The National Cherry Blossom Festival and Sakura Matsuri Japanese street festival, held in conjunction in April, will be much more muted and heartfelt this year because of the disaster in Japan, officials of both events said this week.
"We cannot just jump straight into the cherry blossom festival," John R. Malott, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington and a member of the blossom festival board, said this week. "We need to be aware every day of what has happened in Japan."
The Japan-America Society hosts the street festival.
The cherry blossom festival, centered around the Tidal Basin, begins this year on March 26 and runs through April 10. The Sakura Matsuri event is scheduled for April 9 on Pennsylvania Avenue at 12th Street, N.W.
Officials said both festivals are taking pains to make sure there is nothing culturally offensive or insensitive among their events in light of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
"We are going through every single thing that's taking place just to make sure that we don't offend anyone's sensitivities," Malott said. "We're going to review every single video game. ... We just want everything to be appropriate."
"Normally ... our program has a very festive look to it," he said. This year, "it will not be somber, but the design will be very different. We don't want to act like life is going on as normal, because it's not."
Malott said a local group, Michinoko-kai, with links to the Sendai area, near where the quake and tsunami struck, will not be hosting its tent at the street festival this year, nor will the Japan National Tourism Organization.
The Sendai area group usually talks about the culture of the northern part of Japan's main island, called Tohoku, he said. It's an agricultural area known for its rice — "the best rice in Japan, and that rice turns into some of the best sake," Malott said.
This year, the two annual celebrations of Japanese culture and generosity are good opportunities to express solidarity with Japan, the officials said.
The two vacated tents at the street festival, for example, will be given over to fundraising for disaster relief.
As for the blossom festival — which this year marks the 99th anniversary of Japan's gift of the trees to Washington — "the trees actually symbolize renewal, rebirth," said Diana Mayhew, the festival president.
"And now more than ever, again rebuilding for the Japanese," she said. "So the festival is very uniquely poised to help."
Malott added: "If ever there is a time when Americans think about Japan, it's when the trees are blooming.
"From that point of view, the cherry blossom festival this year has a very special meaning for all Americans, because its a chance for us think about Japan and what has happened there and to do something about it," he said.
"The Japanese people, I've never known anyone more resilient than they are, after what they went through in World War II, and they got back up on their feet," he said.
Malott said a portion of the profits from the $5 street festival entrance fee — being charged for the first time this year — will be donated to earthquake relief. In addition, the Japan-America Society will mount "a major on-the-ground fundraiser" the day of the street fest, he said.
"I've already had friends say, 'I'm coming to Sakura Matsuri this year, because of [the tragedy in] Japan. I want to feel closer. I want to show my support.' "