About the Author: Mike Chadwick serves as Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Consulate Fukuoka in Japan.
July 4, America's Independence Day, falls in the middle of Fukuoka's Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival, the city's premiere celebration, which runs July 1-15. Yamakasa, an annual event in this great western Japanese city for over 700 years, is emblematic of both the rich cultural heritage of Japan and the warmth and exuberance of Fukuokans. To take advantage of this synchronicity, and to highlight our shared values and the cultural distinctiveness of the United States and Japan, American Consulate Fukuoka decided to bring a Yamakasa theme to this year's Independence Day reception, which we held on June 30.
Yamakasa is colorful, joyous and raucous, much like celebrations of July 4 in the United States. On the last day of the festival, seven teams of men and kids (no adult women allowed) race while carrying elaborate portable shrines weighing over a ton each on a five-kilometer course through the heart of the city at dawn. No sedate parade here! Hundreds of thousands of spectators cheer on the loincloth- and happi-coat clad runners and throw buckets of water to cool them in the summer heat. This year, Management & Consular Officer Jay Avecilla is racing for the Ebisu Nagara team, but he refused to allow us to post a photo of him in his loincloth.
Although no water was thrown at our Independence Day reception, we did have many leaders of the Yamakasa festivities among the more than 300 guests in attendance. Principal Officer Margot Carrington emphasized in her greeting just how important festivals and traditions such as Yamakasa and July 4 are in uniting communities and showcasing our vibrant cultures -- not to mention having fun! Fukuoka Governor Wataru Aso linked our Independence Day celebration, bringing together American and Japanese customs, to the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, based on shared values and mutual respect. Secretary Clinton's video greeting, subtitled in Japanese, spoke to similar themes of cooperation, in saying "no nation can meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century alone -- all of us have to take responsibility and work together."
After Vice-Mayor Tsurukawa of Fukuoka City gave the kampai toast, guests enjoyed Noh Otsuzumi drums performed by Mr. Shonosuke Okura, and Ms. Nana Katsuki, an award-winning singer who hails from Fukuoka, sang "Hakata Yamakasa," a foot-stomping song of the festival (Hakata Ward, in the eastern part of the city, is where the Yamakasa race takes place).
By the bye, Yamakasa participants traditionally refrain from eating cucumbers during the Festival (the cross-section of a cucumber is said to resemble the symbol of Gion-sama, the patron deity of Yamakasa), so the Consulate was very careful to offer up a cucumber-free menu for the reception. We featured American Independence Day staples, including hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza along with local BBQ pork, fish and rice dishes, typical fare for a muggy summer night in Fukuoka.
The Nakasu Nagare Yamakasa team, joined by Jay Avecilla and standing next to a three-meter ice sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, closed the event by singing "Hakata Iwaimedeta" (Hakata Celebrates) and leading all 300 guests in ceremonial "Hakata Te-Ippon" rhythmic clapping. "Yo!" (clap, clap) "Mahitotsu!" (clap, clap) "I-o-ute, san do!" (clap clap, clap). I think that any party which ends in applause is a success, so our Independence-Yamakasa Day certainly qualified. We left with a little more understanding of each other's customs and traditions, and with plans to be out at dawn on July 15, cheering on our Yamakasa friends as they sprint through the streets of this beautiful city.
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