Soft Sōran Bushi music filters through the pattering of rain on the stones and boulders of Clark’s Japanese Friendship Garden. Five hooded figures move in sync, focused on one another and the energetic melody.
The yosakoi dancers glance toward the middle where their leader performs the fluid movements, symbolic of fishermen hard at work, with confidence.
As the waving, snapping and stomping of hands and legs ends with the music, the group laughs briefly. After sharing their missteps and exchanging wishes of good luck, they restart the music, looking again toward the center and one another for synchronicity.
These five non-Japanese individuals — Wess Marks, Bobbi Swingley, Noelle Morse, Jennifer Rauch and Eden Walker — are the leaders of Clark’s Japanese Cultural Club. Even when practicing their yosakoi dance for the Clark’s 10th annual Sakura Festival, their dedication to learning Japanese culture is clear.
With 100 shirofugen cherry trees, 18 Japanese representatives, seven guest speakers, five musical performances and one 21-year-old sister city partnership, the Sakura Festival also honors Japanese culture and friendship by bringing it to the forefront.
The ceremony began at 1 p.m. on April 21 under the sakura trees to the music of koto player Yukiko Vossen, guitarist Peter Zisa and singers Tomoko Parsons, Sachiko Mizunoya and Maki Tolley.
President Bob Knight and host of the ceremony, commenced the ceremony thanking all involved in the establishment of the trees, including former Vancouver Mayor Bruce Hagensen and President of America Kotobuki Electronics Inc. John Kageyama.
“The sakuras signal new hope, new beginnings and the joyful arrival of spring for Clark students,” Knight said.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt also remarked the sakuras’ significance. “Since the trees bloom at the beginning of spring quarter, they show students the brilliant new possibilities.”
John Kageyama, who gifted Clark with 100 shirofugen cherry trees in honor of Washington’s 100th anniversary, was pleased with Knight and his “group of people taking good care of the trees.”
Knight dedicated a bench to Kageyama located at the south end of the Japanese Friendship Garden and also announced that an anonymous organization donated $1,000 to initiate a Clark College scholarship in honor of Kageyama.
After being presented with his bench, Kageyama joked about charging people to sit on it to fundraise for the scholarship.
Hagensen and Leavitt said Vancouver “receives great investments from the Japanese corporate infrastructure,” including SEH America and Kyocera.
Michelle Golder, special projects & activity manager, said the sakura trees are part of an effort to make the campus more beautiful. “Having the trees and the Japanese Garden, all of that has stemmed from this friendship.”
Significant portions of Clark’s main campus are continuously dedicated to Japanese culture. In 2010, Dr. Chihiro Kanagawa, CEO of Shin-Etsu Chemical Co., the parent company of SEH, financed the Japanese friendship garden construction.
Per Kageyama’s request, the garden was dedicated to former Vancouver mayor Royce E. Pollard.
Kanagawa also created a scholarship for Japanese international students called the Dr. Kanagawa Japanese Friendship Scholarship, which pays for full tuition. Recipient of the scholarship and a native of Fukushima, Japan, Yuki Kimura will complete her English language studies this Spring. She will return to Japan to pursue business administration at Takushoku University.
Clark’s Women’s Chorale Ensemble performed the annual song “Sakura Matsuri.”
“‘Sakura Matsuri’ sounds sad,” said April Duvic, the choir director. “But the words themselves are celebrating the beauty of the flowers and the joy of this life that we have and not taking it for granted. They sing it with that same intention.”
The choir then performed “Blessing of Cranes,” which is based on the true story of a girl who folded 1300 paper cranes for her friend who had developed leukemia from radiation in Hiroshima.
After the choir closed the ceremony, all attendees walked up the winding path across campus to the Gaiser Student Center where interactive displays of Japanese tradition and art were displayed.
Women tried on kimonos while others attempted calligraphy and origami. Calligraphy and art by children of the Satonishi Nursing School and seniors of the Hidamari Nursing Home were featured.
Eleven-year-old Yuika and her mother Sachiko Mizunoya began the festival singing a Japanese folk song that honored the duo’s hometown Fukushima.
The Japanese Cultural Club performed their yosakoi to Sōran Bushi, a sea shanty for fisherman. They used choreography passed down from their first Sakura Festival performance in 2014.
The audience appreciated the multigenerational Portland Taiko Drum Group who performed three songs full of shouts, sweat and big smiles.
In October 1995, Hagensen and then Joyo Mayor Senji Imamichi signed the sister-city agreement that formalized the growing friendship. Three hundred students and community members participated in spreading mulch around the donated cherry trees, according to Clark’s former newsletter “Run of the Mill.” This was also the same year Leavitt was a freshman at Clark.
Former Washington Governor Booth Gardner joined Hagensen and Kageyama in dedicating and planting the first tree. He also signed the “Learning by Choice” bill, which enacted the Running Start program.
Not only do these blossoms celebrate Vancouver’s international friendship but also the progressive educational opportunities offered to local youth.