Sunday, Oct. 24, the College of William and Mary’s Japanese Cultural Association put on its annual Aki Matsuri festival. The event was cancelled last year due to COVID-19, but it returned in full force. Students roamed the Crim Dell Meadow sporting Japanese yukatas, playing traditional games and eating delicious foods like chahan (fried rice with egg) and honey castella (honey cake).
“Aki Matsuri means fall festival, so it’s more applicable to just the turn of the season,” JCA President Tan Vo ’22 said. “It’s the atmosphere that really matters. The welcoming of the season and new people.”
The event was more than just a fun time to eat and socialize with friends. It was a unique opportunity to experience Japanese cultural traditions. It kicked off with a special video message from the College’s alumnus Yuri Lowenthal ’93, a voice actor who played Sasuke in the Naruto English dub as well as countless other characters.
“I enjoyed the special message from Yuri Lowenthal,” Katherine Phan ’25 said. “I’m actually a fan, and that’s one of the main reasons I came. The shaved ice treat is new to me. I’ve also never tried calligraphy before, or the traditional Japanese games.”
Club members taught attendees how to make origami objects and write kanji calligraphy, a form of Japanese writing. The stage was graced with performances by the College’s Shotokan Karate Club, Colin McLearn ’22 on the koto (a traditional Japanese zither) and a dance trio.
Rebecca Hartway ’25, a JCA member manning the goldfish scooping game, was excited about all of the aspects of Japanese culture that the festival allowed her to experience.
“I definitely haven’t really had the chance to try any of these types of cultural games before,” Hartway said. “I’ve heard about them and seen them and read about them and whatever, but I’ve never been able to come and participate in them, or try on a kimono. It’s just nice to be able to come and see this, something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and see it in fruition.”
Trung Phi ’25 loved the music JCA played, saying it was his favorite part of the event.
“I’m biased, but I do listen to a lot of Japanese music, so I’m recognizing some artists here,” Phi said. “It’s a good time.”
McLearn had read about Aki Matsuri while studying Japanese at the College, but remarked how special it was to actually experience the festival in person.
“Experiencing a rendition of it in person as opposed to simply reading about it in a textbook is significantly different,” McLearn said. “I learned a fair amount about the atmosphere as well. This is more akin to what an Aki Matsuri in Japan would be like. People around food, music, events, stalls, et cetera. This is, from what I’m aware of, not entirely common in the U.S. to have in college campuses either, so I’m really glad that I got to experience something akin to it before I graduated.”
During the festival, JCA also raised money for Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate. Vo revealed that it was Yuri Lowenthal’s suggestion to fundraise for organizations opposing anti-Asian discrimination and hate during the event. After hearing Lowenthal’s proposal, Vo said that the decision to fundraise during the event was a no-brainer.
“Personally, my parents are Asian Americans and I fear for my mother, who is a little old 4’11” little lady,” Vo said. “So I was very cautious when these shootings happened and these attacks that you read on the news and stuff like that of little grandmas being assaulted in broad daylight.”
To Vo, the Aki Matsuri festival and JCA play an integral role in facilitating cultural understanding.
“We can only do so much, but with the fundraising and just generally showing that [Japanese culture] is just like any other culture,” Vo said. “It has its flaws, its quirks, but in the end it makes people, showing that people are different, but also the same as me and you or some other nation or culture. … I want to take it a bit further, more fundraising, maybe increase outreach, education — just anything we can do to make a message to stop hate and discrimination.”
JCA is an inclusive club where individuals of all walks of life are brought together by their shared love of Japanese culture. By exposing students to new aspects of Japanese culture, JCA plays an essential role in building cultural bridges and bringing the College’s community together.
“Everyone’s welcome,” Vo said. “Most of us are not Japanese, I’m not Japanese, and I’m the president. … I’m just enthusiastic, I care about it a lot. A lot of us are just normal Americans who consume Japanese culture and just want to express that as our person.”
Like the JCA itself, The Aki Matsuri festival brought people together and deepened their understanding of Japanese culture. It might not seem like a big deal to know that there is a difference between a yukata and a kimono or that a koto can only be repaired by trained craftsmen from Japan, but these small insights lay the groundwork for profound cultural understanding, appreciation and empathy.
“I want everyone to show up, have fun, learn something,” Vo said. “Even if you’re enthralled by all the food, I want people to walk away from this event just knowing a bit more, whether the name of shaved ice in Japan is kakigōri, or whatever Japanese fried rice is called. If they can at least retain that bit of information, I feel like something was accomplished in terms of furthering the culture.”