Seven Goodwill Ambassadors will represent Japanese-American relations at the Cherry Blossom Festival next week - including three AU students.
The Cherry Blossom Festival is a series of festivities celebrating the friendship between the United States and Japan with the blooming of the blossoms and the arrival of spring at the Tidal Basin.
As representatives of the festival, the students will help out at events, answer questions from visitors and speak to tourists about the meaning of the festival.
Goodwill Ambassadors represent the festival by interacting with visitors and connecting the cultures of Japan and the United States, according to the Cherry Blossom Festival’s Web site.
Natalie Linton, one of the three Goodwill Ambassadors from AU, is a sophomore in the School of International Service. She speaks Japanese, which she taught herself in high school and pursued in college by taking classes. She plans to study abroad in Japan for her junior and senior years. As a Goodwill Ambassador, her job is to promote cultural awareness and friendship between the United States and Japan. The Cherry Blossom Festival committee selects its ambassadors if they have gone to or plan to go to Japan and have an interest in the culture. Japanese language proficiency is not required, but helps, according to Linton.
“I had to apply; basically went online, downloaded the application, wrote a one-page essay and got a teacher nomination,” she said. “Then they interviewed us and selected us.”
Linton will work at various events during the two-week festival, including the Kite Festival during the duration of the Cherry Blossom Festival. At this event, Linton will help children create kites that are unique to Japan.
“I’m going to work at the food fair and teach kids how to make koi nobori, which are flying koi kites,” she said.
Linton said she is looking forward to meeting people at the festival. She said she is excited about the networking opportunities that present themselves at such events. While Linton is still unsure about her career goals, she said she thinks they could be related to East Asia.
“I’m just going to take classes, graduate and see where my interests take me,” she said. “That might be to East Asia, or it might be here representing East Asia.”
Andrew Robinson, a senior in SIS, is another one of the Goodwill ambassadors from AU. He studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo last year, and has taken Japanese for three years. His interests in Japan took off when he volunteered at a Japanese Street Festival during his freshman year in college.
Robinson experienced the festivities in Japan as the cherry blossoms bloomed there last year, and said he hopes to have a great time in D.C. as well.
“Cherry Blossoms are a very big deal in Japan, and I want to transfer some of that excitement and enthusiasm they have about it there over to D.C.,” he said. “There are cherry blossoms everywhere in Japan, and for the weeks that they are blooming here, everyone just goes to the parks and drinks all day. Here in D.C. it’s more of a tourism and cultural thing.”
Nao Okayama, a senior in SIS, is originally from Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. She spent a year in Canada while she was in high school, which led her to study abroad in D.C. for college. She is working towards a duel-degree from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.
She said she found out about the opportunity to become a Goodwill Ambassador because some of her friends and acquaintances work for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Last year at the festival, Okayama noticed that the Japanese and Americans did not communicate much with each other even though the festivities are in honor of the Japanese-American friendship.
“We don’t really integrate with each other,” she said. “Japanese people are always on one side, and American people are on [the other]. So even though the festival is for Japanese people and American people, I didn’t really feel like we were communicating with each other. It was almost like there was a wall [between us].”
Okayama said she hopes for this to change. She wants to offer ideas this year to increase communication between the two groups at the festival.
She said she noticed that at AU, there is also a barrier between Japanese people and Americans. She interns at a Japanese television company and said the desks are separated for Japanese and Americans.
“They don’t have bad tension,” she said. “They just don’t talk. It’s very weird.”
Okayama said she thought this divide was because Japanese people have more of a problem integrating.
“They want to be in a group, so that they can feel comfortable and be part of a community,” she said. “I think American people feel awkward talking to us sometimes because a Japanese person is never alone, they are always in a group, sticking together and speaking in Japanese. So many Americans have trouble [coming up to us].”
Nao said she hopes to show the world that Japanese people can be active in America, not just in Japanese communities.
She said she aspires to work as a consultant for a company one day, at one where she can use English. After Nao graduates this year, she will be going back to Japan to finish her dual degree.
As a gift of friendship in 1912, then-first lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador planted the first two cherry blossom trees in D.C. These have since multiplied and, according to the National Cherry Blossom Festival Web site, “signal Washington’s rite of spring with an explosion of life and color that surrounds the Tidal Basin in a sea of pale pink and white blossoms.” The peak bloom dates are forecasted to be between April 1 and 4 this year.