The Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival has become a popular attraction at the cherry blossom festival
Follow AU Observer’s live coverage of the Sakura Matsui Festival.
By Elliot Wallace
The Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival celebrates the culture of Japan. The Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C. has been holding the annual celebration for more than 50 years.
“Two years ago, we asked people, ‘Why did you come?’” said John Malott, president and CEO of the Japan-America Society. “We had a whole list of reasons. Ninety-two percent of the people said, ‘Because I like Japan and Japanese culture.’ It was really astounding.”
The first festival took place in June 1961, four years after the founding of the Japan-America Society. Malott said the event was more of a gathering for people who loved Japan.
It wasn’t until 1992, when the National Cherry Blossom Festival invited the Sakura Matsuri to Freedom Plaza to follow the Cherry Blossom Parade, that the festival took on a gigantic following. Since then, the festival has expanded from Freedom Plaza to the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the FBI.
Cosplaying on Pennsylvania Avenue
Started in 2006, one attraction that has brought more festival goers is J-Pop Land, Malott said. This area is dedicated to modern Japanese culture and attracts a different audience, such as anime fans and cosplayers.
Cosplay, short for costume play, is a popular activity for fans of anime, science fiction and manga — Japanese comic books — who dress up as their favorite characters.
“A lot of people like cosplay for different reasons,” said Chris Wanamaker, founder and president of DC Anime Club. He said some do it for the attention, others like to show off their skills, while some just do it for the love of the arts. Wanamaker cosplays as the video game character Super Mario.
As the festival began to grow in popularity, more cosplayers attended the event, becoming more of a part of the festival and J-Pop Land.
“To me, I see it more as a way get out and interact more with the Japanese culture,” said Ed Jones, treasurer of D.C. Anime Club. “I feel like I want to be part of it, and I feel that with Sakura Matsuri, I’m getting that job done.”
Kyoto on one end, a modern Japan on the other
“My joke always is, ‘That end of Pennsylvania Avenue with the big stage, that’s Kyoto, that’s traditional Japan,’” Malott said. “And what we are trying to do on the other end of the avenue, by the FBI building, is to showcase modern Japan.”
The intersection of the modern and traditional can be seen in the Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe.
Founder and Artistic Director Shizumi Manale started the company in 2000 and has been choreographing the troupe for more than a decade. The troupe’s choreography mixes modern and traditional Japanese dance with music by American composers.
The troupe is made up of a diverse group of girls between the ages of 4 and 17. “I believe that children are spirits of Cherry Blossom’s expression,” Manale said. “No one can express more than children.”
Along with the dances, Manale also teaches the dancers and their parents about traditional Japanese dress.
Many of the dancers have been with the troupe for 10 years and have grown up with the Cherry Blossom Festival, she added.
Connection to the culture
Malott said, “There’s something very accessible about Japanese culture,” and that people want to learn and do the things they see at the festival.
“People complain, ‘I don’t like it, because I can’t see everything.’ Why don’t you do it for two days?” Malott said.
It was a lovely day on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival was another huge hit. For visitors, it was a chance to experience Japanese culture, from martial arts and bullet trains to crafts and music.
One popular highlight was from the Japan Rail Modelers of Washington, D.C. Matthew Davis, the society’s president, said that Japanese trains are currently experiencing a “heyday.”
Another thing that brought people out to the festival was the delicious food. Kat Robbins, who attended the festival for the fourth straight year, said she enjoys eating food that she can’t normally find.
Festivalgoer Amber Eicher not only loved the food, but also loves Japanese culture. “I grew up just in love with the Japanese, and it’s nice to be around people that share the love, “ she said.