Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend connects Seattleites with their Japanese Roots

Michaela Kusumi and her sister practice Odori dancing (Photo by Maida Suljevic)

In 1912, Japan gave the United States a gift of 3,020 cherry blossom trees to represent the budding friendship between the two nations. In the century since, the relationship has seen some rocky times, punctuated by World War II and the internment of Japanese-Americans. But the Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival, coming to the Seattle Center this weekend, is evidence of the lasting and fruitful connection between Japan and Seattle.

Michaela Kusumi, a senior at the University of Washington, is symbolic of the strength of that connection. She’s been studying the shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument, and Odori, a classical dance, under her mentor, Tazue Sasaki for the last five years. Two or three times a week, Kusumi comes to Sasaki’s house to practice, and this week she is intensely preparing for the rapidly approaching festival.

“I started performing when I was nine,” said Kusumi, wearing a soft pink kimono wrapped with a yellow sash during her practice session last Saturday. “It was a way for me to connect with my Japanese culture.”

Kusumi grew up in Renton, Washington, but moved after high school to Rainier Beach. She considers herself a third or fourth generation Japanese-American. “We don’t speak Japanese at my house,” she said.

Nonetheless, Kusumi has spent most of her life finding ways to stay in touch with the Japanese community. She volunteered at the Keiro Nursing Home, a place of residence for many of Seattle’s elderly Japanese, and works at the International District Summer Festival.

Japan cherry blossom
Cherry blossoms surround Japan's Himeji Castle (photo by Miya.m via Wikipedia)

Kusumi has performed at the Cherry Blossom Festival for over half of her life, so she doesn’t get nervous before the show anymore. “If I do get nervous, the butterflies disappear immediately,” she said.

This year at the festival, Kusumi is performing Kokaji, a Japanese epic song, on the shamisen, and dancing the Hanami Odori and Hana Eubuki dances.

“I love how the dances tell a story using the movement of my own body and how each one is unique,” she said.

Kusumi believes the festival has paramount importance to the community. “As a diverse country, we should look into the cultures that make up this country,” she said. “[At the festival,] you see people who are Japanese American, but you may also see people who are Japanese fanatics like Sakura-Con fans. I’ve had friends from different ethnicities come check it out.”

More on this year’s Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival:

The Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival is coming up this weekend, April 13 to 15, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Center House, Fisher Pavilion and Seattle Center Pavilion.

Kusumi will perform on both Saturday and Sunday. During the opening ceremony on Friday night, former Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki will preside over a special planting ceremony to celebrate the centennial of the 1912 plantings

The festival will also include updates on the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s coast in 2011, readings commemorating the 70th anniversary of Japanese internment during World War II, and a performance from Japanese harpist Tomoko Sugawara along with many other performances and showcases.

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