Monday, September 27, 2004

Nihongo: a Report from Japanfest

I MUST ADMIT THAT before I came across the listing in the Week at a Glance section of this week's Creative Loafing, I had no idea Atlanta's Japanfest even existed.

As Atlanta has become more colorful in its growth over the last few decades, many of the newer hues have begun staging annual festivals proudly pronouncing their presence in the city: the dragoned Chinese New Years Festival in February, the irie Caribbean Festival in May, the saucy Latin American Festival in September. But a Japanese festival?

According to the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Atlanta barely had enough Japanese residents to have a sushi sampling, much less to stage a two-day festival. I figured there'd be a karate demonstration, maybe a viewing of an anime flick. Then, I visited the websiste and browsed the schedule of events. Boy was I wrong.

Taiko drumming, Japanese archery, a Bonsai exhibit, Sumo wrestling, Zen meditation, lantern-making, Judo, Samurai swordsmanship, Okinawan dance, a contemporary Japanese pop singer, a mini operetta, a tea ceremony, and on and on. Now I was really intrigued.

You can see Atlanta's Chinese-American presence in red Mandarin signs along Buford Hwy, smell the Carribean presence wafting like ganja through Memorial Drive and the West End, hear the r-rolling Latino presence... well, everywhere. Yet, the Chinese-, Carribean-, and Latin-American festivals approached nothing of Japanfest's scope as far as cultural offerings went.

If there are barely 4000 Japanese nationals in Atlanta, then how and why in the world should there be such an elaborate festival? And who was attending? And more importantly, where was all of the talent coming from? If they were all flying in from Tokyo, how could the ticket price be only five dollars? It didn't add up.

So, on Saturday morning, I set out to visit Stone Mountain Park for the 7th annual Japanfest to get to the bottom of it for myself.


"Can't they take some of those flags down?" _a__i_ asked as we passed yet another Rebel flag, approaching the Stone Mountain gate.

"As soon as they take those three Confederate generals off the side of the mountain," I said.

Prior to this point, I had not considered the Confederate symbolism of Stone Mountain and how it related to this festival. And I didn't really want to think about it either. But Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson's giant faces stonily staring out 400 ft. above us like gods made it awfully hard to forget.

Japan, I chanted to myself, Japan.


Inside the festival, in a semicircle to the left, forty or fifty food vendors posted colorful sans-serif signs advertising COTTON CANDY or FUNNEL CAKES or LEMONADE or HOT DOGS or BEER; and a crowd of easily 5,000 people milled about - elderly and children; middle-aged and adolescents; Whites, Latinos, Asians, Blacks. If I didn't know any better, I'd have thought I wandered onto the set of a poorly-plotted B-movie: We are the World Meets Burn on the Cross. I double-checked my program to make sure I was at the right event.

To my relief, directly ahead and off to the right, were a dozen or so tents and stages, where I assumed we would find something Japanese about Japanfest.

An elderly Japanese man with brown, smiling eyes enthralled a crowd with graceful sleights of hand: fashioning an intricate dragon out of a golfball of wax, slicing a thick stack of paper cleanly into fluttering squares with a paper knife, balancing a spinning top on the tip of his samurai sword. We oohed; we ahhed; we were in his palm. He was a master showman.

He closed his set with what looked like a Japanese version of Ring-Around-the-Rosey. Summoning four, five, six eager children from the audience of various ethnicities, he handed each a flag of a different nation. And without words, he urged them into a circle, parading round and round him until there were ten. Then, he did something I find hard to explain.

In the center of the circle, on a post next to him hung what seemed a simple lantern. Dangling from it, a long string. The showman took the top he'd used in a previous trick and somehow spun it up... up... up the string and into the lantern, where it popped!

Then, the lantern bloomed - or rather unfolded in various stages like a fireworks display in paper and wood - until a colorful banner billowed out that read, Peace on Earth. Then, he had us all repeat after him, Peace on Earth, Peace on Earth... But I wondered if he, too, could feel Stonewall Jackson's eyes.

I must say that I wasn't feeling very peaceful.


Next, we checked out Sumo wrestling! I was pretty excited. I'd never seen a real live Sumo wrestler before.

And I still haven't. When we got to that stage, there stood a very un-Japanese-looking man named Packy, wearing a silk robe that kept flapping in the breeze. It made me nervous.

"You see this here? This is called a mawashi," he said as he held the loin cloth up for all to see. "This is what traditional Sumo wrestlers wear. And this is what I have on under this robe."

Oh god, I thought. I was glad I hadn't eaten lunch yet.

"I asked and I asked and I asked," he continued, "but I couldn't get any of my friends to agree to stand on stage and wrestle me in one of these. But my friend John, here, came through. Everybody give John a hand."

Double oh god, I thought. There was a half-splattering of whistles and applause.

"I'm gonna count to three. One..."






They both dropped their robes, and I was blinded by avalanches of white a$$!


A whistle.

A couple of claps.

It didn't help that where we were seated, we had to stare at their backs. I couldn't watch.

Packy then rambled for what felt like an hour, but was probably 10 minutes. It turned out he was president of the Georgia Sumo Association and that his wife was in the audience. Aside from that, I can't really tell you what he was saying. What I do know is what he didn't say: That is, why we couldn't see a real Japanese Sumo wrestler.

I started looking at trees, the sky; tapped my foot. If I couldn't see Sumo, I at least wanted to see some wrasslin!

When Packy, the nearly-nude, very full-grown adult, summoned all of the little children in the audience to come closer to him for warm-up exercises, I decided I'd had enough.

" _a__i_," I said. "Uh.... let's go check out something else.


That something else wound up being kyudo, or Japanese archery, which we watched for about 15 minutes and witnessed all of two actual shots.

I didn't realize how long it took an archer to aim and pull. Actually, it gave me a new appreciation for the sport. But something about the Caucasian commentator, telling us the history of kyudo as the Japanese archer mutely performed, reminded me of Western colonialism.

Colonialism \co*lo"ni*al*ism\, n.: a system in which a nation claims sovereignty over territory and people outside its own boundaries, often to facilitate economic domination over their resources, labor, and often markets. The term also refers to a set of beliefs used to legitimize or promote this system, especially the belief that the values of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized.

But that could just be the air around Stone Mountain.


We wandered past a Japanese-free martial arts demonstration en route to our final stop, Matsuri-za, a 4-member troupe of Taiko drummers, who actually were from Japan, who actually were something to write home about. Showcasing what is a 2000 year-old tradition in the Land of the Rising Sun, choreographed and charismatic, they moved through an engaging half-hour set - pounding the upright drums, beating the flat drums, tapping the sides; moving their bodies in ways to amplify the percussion. From the warlike to the jazzy to the celebratory, as much as it was music, it was dance. And along the way, they even taught us to speak some Japanese: I learned how to count.


I left Japanfest feeling uneasy, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Except that on the way out, Stone Mountain's Rebel flags seemed even more noticeable than they had been coming in.

But at least now, I could count them in Japanese!

Ich.. nee... sun...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It makes me want to perhaps be on the planning committee for next year’s Japanfest; I have a few suggestions. Lets start with the word “authentic” and then build from there.