Beyond the Blossoms, a Language Barrier Grows

"They know they're in the nation's capital, but they can't see any houses. They keep asking me where Americans live," says Renwick Bivings, 17. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

It is often the tradition in Japan to celebrate the pale-pink arrival of the cherry blossoms by sitting beneath the canopy of a blooming tree with family and friends and pouring some sake. And some beer. And then singing and dancing -- after several more rounds of sake and then more beer, late into the evening.

This is not necessarily how Washingtonians celebrate the blossoms. And in fact, the sake and beer part is very much against National Park Service regulations.

So as more and more Japanese tourists flock to the nation's capital to appreciate the fleeting splendor of cherry trees grown in U.S. soil, organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival are desperate to find ways to communicate the sometimes inelegant clash of American rules and Japanese customs.

They are trawling universities, businesses, embassies, government agencies and even Buddhist temples to find Japanese speakers who can greet the influx of tourists and offer directions and translation, particularly concerning such matters as the District's open-container law.

"More and more Japanese have come to realize this is quite an event. It used to be nothing more than a 10- or 15-second shot of the trees blossoming in Washington on Japanese TV. But now, Japanese tourists are coming to D.C. just for this festival," said John R. Malott, a former U.S. ambassador who heads the Japan-America Society of Washington.

Seeing the blossoms, American-style, during the March 25-April 9 festival is becoming a popular way for the Japanese to visit the United States. Flights from Tokyo are packed this time of year, tour groups promote U.S. blossom tours and one Japanese university near Tokyo even postponed the start of its semester this year because of the Washington festival.

"We have tour brokers calling us to ask if the trees have blossomed. And we're already getting calls from groups who want to come next year for the 95th anniversary of the festival. Anniversaries are very important to the Japanese," said Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Airlines, tour groups and hotels all report increases in the number of visitors from Japan for the festival that celebrates that country's culture and its 1912 gift of thousands of cherry trees to the United States.

All Nippon Airways said bookings for its Tokyo-Dulles route during cherry blossom time have jumped over last year, with 11 percent more passengers in March and 21 percent more flying to Washington in April, airline spokesman Damion R. Martin said.

These visitors arrive here and find their way to the Tidal Basin and the blossoms but then often get lost in the Mall area's tangle of streets, on-ramps and traffic circles. It doesn't get much easier when they knock on the door of the National Park Service's information trailer, only to have a language barrier thwart the park rangers' usually perky personalities, said Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service's National Capital Region.

"Each of the past three years, we've seen an increasing number of Japanese visitors come into the Cherry Blossom Festival Public Information Trailer who speak little to no English," Line said. "We'd like to be able to help them, to have them enjoy a better experience while here."

The National Park Service has about 20 Japanese speakers signed up to help, but it needs dozens more.

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