Richmond’s Japanese sister city celebrates Obi Festival
on October 28, 2019
“Wasshoi!” “Wasshoi!” With this distinctive chant calling for peace and strength in unity, the colorful Shimada Taisai festival kicked off in Japan earlier this fall, helping foster the long friendship between Richmond and its sister city Shimada.
The festival, held every three years, has a history dating back over three centuries. The celebration is meant to thank the deities of a local shrine called the “Oi Shrine” for protecting the community, according to Toru Katakawa, a priest of the shrine.
During the festival, people dress up in colorful costumes and carry “mikoshi,” or portable shrines, on their shoulders. The chant of “Wasshoi!” also urges the shrine-bearers to carry them with the strength of team unity. Mobile stages reaching 10 feet high and adorned with Japanese lanterns also showcase performers playing Japanese drums and flutes. Many men adorn their waists with sheathed swords and “obi,” traditional Japanese sashes. Due to the central role of the elegant sashes, this cultural festival is also known as the “Obi Matsuri,” or “Obi Festival,” according to Katsumi Suzuki, Secretary-General of the Shimada Taisai Preservation and Promotion Association.
Volunteer Steven Kirby, 69, a former elementary school teacher in West Contra Costa County, arrived in Shimada two months before this year’s festival in October to help prepare. “I was looking for ways that I could volunteer and give back to the community,” Kirby said.
Kirby helped craft “shimenawa,” or “sacred rope,” which serves as a decoration underneath the shrine gate. Made of rice straws, the shimenawa require many laborious steps such as hanging straws out to dry and tying them together. Kirby’s work ranged from making bundles of straws to embellishing the shrine gate with the rope.
Toru Katakawa, the priest of the Oi Shrine, who worked together with Kirby, expressed his gratitude, saying, “Not only is he doing a tremendous job, but his respect for everything amazed us.” The priest added, in a reference to one of Japan’s major religions, “I think he is more familiar with Shinto than others.”
But the two cities’ relationship stretches back even longer, for more than half a century. The program began in 1961, following a conference in Washington, DC, according to the city of Richmond’s website. Quite by chance, a member of Richmond’s City Council and the mayor of Shimada were seated side by side and they hit it off, according to Kaori Kosaka, a staff member at Shimada City Hall. They decided to form a sister-city pact.
Since that time, Kirby has traveled the over-5000-mile trip to Shimada seven times, and participated in the Obi Matsuri festival three times. His 41-year commitment grabbed the Japanese media’s attention, and the biggest local newspaper there featured a picture of him working alongside the residents.
“Learning about the history … makes a stronger connection [to] the importance of the shrine in the communities, and it’s more meaningful to me,” Kirby said.
After Richmond and Shimada established their sister-city relationship, local people have taken initiatives to make their cooperation go even further. One way Richmond has commemorated the bond is through the creation of “Shimada Friendship Park,” located at Peninsula Drive and Marina Bay Parkway. The park features sweeping views of the waterfront and the San Francisco Bay.
The friendship park and its serene vista stand in a stark contrast to the area’s darker history. Longtime Richmond residents remember that, after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the entry of the United States into World War II, the U.S. government rounded up and imprisoned Japanese American people — most of them U.S. citizens — in internment camps for the duration of the war. People looking at the festival and park, and a display case of Shimada artifacts in City Hall, may find it hard to believe that the U.S. and Japan looked upon each other as enemies.
Kirby believes promoting such people-to-people exchanges could be the key to preserving amity in a world full of conflict. “We want peace, and we want to work together,” he says. “It needs to continue in the whole spirit of cultural exchange.”
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