes of the children.
According to a tally taken by Japan Day’s executive producers Gorgeous Entertainment, over 2,200 people participated in the yo-yo fishing (that’s roughly 400 per hour!), making it one of the most popular activities at Japan Day. Many people enjoyed the game so much that they waited in line to go twice or even three times. All the volunteers were in high spirits at the end of the day, which culminated in a group photo.
Japan Day was not only a great success based on attendance and audience enthusiasm, but also as a collaboration between Japan Society and JETAANY. Motoatsu Sakurai, president of Japan Society, was enthusiastic about the participation of JET alumni, saying, “JETs are forward-minded people and their dedication to Japan is impressive. I was greatly looking forward to working with them on Japan Day.”
JETAANY president Monica Yuki agreed.
“It was a really great turnout,” she said. “It was a fun-filled day and it allowed us to share a tradition we learned in Japan with the New York community.”
If this article has piqued your interest, I hope you’ll join us next year as a volunteer!