JQ Magazine: Tampa Natsu Matsuri Brings JET Home

This year’s Tampa Natsu Matsuri will be held June 9 at St. Francis of Assisi Church.

By John McGee (Nagano-ken, 2004-05) for JQ magazine. John is the Tampa Regional Representative for the Florida JET Alumni Association, and the founder of Tampa Natsu Matsuri, a free annual event organized by local residents with an interest in Japan.

It’s a familiar story: apply to JET for one of several reasons, go to Japan and find a second home, return to the U.S., and…well, that’s where it all falls apart, right?  Most of us come back intent to keep our newfound hybrid culture alive, but few areas in the U.S. have profound Japanese cultural presence.  So we sigh with natsukashii pangs when we can’t take our beer out of the bar, we hang out with JETs on occasion, download the odd drama, and let the rest of our lives go back to American normal, like it or not.

That was certainly the case for me here in Tampa. There’s a bit of Asian presence: restaurants, markets, a festival, even a karaoke place, mostly all Korean or Chinese. But I’ve never been content with the status quo. (I know; how did I survive in we-do-it-this-way-because-that’s-how-it’s-done Japan, right?)  So I started probing some contacts at the university, searching the Internet for related local topics; I even knew some Japanese nationals living here.

I discovered that the area actually has quite a bit of Japanese culture…it’s just hiding. Turns out the people are hiding, too. There’s a whole thriving subculture in the region made up mostly of Japanese women who have married American men.  But there’s also martial and cultural arts, anime clubs, language groups, and we even have a pack of strangely elusive diehard Loli girls. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t have the culture; it was that it was so diffuse and cloistered.

About the time I was figuring all this out, a JET friend suggested we have a natsu matsuri party, just to reminisce and eat some suika in the sweltering Florida heat.  That’s when a light bulb came on and I realized, “what better way to draw those groups together than to have a real natsu matsuri?”  Everyone I ever met who lived in Japan, Japanese and foreign, loved natsu matsuri. So it just might work! If nothing else, I missed them myself.

So I began planning. The key would be to make it traditionally Japanese. This should be for the Japanese cultural community, not a spectacle for tourists. And, it must be organic. Since I didn’t know who would come and had no money or support, it had to have low overhead. I’m talking Super-Deformed Mini overhead. The festivals in my little inaka town in Japan provided a good model. Local businesses and clubs would sponsor just one activity and they would pool resources to make the event.  So what occurred at the festival was only what the community brought themselves…like your school’s bunkasai!

A young festivalgoer shows off his yukata and prize.

I started by talking to every organization I had touched on in my search. What could they bring? I drew up an e-mail list and kept asking for people to contribute any necessary objects like napkins, or a pack of soda. I even seeded the pot with several hundred dollars of my own to rent a shelter in a local park, mock-up games, etc.  Since we were operating on a gossamer shoe-string, our games were bare bones:  a blow-up kiddie pool and some toy fish for kids to catch, a plastic storage bin and some goldfish for kingyo-sukui. I even bent some copper wire into hoops and hot glued tissue to them for poi.

I could only afford ten hoops, so a volunteer had to frantically hot glue more tissue on the hoops every time they were used. We collected glass bottles to make a ring toss game. Put a hula hoop out and had people try to land a taketonbo in it. Threw down a tarp and used a burned out glow ring for wanage. I had friends in Japan ship me a box of 100 yen items for prizes. We had a hand-crank ice shaver, a bunch of watermelons and a knife, a few yukata to try on and take pictures in, someone folding origami kabuto, and a potluck of food thanks to the Obasan gang I mentioned earlier.

To my surprise, we had over 100 people show up from all walks of life: half-Japanese children in jinbei their moms had sewed up for the occasion, visiting salary men, school groups, even some local Asian-language newspapers. What I had honestly expected to be 25 people in a haphazard sort of community picnic turned out to be a volunteer-driven, community-oriented, full-on festival!

With that initial showing, support began to roll in and people asked when the next one would be. The consulate jumped on board, as did the university, the local Japanese language school, a Japanese language newsletter, the Tampa Japanese Meetup (which reinvigorated as a result of the festival), and the newly reformed FLJETAA!

Each year since 2006, the festival has grown and we’ve learned tricks and improvements every time. We’re now moving into our seventh year and we consistently draw over 500 people. Vendors are now approaching me to be a part of it.  This year, we’re incorporating because it has gotten big enough to require the next level of organization.

Several other events have spun off, like our monthly Tsudoi. This is an informal gathering at a local coffee shop just to meet and chat. It now draws over 50 people each month, most of whom don’t even know who I am.  I do occasionally get awkward veneration from a Japanese person who is finally meeting this Tyler Durden-esque foreigner who started it all, and the Obasan have all decided I was definitely Japanese in my last life. But otherwise, the community is now connected and thriving independent of me, which is just how it should be. That way I can move into it and live…My little piece of Japan, imported to the U.S.

Perhaps this is exactly what we mean by “grassroots internationalization”: each culture recreating beloved cultural elements, the same in spirit, though adapted to their new home.  This is what JET is supposed to be about!

This year’s Tampa Natsu Matsuri will be held June 9 at St. Francis of Assisi Church. For photos from past editions, click here.