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D.C.’s cherry blossom, Japanese street fests muted this year after earthquake

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Two groups have withdrawn from the annual Sakura Matsuri street festival next month because of last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Japan-America Society said this week.

And the Japanese street festival and the National Cherry Blossom Festival, held in conjunction, will be much more muted and heartfelt because of the disaster, officials for both events said.

“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 Tuesday. “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, runs March 26 through April 10. The Sakura Matsuri event is April 9 at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Officials said both festivals are taking pains to make sure nothing among their events is culturally offensive or insensitive in light of the March 11 earthquake.

“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 added. 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 Michinoko-kai, a local group with links to the Sendai area, the population center nearest the epicenter of the quake, will not host its tent at the street festival, nor will the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Michinoko-kai usually talks about the culture of Tohoku, the northern part of Japan’s largest island, Malott said. It is an agricultural area known for its rice — “the best rice in Japan, and that rice turns into some of the best sake,” he said.

This year, officials said, the celebrations of Japanese culture and generosity will be opportunities to express solidarity with the country. The two vacated tents at the street festival, for example, will be used to raise funds for disaster relief.

As for the blossom festival — this year marks the 99th anniversary of Japan’s gift of the trees to Washington — “the trees actually symbolize renewal, rebirth,” said Diana Mayhew, president of the festival.

“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 it’s 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.”

Cherry Blossom Festival organizers announced Thursday that a walk to remember victims of the earthquake will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 24. It will begin south of the Washington Monument, near the Sylvan Theater, and follow a route along the Tidal Basin.

Malott said a portion of 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” on the day of the street festival, he said.

He added: “I’ve already had friends say, ‘I’m coming to Sakura Matsuri this year because of Japan. I want to feel closer. I want to show my support.’ ”

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