JQ Magazine: Cultural Heritage Soars in San Francisco’s Japantown

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Under the Peace Pagoda at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, San Francisco, April 2013. (Preston Hatfield)

By Preston Hatfield (Yamanashi-ken, 2009-10) for JQ magazine. Preston received a B.A. in English literature with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in Japanese at the University of California, Davis. After spending an amazing year on JET in Yamanashi, he spent a year writing and interning with book publishing companies in New York. He currently lives in Marin County, where he continues to cover local Japan-related stories for JQ, and teaches English as a second language at an international school in San Francisco.

This April marks the forty-sixth time that San Francisco has hosted the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. As one of the world’s top annual festivals of its kind and one of the largest Japanese American events in the country, the festival has made quite a reputation for itself, and each year it’s bigger and better. Whether you’ve been to Japan before and need a fix of your favorite street food, or you’re a newbie interested in exploring the culture, the NCCBF offers a comprehensive and top-notch Japan experience that includes traditional and modern elements.

If you’ve been to other festivals, you already know to expect tea ceremony demonstrations, doll exhibits, taiko performances, and cosplay competitions, but pay attention and you’ll also notice a powerful sense of community in every act and exhibit. Excepting a handful of wonderful guests from Japan (including this year’s Grand Marshal, renowned singer and actor Teruhiko Saigo), the NCCBF is put on wholly by the Bay Area’s Japanese American community, including some 300 volunteers, 50 organizations, schools, and groups, and is sponsored by a number of local businesses. In some respects, it’s their way of making a statement, as Allen Okamoto, co-chairman of the NCCBF, explains:

“One of the reasons I continue to volunteer with the festival is that Japantown is rapidly changing. The demographics of the community are changing with the intermarriage and lack of migration from Japan. I consider the festival as an institution the same as the Japanese language schools, the churches and other community organizations like the Japanese Community Youth Council, Kimochi, Inc. and the Japanese Cultural & Community Center. We are all continuing the culture and heritage of things Japanese.”

The festival has become something of a culture treasure here, and it’s no wonder. San Francisco, with a formidable but recently declining Japanese American population, is home to one of the last “true” Japantowns in the U.S., but some locals think that’s debatable. “I saw [at the festival] a hardworking community [bringing] culture and fun to Japantown, which for the rest of the year is slowly being eaten by non-Japanese businesses. Koreatown sometimes feels more appropriate,” said Bay Area resident and JET alum Mikeal Gibson.

Ironically, the festival’s success and massive crowds (around 200,000 annually) belies Japantown’s need for preservation. To the once a year visitor, the hordes that gather would appear evidence that the community is booming. What they don’t see is longtime neighborhood installments closing their doors (most notably in 2011 when the Uoki Sakai Market closed after serving the community for 105 years).

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San Francisco Taiko Dojo draws a crowd in Japantown. (Preston Hatfield)

As the festival continues to diversify and expand, its influence and prominence in the city is further solidified—Okamoto reflected that one of the positive changes taking place in the festival in recent years has been the increase of gay Asian groups and anime groups. This year, the neighborhood appears somewhat rejuvenated thanks in part to new cherry trees, which were planted by volunteers from the Japantown Youth Leaders organization along Laguna and Sutter Streets.

With only a scant few blocks around Peace Plaza, the neighborhood is drafting a document called the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy, which is designed to help maintain Japantown’s cultural integrity and boost its tenuous economic stability. Participants from the Rosa Parks Elementary School’s Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program have also been working to have Japantown included in District 5 for city redistricting in order to keep the community united.

“We’ve helped the community ‘rediscover’ its link to Rosa Parks and are building new connections through our JBBP program and activities,” said program co-chair Deborah Hamilton. “We feel that it is important for us to actively [help] sustain the authentic cultural character of the community.”

The JBBP, whose founding principles according to Hamilton were to “help the Japanese American community retain the Japanese language and cultural heritage that was in danger of being lost after the internment and the dispersal of the community by redevelopment,” has been involved in the festival for the last 30 years, participating in the parade and selling Sakura Popcorn.

While numerous groups like the JBBP are staples of the scene, there are always a host of new artists and performers representing different facets of Japan’s identity. Enter American J-rock band and first-time festival participant, akai SKY. This edgy foursome treated a Saturday afternoon crowd to a unique sound born out of the American and Japanese rock traditions and proved unequivocally that J-rock isn’t a plant for just one kind of garden.

Asked about the band’s direction and approach, Hayashi, the band’s guitarist, explained, “We don’t write [our] music because want to reach a specific type of person. I think we write the music because that’s who we are.” Who they are are Americans from multicultural backgrounds who play songs with Japanese lyrics and leverage music’s power to overcome cultural barriers. They are, in many ways, indicative of what cherry blossom festivals are all about—celebrating identity and uniting cultures. Indeed, even as the local Japanese American population ebbs, the number of Americans taking part in Japanese culture has been steadily rising. And as Umi, the band’s bassist points out, you don’t have to be Japanese to celebrate the culture:

“We’re not a Japanese band…but I think our fusion of American and Japanese rock and the fact that we’re San Francisco-based made perfect sense for the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. We’re a band that could have only been born here.”

There’s certainly something to be said for local color. San Francisco has its own immutable identity and progressive values that have, for better or worse, shaped us as individuals into a greater community that is every bit as iconic as any of the city’s landmarks or fashion trends. In another city, maybe akai SKY never exists, the JBBP is decommissioned, and Japantown doesn’t endure the test of time. As San Francisco goes, so too does the festival.

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akai SKY performing at the festival. (Preston Hatfield)

Although Japantown’s fate remains to be seen, the 46th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival was a smashing success, a celebratory extravaganza fit for a shogun’s court. Bay Area residents can rest assured that they can look forward to another festival next spring. Until then, they can sustain themselves on the wonderful afterglow of this fantastic event—the amazing food, the party atmosphere, and of course, the community that shared their culture with them; or better yet, they can hop on down to that lively little nook next to the Western Addition (look for the pagoda on the skyline) and treat yourself to whatever Japanese indulgence you desire.

Special thanks Allen Okamoto, Jeffery Kimoto, Steven Hirabayashi, Deborah Hamilton and the JBBP, and the members of akai SKY for helping with this piece. Click here for a list of akai SKY’s upcoming shows, and for anyone interested in participating in next year’s festival, here is akai SKY’s vocalist, Ryuusei, sharing his impressions as a performer: “The crowd was enthusiastic and I particularly appreciated the audience members who started dancing during our set.”