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SAKURA FESTIVAL. The cherry blossom and the relationship between the U.S. and Japan are commemorated each spring in many cities nationwide. This year’s events held special significance as the National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrated the centennial of Japan presenting the United States with 300 cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Pictured are blooming cherry trees along Portland’s Japanese American Historical Plaza (top photo) and members of Portland Taiko performing at this year’s Sakura Sunday. (AR Photos/Maileen Hamto)
From The Asian Reporter, V22, #09 (May 7, 2012), pages 13 & 16.
Sakura Sunday celebrates spring, remembers history
By Maileen Hamto | The Asian Reporter

Spring in Portland was welcomed by pink and white cherry blossoms along Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park last month. Members of the local Japanese-American community celebrated culture and commemorated history during Sakura Sunday, an afternoon exposition of Japanese-American heritage amid the blooming cherry trees along the Japanese American Historical Plaza.

The second annual event was held in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which celebrated 100 years since Japan presented the United States with 300 cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. Thousands of visitors make the annual pilgrimage to the basin for blossom viewing each spring.

This year, a central part of the national centennial celebration was a special tree-planting ceremony at the White House officiated by First Lady Michelle Obama, lauding the strength of U.S.-Japan relations. A number of cities with vibrant Japanese-American communities, from Portland to Philadelphia and from Georgia to Northern California, held cherry blossom festivals throughout the month of April.

Portland’s Sakura Sunday was organized by the Japan-America Society of Oregon (JASO) in coordination with the Oregon Nikkei Endowment, JETAA Portland, and other local groups.

"Japan has been celebrating the season and the beauty of the delicate pink blooms for centuries, with picnics under the blossoming trees accompanied by music and dance," said Dixie McKeel, executive director of JASO. "Japan-America societies across the United States have been inspired to carry on the tradition with major celebrations of their own."

Even on a blustery, temperamental spring day, the event drew a sizable crowd. Hosted by Portland television reporter Kyle Iboshi, Sakura Sunday welcomed community leaders and a number of elected officials, including Amanda Fritz, the Portland commissioner in charge of the new Office of Equity and Human Rights, and city parks commissioner Nick Fish.

During the event, a special remembrance ceremony was held for Oregon families impacted by the sordid history of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Flowers were strewn across the Willamette River with the backdrop of Portland Fire & Rescue’s traditional water-cannon salute.

For Iboshi, the ceremony was the "most moving" part of the event. "Being part of the community, it’s important to me that we have opportunities like this to remember all aspects of our history as Japanese Americans," he said. "I’m really proud of the organizers for putting Portland on the map for a successful spring Sakura festival."

Before internment orders, Portland was home to a growing Japanese-American community, many of whom lived and worked in Nihonmachi, or Japantown, in the area that is now Old Town/Chinatown. In March 1942, Japanese Oregonians were among more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were required by Executive Order 9066 to evacuate their homes and businesses and report to holding facilities before being taken to 10 internment camps.

After the war ended, the imprisoned families were told to return home. However, coming back to rebuild the old Niseicommunity proved difficult, causing the Japanese-American community to disperse to other parts of Portland, and beyond.

Completed and dedicated in 1990, the Japanese American Historical Plaza serves as a permanent reminder of the history of Japanese internment. One hundred cherry trees — a gift to Portland by the Japanese Grain Importers Association — were planted along the plaza and waterfront area. Each spring the stones that bear inscriptions of poems telling the story of the Japanese immigrant experience in the Pacific Northwest take on a different character and beauty amid the backdrop of the blooming trees.

Portland’s Sakura Sunday brought families from diverse communities together to remember history and celebrate the local Japanese-American community. The renowned musical ensemble Portland Taiko bookended performances by a number of local groups performing traditional Japanese music and dance.

Janet Takayama, an Oregon Nikkei Endowment volunteer, said the event is an important way for people of all ages to learn about the influences of Japanese culture in Oregon. In her volunteer work, Takayama focuses on outreach to schools on behalf of the organization.

"The event is a great way to reconnect with the community, see familiar faces, and meet new people," Takayama said.

JASO plans to host Sakura Sunday on the first Sunday of April every year to celebrate the season of spring, the local Japanese-American community, and the friendship between the United States and Japan, said McKeel. Throughout the year, JASO offers opportunities for Portlanders to learn about and experience Japanese culture. To learn about upcoming events, visit <>.

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