Due to a funding shortage, the Japanese Cultural Fair may not take place for the first time in nearly 30 years
Steven Barisof fell in love with Japanese culture after visiting the country several times with his family starting in 1974. The trips inspired the Santa Cruz resident to attend the local Japanese Cultural Fair for more than 20 years—eventually becoming a volunteer in 2008 and becoming a board member for the nonprofit behind the event shortly after.
The annual festival became a family tradition, and Barisof’s son, who began learning Japanese in the eighth grade, went on to volunteer at the fair in 2008, when he wrote attendee’s names in Japanese characters.
However, the Barisofs, along with the thousands of others who attend the fair each year, may not get a chance to partake in the 27th Annual Japanese Cultural Fair this year. The event, which is set to take place at Mission Plaza Park near Downtown Santa Cruz this June, is facing a funding gap that could lead to its cancellation.
The first Japanese Cultural Fair was started by local dancer Tandy Beal and took place as a one-time celebration in 1987. However, those involved with planning the fair were compelled to make it an annual festival. Chieko Yoshikawa, the board’s current executive director, found sponsors and raised money, and helped make the fair what it is today: an all-day festival of Japanese culture, with food, art, crafts and performances that evoke the spirit of a world and a people 7,715 miles away.
The live performances include Taiko drumming, Okinawan dancing, Shamisen music, and Noh plays. Some offerings, such as the Shakuhachi flute playing and the Megumi storytelling, are even hard to find in Japan nowadays, says Barisof.
“These performances are dying out in Japan, which is getting Americanized in some ways,” he says. “We’re trying to keep these traditions alive by bringing these performers and performances to the festival.”
The crowd—which reached around 7,000 last year, says Barisof—can learn how to write using Japanese characters and how to put on a kimono, and can practice the Japanese paper folding art of origami. There are aikido, karate and keto demonstrations, as well as a tea ceremony and bonsai demonstrations.
“The mission of the fair is to provide an opportunity for the community to increase its awareness and understanding of Japanese culture, and enrich our community life here in Santa Cruz,” says Barisof.
The fair operates on an annual budget of about $20,000, which covers the performers, stage equipment rentals, shuttle bus rentals, and security guards to watch the equipment overnight. Admission to the fair is free, and the event relies solely on funding from community donations and sponsorships, including from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, which gave $1,500 last year. The fair’s main source of funding is an annual $7,500 grant from The Alliance of California Traditional Arts (ACTA).
This grant did not come through this year, for reasons undisclosed to the Japanese Cultural Fair’s board members. In fact, the Japanese Cultural Fair did not receive a single penny from ACTA. ”Foundations are always getting requests for funding,” explains Barisof. “They get more requests for money than they have money to give out.”
The Japanese Cultural Fair has never before run into a financial crisis quite like this, says Barisof, and, for the first time in nearly 30 years, is facing the possibility of not hosting the fair at all. They need to raise $7,500 as soon as possible in order to put the June event on, and are turning to the community to make it happen.
“After 26 years of offering this event for free, we are calling upon our community to go to our website and click on the donate button,” says Barisof. “If [someone has] come to the event in the past, [we hope they] consider making a donation to help us make this event possible again this coming June 8.”
The fair is also looking for new members, in an effort to expand their board.
Executive Director Chieko Yoshikawa says the event is the closest thing to Japan most Santa Cruz residents will experience.
“Most of the Santa Cruz community won’t have the opportunity to go to Japan,” says Yoshikawa. “The fair is the closest they’ll get to Japanese culture, and many people look forward to it every year. It is a very important cultural experience for the community.”
To learn more or to donate, visit jcfsantacruz.org.