SAGAMIHARA CITY, Japan – The neighboring cities of Sagamihara and Zama jointly hosted their giant kite festivals for the first time since 2019, inviting the Camp Zama community to experience the culturally significant event.
U.S. Army Garrison Commander Col. Christopher L. Tomlinson and USAG Japan Command Sgt. Maj. David Rio attended the festivals as invited guests May 4 at the Sagami River near the installation. While at the festival, Tomlinson was able to meet with both Sagamihara City Mayor Kentaro Motomura and Zama City Mayor Mito Sato.
This year marked the first time in four years that either event was held at its full scale. The festivals were held in 2022 at a reduced capacity.
“For Sagamihara City, the Giant Kite Festival is a cultural tradition that has been going on for 190 years,” Motomura said. “I believe it is the best Giant Kite Festival in Japan and an excellent representation of the culture of Sagamihara City.”
“We have continued this traditional event for a long time in Zama City,” Sato said. “I believe that through this event, we are able to connect with the spirits of those who came before us, which helps to grow our civic pride.”
Tomlinson and Rio were invited to be part of the opening ceremony, which included participation from city officials and leadership from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
“I was grateful and honored to have been asked to be part of what is a time-honored festival that is deep in the culture of these two cities,” Tomlinson said. “For both cities to consider us to be a part of their festivals, it’s an honor and a testament to the importance of our relationship.”
Camp Zama has long had a direct connection to the festival, in that members of the Sagami Giant Kite Association, Kassaka District, come every year to harvest bamboo from the installation, which is used to construct the frame of the kite. Having materials from Camp Zama be used in the making of the kite is a demonstration of the bond between the installation and its two neighboring cities, Tomlinson said.
Each city decides on the kanji character to be painted on the kite that most represents the message they hope to convey. This year, Zama City chose the character “hana-kaze,” which means “flower winds.” Sagamihara chose “shoufu,” which means “winds of victory.”
“Looking back at the past four years, we have fought the unknown, including the East Japan Typhoon and COVID-19,” Motomura said. “We hope our kite flies high as a symbol of our resilience in the face of COVID-19, and of the 720,000 citizens of Sagamihara City working together toward a brighter future.”
Sato echoed the significance of once again being able to host the event, adding that she thinks it helps to deepen a sense of mutual understanding among all the visitors and can be a big step toward building world peace.
“The Giant Kite Festival is an event that requires the involvement of a lot of people working together to make it successful,” Sato said. “I think this is a great opportunity for Soldiers from the U.S. Army in Japan to truly experience a traditional event that embodies the culture of Zama City and Japan.”
A few kites of varying sizes are constructed for the festival, but the centerpieces are the cities’ two biggest kites, which are both about 14.5 square meters in size and weigh more than two tons each. The kites each take crews of more than 20 people to get and keep them in the air.
In 2001, when Zama City was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its establishment of our city, handlers successfully flew a kite that was about 62 square feet in size—a record that still stands in Japan today, Sato said.
“It defies physics, to me, just the sheer scope and size of the kites,” Tomlinson said. “It shows you the craftsmanship and tradition, and how important it is to [the Japanese].”
Having USAG Japan leadership and Camp Zama community members at the festival helps enhance the partnership between Sagamihara City and USAG Japan, Motomura said.
“Our city and USAG Japan often interact with each other on an official administrative level, but it is very meaningful for Sagamihara residents to be able to interact with USAG Japan families through a cultural event like this,” he said. “I would like to continue to deepen those interactions more and more moving forward.”
The festivals included other attractions and events, including a junior high school students’ kite-flying activity, a children’s sumo wrestling tournament, vendors from the sister cities of Sugakawa and Daisen, daytime fireworks, and a performance from the Guam National Guard’s 721st Army Band.
“I was happy and grateful that we had the opportunity to move, together, out of COVID and to reinvigorate what is a great tradition,” Tomlinson said. “For Camp Zama to be a part of that tradition moving forward, I think it’s a great testament to our community relationship.”
[Note: This story was corrected from an earlier version that incorrectly quoted the population of Sagamihara City as 270,000. The correct number is 720,000.]