CAMP ZAMA, Japan (May 18, 2021) – The U.S. Army Garrison Japan commander and command sergeant major learned about a significant part of local Japanese culture during a visit to the Sagami Giant Kites Center May 12.
Members of the Sagami Giant Kite Preservation Association, Kassaka District, gave Col. Thomas R. Matelski and Command Sgt. Maj. Justin Turner, along with their families, a tour of the center, which has about 200 pieces on display, some of which date as far back as nearly two centuries.
Getting a one-on-one history lesson of the kites and their meaning in Japan, and seeing the many handmade pieces on display was a unique opportunity, Matelski said. The group was even able to see a trained “kite master” make a smaller scale model of a kite. The commander said he was amazed to witness both the kite master’s skill and speed in building the model.
“It’s a labor of love to make all these kites,” Matelski said. “We got to see that firsthand today.”
Giant kites, known as “Sagami No Oodako” are constructed of bamboo and handmade Japanese paper, and the largest ones are about 48 feet tall and weigh more than 2,000 pounds. To fly, they require a team of between 80 and 100 people controlling a 200-meter-long rope. Every year in May the Giant Kite Festival is held at the nearby Sagami River. However, the event was canceled in 2021 and 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Camp Zama has a relationship with the Sagami Giant Kite Preservation Association that goes back many years, said Koichi Uchida, the association’s executive director. There is an area on the installation where bamboo grows abundantly, and Camp Zama allows the association to come and harvest bamboo to be used in constructing the kite.
In November 2020, before this year’s Big Kite Festival was canceled, Matelski and his wife, Amy, assisted the group in cutting down bamboo during their annual visit.
“It was the very first time for the [USAG Japan] commander and his wife to join us in collecting the bamboos, as far as I remember,” Uchida said.
“It was a great experience,” Matelski said.
Matelski took command of USAG Japan in the summer of 2019 after that year’s Giant Kite Festival was held, so he has been unable to attend the event so far. Because of this, Uchida said he and the association wanted the commander and his family to be able to learn about the history and significance of the giant kites.
Following the tour, the association members presented two miniature kites—one to the Matelskis, and one to the Turners—that were made from the bamboo Matelski and his wife helped harvest last year.
“We wanted to express [to the colonel] and to Camp Zama our appreciation for our long-lasting friendship,” Uchida said.
During their visit in November 2020, association members marked the exact bamboo shoots that Matelski and his wife harvested and set them aside. When this year’s festival was canceled, Uchida said he and the other members came up with the idea of making the miniature kites as a special keepsake since Matelski, Turner and their families wouldn’t be able to see the big kite fly.
“Camp Zama has been very supportive to us and has been a big part of Big Kite culture all these years,” Uchida said. “We hope our friendship continues as long as the traditional kite festival does.”
Matelski said he would love to visit the center again, and encourages those who live on Camp Zama and Sagamihara Family Housing Area to visit and learn more about a unique part of the local culture and community.