Thirtieth annual Japanese Sakura Festival to highlight Japanese culture

The Japanese Sakura Festival is themed “celebrate,” in honor of the celebration of both the 30-year anniversary of the festival and 30 years of partnership between Tuscaloosa and Narashino, Japan.


The Japanese Sakura Festival includes traditional Japanese dancing. | Photo courtesy of Capstone International Center

The Japanese Sakura Festival includes traditional Japanese dancing. | Photo courtesy of Capstone International Center

By Elizabeth Elkin
Dateline Alabama Producer

The Japanese Sakura Festival celebrates its 30-year anniversary this weekend. The festival aims to create a better understanding of Japanese culture.

On Saturday, April 9 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Midtown Village, Tuscaloosa will host the thirtieth annual Japanese Sakura Festival.

Megan Wagner, Capstone International Center coordinator, said the theme for the event is “celebrate.” Earlier in the year, the center had a Haiku contest, also themed “celebrate,” in both Japan and Alabama. The winning Haikus will be on display at the festival.

“People sent in these Haikus that are creating these beautiful celebration scenes in your mind about babies being born and birthdays and weddings,” Wagner said. “It’s just really cool.”

In addition to celebrating 30 years of the festival, the theme also refers to celebrating the 30-year relationship between Tuscaloosa and Narashino, Japan.

Tuscaloosa Sister Cities International fosters relationships between Tuscaloosa and three cities: Narashino, Japan, Schorndorf, Germany and Sunyani-Techiman, Ghana.

“The Sakura Festival, from my understanding of it then and now, was started so that local people in Alabama could learn about Japanese culture in a free and inviting environment, and so there could be a mixture of the cultures and overall learning for everybody,” Wagner said.

The festival will include events such as Japanese taiko drumming, a sword and karate demonstration, an Okinawan traditional dance, an Okinawan drum dance and various booths around Midtown. There will be activities for children such as origami, calligraphy, a Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese games.

“People should attend this event so that they can learn about a new culture, so they can learn about Japanese people and their customs, but also because we’re living in a more diverse world, and the more that we can be exposed and we can expose our children to other ways of doing things and other ways of life, this is a great opportunity for that,” Wagner said.

Alise Wenner, a sophomore criminal justice and political science major at The University of Alabama, said that Tuscaloosa is a college town, and people come to broaden their horizons and become invested in something bigger than them. This, she said, is why an event like this is important to a city like Tuscaloosa.

“The biggest thing that we can become a part of is the world, and if we don’t have this kind of opportunity, the great big world seems like a really small place,” Wenner said. “Understanding the perspective from another part of the world really contextualizes our own experiences. You learn that where you grow up and what you do in your life is your whole world, but that it’s only a minuscule part of the human experience.”

Lisa Keyes, executive director of Tuscaloosa Sister Cities International, said the partnership between Tuscaloosa and Narashino is thriving. Every other year, Tuscaloosa sends for an educational and cultural exchange to Narashino, and then Japanese students come to Tuscaloosa.

“They stay with host families,” Keyes said. “We stay with host families in Narashino to really give young people an idea of another culture, to live first hand in someone else’s home, to learn the traditions and the customs, to know them and really to foster friendship and peace and understanding.”

Keyes said she is excited for the festival to showcase a culture that some people may not know a lot about.

“In my experience, just seeing the celebration of all things Japanese in Tuscaloosa and really enlightening young minds and seeing families enjoy the music, the drums, the games and just the atmosphere in general is such a wonderful thing,” she said. “It really expands our horizons.”

Keyes said she also is excited to showcase the Sakura art contest. Art made by students at Tuscaloosa city schools and Narashino schools will be on display at the booths.

The high school exchanges are open to primarily Tuscaloosa city schools, but community delegate exchanges to all sister cities are open to the public, Keyes said, and they welcome anyone who is interested in traveling internationally.

“We love having delegates from all over Tuscaloosa join us in our exchanges,” she said.

Wagner said she’s very excited the festival takes place at a non-UA location.

“It really is open to the public,” Wagner said. “We could do it on campus, but then we’re just reaching out to our community. By doing it at Midtown, we’re able to reach out to so many people and spread UA’s knowledge to the greater Tuscaloosa area, which I think is really unique about this festival.”