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Japanese traditions, heritage celebrated

Festival was started to unite groups throughout Utah

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A hungry samurai still sucks on a toothpick.

He does it to pretend that he's just eaten. He pretends because he cannot show weakness, because he has pride.

The Japanese proverb "Bushi wa kuwanedo taka yoji" expresses Jane Sakashita's favorite aspect of her culture; it is an idea she tried to impart to her three sons.

But Sakashita doesn't suck on a toothpick. She shows her pride every year by helping organize the Nihon Matsuri Japan Festival on Salt Lake City's historic Japantown Street (100 South between 200 and 300 West). Held annually since 2005, the festival regularly features Taiko drumming, kimono fashion shows, karate performances, traditional tea ceremonies and lots of sushi, teriyaki and gyozas. The highlight of Saturday's festival was the Niten Ichiryu Musashi-Kai group from Japan performing Kendo swordsmanship.

The festival was started to unite the Japanese Americans Citizens League, the Japanese Church of Christ, the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple and other local groups in celebrating together Utah's century-old Japanese heritage, said Floyd Mori, national executive director of the JACL.

Mori said he believes Japanese culture is about hard work, honesty and family values. The festival reflects these values as families work together at their booths and celebrate their heritage. He said Japanese communities struggled to stay together after World War II because people were scattered and youths were sometimes ashamed to be associated with Japan. Mori said that is changing now, and young people are again expressing interest in their heritage and traditions.

"It's heartwarming to see people together and having pride in where they come from and who they really are," he said. "There's been a renaissance in the Japanese community, and it gives children a sense of self-worth."

Silvana Watanabe, a member of the organizing committee, said she loves the festival because it helps remind her children that they are part of a community of Japanese Americans.

"It helps them understand who they are and what they can do to serve their community," she said. "A lot of times with children it's about what's in it for them. I want to teach them what they can do to give back, and that having a community like this is a gift."

Retired Utah Judge Ray Uno said he'd also like to see these kinds of events used to work toward restoring Japantown and creating a shopping and cultural district like it was before the Salt Palace was built in the 1960s. Efforts to create an inter-Asian center never materialized, and now plans for a new Chinese market on the site of the former Rocky Point Haunted House have Uno excited that a similar plan might restore Japantown.

In the meantime, the Nihon Matsuri festival serves both to remind Utahns of the long and meaningful role Japanese Americans have played in the region's history, as well as provide a place where karate and anime fans can sport their finest garb.

E-mail: akirk@desnews.com