Yutaka and Tazue Sasaki have been dedicating themselves to helping Japanese culture flourish in the Pacific Northwest for decades. The couple has been behind the long-running Cherry Blossom & Japanese Culture Festival, held this weekend at the Fisher Pavilion next to the Space Needle. The free festival, part of the Seattle Center’s Festal series today, began after Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki gave Seattle 1,000 cherry trees in honor of the US’s bicentennial in 1976. We asked Yutaka and Tazue to stop by our office to chat about the upcoming festival and their work to keep it vibrant. Excerpts from the conversation follow.
Interviewed by Bruce Rutledge
Your festival always has a broad range of activities. Can you tell us about your approach?
Yutaka: When introducing Japanese culture, the themes are very broad. We started wide but with the basics, very shallow. But after so many years, people are getting more knowledgeable and the general public is getting exposed to more Japanese culture. In the last 10 years or so, our presentations have to be much deeper. They are still wide, but not shallow. If you do a display of Japanese ceramics or tea ceremony, there are always experts in the crowd. We have to meet the expectations of those people. Even the kids coming to the origami section can do better origami than I do! So we have to give them more. You can do origami, but do you know how origami started in the Heian Period?
Also, we never have a “do not touch” sign. Get your hands on things. At a ceramics display, you can look at the Japanese tea bowl, but the experts want to hold it.
Tazue: We are only a three-day event, and we have a so-called grassroots introduction of Japanese culture. It’s rather impossible to get everything set. We do what we can.
Yutaka: When we started, there were only a few Japanese restaurants in the ID. Today, we have about 250 Japanese restaurants in Seattle, and more than 800 in King County. Well, so-called Japanese restaurants.
Why did you choose Seattle Center?
Yutaka: The biggest thing is that Seattle Center is very inclusive, which means it’s open to everybody. We moved there in 1979 because the third festival in Seward Park in 1978 was rained out. You know, it’s interesting that our festival was not started by the Japanese community. It was former mayor Wes Uhlman. When the cherry trees were donated by the Japanese government, Mr. Miki actually visited. It was 1975. During the first presentation of the cherry trees, Mr. Miki presented one to Wes Uhlman. He was the one who asked if we could do something with the Japanese community’s help to thank the Japanese government. He presented the idea to the Japan-America Society members. That group hosted the festival until 1982, when the festival became independent and registered as a nonprofit.
When did you two get involved?
Yutaka: We joined in 1979 when it moved to Seattle Center. Richard McKinnon of the University of Washington was the one who invited Tazue. She was a traditional Japanese dance teacher, and he asked if she could help.
You make an effort to be innovative each year. This year you have rice-server table tennis and the Hashilympics (chopsticks competitions). How do you come up with those events?
Yutaka: We make a point of coming up with different ideas. In 1996, the 100th anniversary of relations between Japan and the Port of Seattle, the Miike Maru came here. Tazue came up with the idea of making a 100-foot makizushi. She came up with the idea, but we had no idea how to do it logistically! We got 80 people to help us, and we registered in the Guinness Book of World Records. Since then, the record has been broken, broken, broken. Right now, two California universities are competing for the record. Their sushi is more than a mile long!
Tazue: It’s always good to start something.
Yutaka: We’ve done many Guinness records. We had one for making the world’s tiniest kite. It had to fly too. It couldn’t just be small. That record has not been broken. We did that kind of thing for about five years in a row.
How did you two meet?
Yutaka: I knew about her. One of the reasons I came over from Japan is that my older sister married a Nisei and moved here in 1954, after the Korean War. My sister had three kids, and the youngest was a girl. She was a dance student of Tazue’s. I had an attitude. You know, I didn’t think an American could understand Japanese dance. That was my prejudice. I grew up in shitamachi (the area around Asakusa in Tokyo), so I grew up with traditional Japanese music and performances. I should have known that she had one of the best teachers Kineya Eizo III and Fujima Fujiko, Living National Treasure of japan.
Tazue, what did you know about him?
Tazue: Nothing. (Yutaka laughs.) I assisted my dance teacher during my high school days. I didn’t have a certificate or anything.
Yutaka, when did you come to the US?
Yutaka: In the 1960s. I liked airplanes, and I studied at an aviation high school. My family was very poor so I couldn’t afford to go to the next two years of school. I started working in shipbuilding at IHI, Ishikawajima Harima Heavy Industries. I was translating American blueprints. I felt that the Japanese should be making their own airplanes, and I wanted to study aviation more. I thought about going to Canada. This was 1968, and Boeing was working on the SST. They needed a lot of engineers to do that. Most of them came to Renton. In 1968, I was coming in with a work permit and a Green Card. But they had a quota; the American government set a cap on the number of Japanese people. I missed the quota and was told I had to wait a year. I waited a year and came in 1969. That was the year of Boeing’s biggest layoff. They laid off 30,000 people. The American government had cancelled the SST program. So all of a sudden, they have too many engineers. Microsoft wasn’t around then. Boeing was the biggest game in town.
My brother-in-law recommended that I study English in the meantime. That’s where I met Shiro-san and Ritsuko-san (Kashiba), at the ESL class. But we just talked in Japanese and didn’t study much! I asked my counselor if I could take an engineering class. In 1972, I was hired by Boeing. I was the first Japanese national with full employment at Boeing.
What are the highlights for this year’s festival?
Yutaka: The Tokyo Olympics are coming. We will have many Olympics-related activities and exhibitions this year. For the last 10 years or so, we’ve tried to mix in hapa culture. You should be proud of what you inherit and find your own identity. My thinking is that fighting makes you the loser and doesn’t change anything. But let’s make people understand that we are the same. Make people willing to step in and stand beside you. That’s our basic philosophy when presenting Japanese culture.
History of Seattle Cherry Blossom & Japanese Cultural Festival
Yutaka & Tazue Sasaki have been volunteering at the Seattle Cherry Blossom & Cultural Festival since 1979 and essentially running the show for decades. Yutaka is a former Boeing engineer (the first full-time Japanese national employee) and graphic designer from the heart of Tokyo, a true Edokko. He came to the US in 1969. Tazue is a native of Seattle and second generation Japanese who learned and later taught classical dance. She worked at a trading company for many years, when very few women were in that line of work.