High school students from Sendai will participate in this year’s Tanabata Festival and Nisei Week Japanese Festival.
High school students from Sendai will participate in this year’s Tanabata Festival and Nisei Week Japanese Festival.

The sixth annual Los Angeles Tanabata Festival will be held in conjunction with the Nisei Week Japanese Festival on Saturday and Sunday, Aug.9-10, in Little Tokyo on the plaza area of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, at First Street and Central Avenue.

The festival’s theme this year is “Wish Upon the Stars.”

The opening ceremony is set for Friday, Aug. 8, from 5 to 9 p.m. The official opening of the festival will include the traditional sake cask-breaking (kagami-wari) ceremony with dignitaries, entertainment, and the unveiling of this year’s giant community kazari.

The festival provides an opportunity to bring together diverse segments of Southern California’s Japanese American community in a fun event with colorful kazari, Japanese ornaments up to 7 feet tall, on display in front of the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.

A special highlight this year will be a visit by 16 high school students from Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture to participate in this year’s Tanabata Festival and Nisei Week Festival. The students from St. Ursula Eichi High School experienced the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region. Three years later, the reality of reconstruction is no longer a concern of the general public, but the residents are still facing the issue of living in an environment affected by high radiation.

Kazari at last year's Tanabata Festival. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
Kazari at last year’s Tanabata Festival. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

The students are part of the Super Global High School project conceived by Sumera Rokita, who lost members of her family in the disaster. In conjunction with her high school principal, she created a program consisting of seminars and internships to teach about the multicultural society and leadership in order to create the foundation for future leaders in Asia Pacific basin. Students were selected from interviews and written essays about their dreams for their future.

“I’ve been coaching and giving them my story of how I came to U.S. and made my life complete differently in good way, so a lot of kids after my seminar changed the way they think about their life,” stated Rokita. “The students made a request to the principal to allow them to come to Los Angeles to experience what I saw and did to make their life change. So I decided to participate in this global leadership program.

“These kids experienced the tsunami earthquake and mostly their parents and relatives are fine. There were so many applicants but their parents could not afford to pay for this program. We gave interviews and written exam to 200 applicants. The selected students have strong dreams about their future. It made me feel that they have strong hope for the future. Firstly, I was supposed to bring only 10 students, but six more students couldn’t give up on coming to this project, so I decided to find some more sponsors to fund this project to let them come to this project.”

The project is supported by Union Bank, Yoshida Sauce, UTB Hollywood, Sumerica TV, and members of the Japanese American community.

Other highlights of the two-day festival include the display of 10 award-winning kazari from the Sendai Tanabata Festival; festive and lively entertainment; Japanese food booths; arts and crafts vendors; and a variety of games.

The kazari will remain on view until Monday, Aug. 11.

In Japan, communities celebrate the story of Tanabata by writing wishes on pieces of paper and attaching them to bamboo branches. Sendai holds the biggest celebration each year with neighborhoods and businesses creating colorful decorations made from paper flowers and washi paper streamers. In Brazil and other countries around the world, Nikkei communities also participate with festivals. Now in its sixth year, L.A.’s Tanabata Festival is growing in popularity.

Make Your Own Kazari

Community organizations, families, and individuals are encouraged to join in the celebration by creating their own kazari to display at the festival. For registration information, visit the website at www.tanabatalosangeles.org/ or contact the Little Tokyo Koban at (213) 613-1911 Monday through Saturday. Deadline to register is Aug. 1 and the fee is $10 per kazari.

Kazari workshops will be held on Saturday, July 26 and Aug. 2, from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Koban, 307 E. First Street in Little Tokyo.

Past participants are encouraged to enter kazari from past years for this year’s festival, but are not eligible for the design contest.

The kazari will be judged in multiple categories. Groups include businesses; families and individuals; government; schools, churches, temples and non-profit organizations; kenjinkai (prefectural associations); and manga/anime, which is open to all participants.

Last year, more than 200 colorful kazari were proudly displayed. The decorations were made by members of various organizations, including churches, kenjinkai, community centers, non-profit organizations, businesses, and youth groups. Senior residents at Keiro and Little Tokyo Towers made multiple kazari to display. Many multigenerational groups and families participated, forging stronger community and familial ties. As people worked together to fold flowers and assemble their kazari, conversations flowed. As a cultural tradition was shared, friendships were renewed and strengthened.

Yoshihito Yonezawa, former president of the Miyagi Kenjinkai, fulfilled his dream to bring the Tanabata Festival to Los Angeles. Working together with the Nisei Week Foundation, Nanka Kenjinkai Kyogikai, and the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association (Koban), his wish became a reality in 2009.

The Tanabata Festival was inspired by a popular folk tale, “The Princess and the Cowherd.” The weaver maiden Orihime, who wove clothes for the heavenly beings, fell in love with an ox herder named Hikoboshi. When both of them — too consumed by their mutual love — began to neglect their duties, the gods punished them by turning them into two stars and putting them on opposite sides of the Milky Way. Noting their sadness at being apart, the gods agreed to one conditional respite: that every year on the seventh day of the seventh month (“Tanabata” in Japanese), magpies would fly up into the sky and form a bridge across the galaxy, allowing the lovers to reunite for just one day.

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