Japanese festival in Concord celebrates tradition
By Lou Fancher
Remarkably, Jon Shindo is enthused by the prospect of skewering 14,000 pounds of beef.
The meat and vegetables for kebabs that volunteers will barbecue in teriyaki sauce and serve to roughly 35,000 visitors at the Diablo Japanese American Club’s Summer Festival in Concord is a small part of enormous preparations during the weeks prior to the annual two-day community celebration.
The club’s primary fundraiser is admission free and offers performances, exhibits and food from traditional and contemporary Japanese and Japanese American culture.
“We’ve got it down,” says Shindo, about last-minute beef skewering and weeks of odori (obon dance) practices led by Hanayagi Senseis.
Homemade Japanese confections — manju, mochi, senbei — and sushi line up next to American-style layer cakes, cookies, hot dogs, soda and the ever-present teriyaki dinners and skewers.
Demonstrations by taiko drummers and practitioners of judo, taiko and kendo, exhibits of bonsai, calligraphy and Japanese crafts result from months, even years, of disciplined practice and dedication to history, family connections and more.
Shindo has participated for 25 years and says the festival is increasingly diverse.
“People make it a tradition. They invite friends and bring their children. You see the roots in Japan, but people from elsewhere change the flavor.”
Westernizing elements at the festival, he says, include basketball competitions for all ages and duck pond games for the youngest visitors.
“We have a dunk tank this year that I think adults will like, depending on who’s up there,” he says.
Although there’s plenty of fun and laughter, the festival also taps into spiritual territory that third-generation Japanese American Conrad Hisaka finds in judo.
“I started in 1965 when I was 10,” says Hisaka, a retired product development manager for Albertson’s.
He has volunteered as a judo instructor at the club since the 1980s. Growing up in a tight-knit Japanese community in Stockton, Hisaka’s first judo teacher was custodian of the Buddhist church across the street from his parents’ Japanese grocery store, and also his Japanese language teacher.
“He was like a second father. He emphasized and modeled respect for elders, being a good person,” Hisaka recalls.
Judo means “gentle way” and is principled in the idea of giving way instead of using force against force.
“It’s simplicity of motion, maximum efficiency, respect for seniority, mutual welfare. Some people think it’s a combat sport about ultimate fighting, but that’s not the main lesson,” Hisaka says.
Taiko drumming is also aimed at respect and cooperation.
Karen Sakata, a JA club member of more than 30 years, says, “It’s not one person standing out, it’s the whole. Being part of something bigger is more powerful. That’s common in Asian endeavors, as is respect for seniority. There’s an idea of helping each other’s effort to make a whole.”
Sakata says the activity provides stress relief from her job as Contra Costa County Superintendent of Schools. “I always had an interest and thought it was cool.”
The main attraction was connection to Japanese culture.
“My parents didn’t talk about hard things like the World War II internment camps — which the history of is still not well taught in schools — but they kept me involved in the Japanese American community and I’ve done the same thing as an adult.”
Shindo and Hisaka are grateful their parents made sure they were aware of and experienced Japanese culture throughout their childhoods.
Motivated like Sakata to continue the tradition, they will be skewering beef, demonstrating cultural customs, and inviting everyone to join the fun.