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JSSL brings large-scale Sakura Matsuri back to Willamette, despite planning struggles

Piper Lehr

Contributing Writer

Photo by Kathleen Forrest

On Sat. Apr. 9, Willamette University (WU)’s Japanese Studies Student Leaders (JSSL) club hosted their annual Sakura Matsuri festival on the University Center (UC)’s second floor in Cat Cavern from 1-4 p.m. Sakura Matsuri is a significant cultural festival celebrated by the broader Japanese community across the world, according to Brenda Hernandez (‘24), the club’s president and one of the few lead coordinators of the event. Though JSSL ran into some difficulties with the planning process and the Goudy dinner portion of it fell through, the main in-person event went over smoothly. It featured a variety of creative grab-n-go items that one could partake in, as well as some more involved activities such as a karaoke contest. Overall, Sakura Matsuri provided WU students with a fun, festive, and culturally informative way to spend their afternoon.

When asked to describe Sakura Matsuri and its cultural significance, Hernandez said, “Sakura Matsuri refers to cherry blossom festival.” They further elaborated that the festival is, “just kind of a time to get together and really celebrate the coming of spring.” Japan specifically celebrates the blooming of cherry blossom trees, which are commonly found throughout the country and typically blossom in the springtime. “It’s just very beautiful. And so people would have picnics under the cherry blossoms, and they’d hold cherry blossom viewings.”

Hernandez thinks that this is an important event for WU to celebrate for a variety of reasons. Not only can a numerous amount of cherry blossom trees be found around campus, which easily help set the vibe, but we also have a relationship with Tokyo International University of America (TIUA), and in the past the festival has been beneficial for the American Studies Program (ASP) students from TIUA who were studying abroad and appreciated the little taste of home. Also, they think it is just generally a great way to encourage community bonding. “I know in prior years it’s been a joint event,” they mentioned. “At the capitol there’s also cherry blossoms and I know that cherry blossom viewings are also popular in the [general Salem] community, and so it’s just kind of like bringing everything together and having the Willamette community celebrate it.”

Photo by Kathleen Forrest

On the planning process for this event, Hernandez stated that this is only their second year here at Willamette, so their frame of reference for what the festival would look like going into it was heavily influenced by COVID-19 and its accompanying restrictions. They specifically described getting a bit flustered after the [mask mandate was lifted by the University], since previously Willamette had been [in a quiet period and there was a surge of new cases due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19]. “I kinda had to scramble a bit to re-think and re-organize the process of planning for Sakura Matsuri to include a lot more activities and food. Food is really the thing, because before we weren’t really thinking of having food other than like to-go snacks,” they explained. Additionally, participation to help out with planning for this event was quite low this year. Not only was the vice-president of JSSL studying abroad this semester, by proxy leaving most of the work up to only two people - Hernadez and the treasurer of the club, Gabe Kronisch (‘24) - but it was also difficult to get the other, non-exec members of JSSL on-board. Hernandez wanted to note that, “I think that’s due to just like how it was last year [during COVID-19]…I know just in general, overall, student engagement…for different clubs has decreased.” However, while they don’t blame JSSL members specifically for the lack of help, “it was, in the beginning at least, a bit difficult” to navigate around that hurdle. But thankfully, as it started getting closer to the event, they began receiving more and more help, and they said that they are grateful for it. They particularly wanted to shout out JSSL’s advisor, Miho Fujiwara (who also happens to be the Japanese Department chair), as well as student club members from both the Digital Learning Studio (DLS) and the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) of which JSSL falls under. They also mentioned in a follow-up email that the Native and Indigenous Student Union (NISU) “really came through and helped me out a bunch during the event!”

Goudy Commons did not serve any Japanese-inspired foods on Friday, Apr. 8 as initially advertised on the promotional posters. According to Hernandez, the dinner, which was slated to occur the night before the event, was intended to “get [Sakura Matsuri] in people’s minds.” However, nothing was listed for Sakura Matsuri on the 8th when Hernandez checked the menu online. They said that it was “disheartening” to figure this out, especially considering the substantial amount of planning efforts that went on behind-the-scenes. This includes the OMA reaching out to Goudy in the fall to both request and inform them of the dinner, JSSL reaching out during winter break with the menu as well as hosting a Zoom meeting with Bon Appetit staff over spring break to discuss things more in-detail, and finally Hernandez sending a follow-up email about a week or two before the event just to ensure that everything was in order, to which, “they sent me confirmation.” When first reached out to over email, Micah Cavolo, director of dining services at Goudy, stated that he could not recall receiving any requests for a Sakura Matsuri pre-dinner, and in a later email confirmed that his team also does not recall any such request. Cavalo further stated that he thinks there was a miscommunication of expectations between Goudy and JSSL.

Hernandez was not fully confident that Goudy would pull through with the catering for the event itself after discovering this, though they remained hopeful. However, Bon Appetit did end up offering food services for JSSL’s main, in-person Sakura Matsuri festival. Provided off to the left-hand side of the room inside Cat Cavern were a variety of Japanese-inspired food items one could eat, including Onigiri (rice balls), Mitsurashi Dango (skewered dumplings), frozen chocolate bananas for dessert and much more, as well as iced tea to drink.

Photo by Kathleen Forrest

Besides the food, when one first walked up to the second floor of the UC, they were immediately greeted by a table that held raffle tickets and were handed three of them by a volunteer. When one walked in, they had the option to put their raffle tickets in a number of jars or bags hanging out towards the center of the room in order to win a variety of prizes, including Japanese-decorated stationery, plushies, a bonsai kit, and more. Also in the center, there were two different types of goodie bags offered, which were filled with an array of Japanese candy, snacks and cute little items such as food erasers. Off to the right-hand side, there were several grab-n-go style creative activities that one could partake in, including origami, blank uchiwa fans that people could decorate with markers and other provided coloring instruments, as well as koinobori (a make-your-own carp streamer activity).

People were allowed to, in Hernandez’s words at the event, “go ham” with the food and activities for the first hour and a half or so. Then, at around 2:37 p.m., a karaoke contest began. People sang in a variety of different languages, especially Japanese and English. Finally, the event ended with the announcement of winners from both the karaoke contest and the raffle, and people headed out around 4 p.m.

Hernandez said that their family doesn’t typically celebrate Sakura Matsuri, though they were fortunate enough to be able to study abroad for a year in Japan during high school and have fond memories of celebrating the festival in its origin country. “I went and had a picnic with my host family, and there was a festival. People were dressed up and there were booths with activities and food, and I remember the little fireworks, the little, like, sticks. So that’s kind of my experience with that. It reminds me of when I was in Japan with my friends and my host family.”

Photo by Kathleen Forrest

When asked if there was anything else they wanted people to know about the festival, Hernandez wanted to bring campus’s attention back to its history and importance at Willamette. “Sakura Matsuri has a long tradition here on campus, again with the relationship with TIU[A]. And so I’m excited to bring it back to a similar scale that it was in prior years.” On JSSL itself, they said: “JSSL is a Japanese culture and language club, just a place for people to gather and be a community.” They encouraged people to come to JSSL club meetings every Friday from 5:15-6:15 p.m. in the DLS (Ford 101). They also mentioned that they are, “looking for next year’s exec, so if people are interested, please reach out to me.” In the same follow-up email, they wanted to emphasize: “JSSL’s future can be anything. There are many different avenues that future execs can take in running the club.”

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