CAMP ZAMA, Japan – The commander of U.S. Army Garrison Japan learned about a centuries-old touchstone of Japanese culture during a visit to the Sagami Giant Kites Center June 13.
It was there that representatives from the Sagami Giant Kite Preservation Association gave Col. Christopher L. Tomlinson a tour of the facility, which houses hundreds of exhibits to include a giant kite and various other kites from different parts of Japan and overseas.
Katsushige Kawasaki, a chairperson with the Sagami Giant Kite Preservation Association, explained that giant kites in Japan date back almost 200 years, with a man making the first one to celebrate his son’s birth. The kite frames are made from several dozens of stalks of bamboo, while the sale is made from handmade Japanese paper. The kites can be as large as 48 feet across and weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
Every May, the Giant Kite Festival is held at the Sagami River near Camp Zama. The event attracts thousands of spectators who come to watch a group of between 80 to 100 people work to get a giant kite airborne while controlling it with a 650-foot rope. However, the event has not been held since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tomlinson said it was an honor to visit the center with representatives from Sagamihara City and the kite association, and that he enjoyed seeing all the kites on display because they help to keep such an important cultural tradition alive.
The bamboo used for the giant kite flown at the Sagamihara festival is harvested from trees located on Camp Zama, and which the garrison commander typically helps with cutting and gathering.
During the tour, association members presented Tomlinson with a pair of miniature kites made from bamboo he helped harvest last November.
“Even though we weren’t able to make giant kites with the bamboo this year, we really wanted to present Col. Tomlinson with the miniature kites … to show our appreciation,” Yoshikazu Nakamura, a member of the GKPA, Kassaka District, said.
Tomlinson said it was a special experience getting to harvest the bamboo together, and that he was appreciative of the token of the small kites.
“It’s emblematic of the cooperation that we have between Camp Zama and Sagamihara City,” Tomlinson said of the kites.
Nakamura said he hopes the association will have the opportunity to fly giant kites again soon, and that he looks forward to inviting Tomlinson to the next festival as a way to continue to strengthen the friendship between Camp Zama and its neighboring Japanese cities.
Tomlinson agreed, saying that participating in these and other events together with the Japanese community, from harvesting the bamboo, visiting the kite center and hosting a bilateral kite-making workshop on Camp Zama, is a testament to the close relationship the two groups have.
He closed by thanking his hosts for the opportunity to visit the kite center, and expressing his excitement to attend the kite festival next May.
“This visit is definitely part of the culture [of Japan] that I will take back with me to the United States,” he said.