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With spring in full bloom, a look at the true meaning of o-hanami.

By Rob Buscher, Contributor

There are few occasions that showcase the wide-ranging spectrum of Japanese culture as effectively as the American cherry blossom festival, but as more contemporary pop culture seeps into these celebrations, are the traditional elements at risk of being lost?

A Shinto purification ritual at Sakura Sunday. (Photo: Rob Buscher)

If you have never been to an o-hanami (flower viewing) in Japan, the experience is quite different from the manner in which it is typically celebrated in the U.S. Although there are designated areas in castle gardens and other parks that are known for their sakura, the celebrations are mainly held on an individual basis by groups of friends or colleagues who bring their own picnic supplies and entertainment. There are rarely scheduled performances, and the event consists mainly of conversation and community building within each group of friends over food and sake.

It makes sense in the American context, where there are less opportunities to celebrate Japanese culture, for the tradition to morph into a programmed festival format. However, in recent years, there has been a growing number of non-Japanese participants whose primary motivation for attending seems to be actively performing their fandom of contemporary Japanese culture through cosplay. Short for “costume play,” cosplay is the practice of dressing like the characters from anime, manga or video games in an expression of fandom that usually involves elaborate costumes, sometimes done in competition.

A Sakura Sunday cosplay contestant. (Photo: Courtesy of Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia)

While this practice also originates in Japan, it is rarely seen outside the context of anime conventions or other fan events and would never be done at an o-hanami or other traditional festival. This would suggest that an increasing number of these American attendees are unaware of the original context of these celebrations.

There is nothing wrong with folks celebrating their appreciation of anime and other Japanese pop cultural commodities. If anything, it is a sign that Japanese-ness is closer than ever to being accepted within mainstream American society. However, in centering the performative aspects of fandom within the context of a Japanese cultural celebration, this effectively de-emphasizes the spiritual and community significance of o-hanami.

At its core, these viewing parties are meant to appreciate the ephemeral beauty of sakura as a symbol of the fleeting nature of life, bringing together individuals who care about each other to celebrate their shared connection and joy of human existence.

Bringing cosplay into these spaces has the potential to lessen the overall experience for those engaging with its more traditional aspects. It could be argued that the cosplayers are experiencing community in their own manner, but where do we draw the line? Is it appropriate to come dressed as your favorite anime character to the obon, where most of the Japanese and Japanese American attendees are there to remember the spirits of their departed ancestors?

Cultural movements usually develop organically, but to a large extent, this trend of Japanese pop culture becoming mainstream can be traced to the Kankocho (Japan Tourism Agency) and Bunkacho (Ministry of Culture), who have embraced cultural commodities such as anime, manga, video games and idol groups as key elements of Japan’s brand marketing over the last two decades – investing heavily to ensure that these cultural products are integrated into overseas markets.

In the aftermath of the 1990 stock market crash and subsequent decades of economic stagnation, Japan has struggled to maintain its relevance in the global marketplace. While automobiles and consumer electronics are still their chief exports, cultural products have contributed a significant amount to the Japanese export economy since the 1990s, which in turn has encouraged more overseas tourists to spend money traveling in Japan.

Noticing this trend, the Kankocho adopted “Cool Japan” as its unofficial tourism slogan after American journalist Douglas McGray coined the phrase “Gross National Cool” in his 2002 article of the same title to describe the economic powerhouse of Japan’s soft power cultural exports.

Now throughout the last decade and a half, these agencies have fully integrated contemporary pop culture within Japan’s national brand, culminating in the creation of the Cool Japan Fund in 2013, a public-private partnership that is endowed with nearly $1 billion to fund projects well into the next decade in order to disseminate Japanese culture abroad.

A Nihon Buyo performance at Sakura Sunday. (Photo: Courtesy of Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia)

If the Japanese government views American cherry blossom festivals primarily as vehicles for increasing engagement with overseas audiences who are current or potential consumers of Cool Japan cultural exports, the growing presence of cosplayers is actually a sign that their campaign is working.

However, there is a good chance many have never considered what the long-term impact might be. If the central purpose of these events becomes sharing the culture of Japan with non-Japanese, will Japanese and Japanese Americans still attend – and how authentic can a cultural festival be without individuals from that culture participating?

Perhaps this shortsightedness comes from the contradictory nature of contemporary urban Japan. In Japan, new and traditional culture coexists in a way that is difficult to comprehend unless you have witnessed it for yourself.

Massive skyscrapers and transportation infrastructure encapsulate the distant horizon of ancient temples. Women in kimono shop for the latest Western-inspired trends in department stores modeled after the New York and Parisian fashion districts. Monks use cell phones. Perhaps from this context it doesn’t seem like the integration of cosplay and other new Japan cultural products in a traditional space should matter.

But Japanese people understand the nuance and variety of their own culture in a way that is inconceivable to American anime fans mimicking the behavior of their Japanese counterparts. Likewise, Japanese Americans may have trouble reconciling contemporary culture from their ancestral home in the context of a traditional community space.

As Japanese Americans, sometimes it feels like we missed a memo that after decades of purposely distancing ourselves from the culture of origin, it is now cool to celebrate it. For anyone old enough to remember a time when there was a negative stigma to Japanese-ness, it is a strange phenomenon indeed to see the culture celebrated by non-Japanese to this extent.

It is also slightly unsettling how foreign this all seems. It makes sense since Japanese culture has been in a constant state of flux since our ancestors immigrated.

Having lived and studied in Japan from 2008-10, it became abundantly clear that the version of Japan I had grown up hearing about no longer existed. Even in the 1990s when my hibaachan took her last trip to Japan, it was virtually unrecognizable from the country she left in the early Showa era.

The shifting nature of American cherry blossom festivals are indicative of a larger disconnect between different communities and their understanding of Japan. They are certainly not the cause but are contributing to competing visions of Japan — fueled by Western cultural consumption and reinforced by the Japanese state.

Many consumers of Cool Japan pop culture only see part of the picture, with traditional aspects perhaps being lost in translation through lack of cultural fluency required to understand the reference points that connect contemporary Japan to its past.

Inversely, Japanese Americans have our own vision of Japan colored by nostalgia and a longing for something that we could not have. Maybe that Japan is gone, or maybe it only ever existed in the rose-tinted glasses of our collective memory.

Rob Buscher is a member of the Philadelphia JACL board of directors.