Tanabata – celestial connection: Paper ornament makers from Sendai, Japan, share the community spirit of Los Angeles

Cultural News 2010 July Issue

Tanabata Little Tokyo Sendai Narumi Paper Compnay

Tanabata paper ornament makers from Sendai, Japan, Koichiro Narumi (left) and Ranko Yamamura (center) prepare a Los Angeles version of the ornament with Brian Kito of the Los Angeles Tanabata Festival Committee. (Photo by Keiko Fukuda)

By Keiko Fukuda

Translated by Minoru Nishida

The Tanabata Festival became the new talk of the town during 2009 Nisei Week  – the Los Angeles Japanese-American community’s biggest annual festival.

In preparation for an encore display in the 2nd Annual Tanabata Festival (the Star Festival) this August, volunteers gathered on the weekend of May 14 at the plaza of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo for a paper ornament streamer-making workshop.

Just for this workshop, Koichiro Narumi, general manager of the Narumi Paper Company, and the company’s Tanabata project coordinator, Ranko Yamamura, came from Sendai City, Japan, also  known as the home of the Tanabata Festival.

When asked about his connection to the Los Angeles Tanabata Festival, Mr. Narumi recounts that “At first, Brian Kito of the Los Angeles Tanabata Festival Committee came to Sendai alone to purchase materials and learn how to make the ornaments.

”Last year, the Los Angeles people made the streamer decorations by themselves by reading instructions and analyzing Sendai’s decorations. This year, Mr. Yoshihito Yonezawa, President of the Miyagi Prefectural Association of Southern California, and Brian asked for our support, so we came over here for the very first time.”

Upon being asked if Mr. Narumi has felt any differences between Sendai’s historically long-standing Tanabata Festival compared to the Los Angeles’ Tanabata Festival, Mr. Narumi had this to say:

“I was really surprised at the level of dedication of the people of Los Angeles. Even though everyone says it’s their first time making the ornaments, they learn very quickly after a little bit of instruction.

”They’re highly skilled, so it’s hard to believe that they make Tanabata ornaments for the first time. I have provided my volunteer effort to similar workshops in my hometown, Sendai, and I really feel the same kind of passion for the community from Brian and everyone else. I’m looking forward to telling everyone back in Sendai about all of the Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, coming together as one to work on the Tanabata ornaments.”

Mr. Narumi’s commitment to Sendai’s Tanabata Festival started 10 years ago.

He believes that the “core of Tanabata” lies in working with your hands and communicating with members of the local community. He teaches how to make ornaments at a workshop sponsored by a local housing association. In this workshop, from grandparents to grade-school children, people of all ages continue to attend.

“It’s great to see the grandfathers and grandmothers working together on an ornament with their grandchild. We are able to create a space for them to have interaction. That’s what I hope to contribute to the community through what I do. Little things lead to big things. Working together brings great pride in the completed ornament.”

Narumi Paper Company marks its 127th year in business this year. With 21 employees, they sell paper and packages for printing. There are three designated staff members assigned as Tanabata project coordinators.

Born as the 6th heir of the family business, Koichiro Narumi has been helping make Tanabata ornaments since childhood. Ranko Yamamura, who is Koichiro’s parent’s age, has known him for 30 years.

“I met Ms. Yamamura because her daughter and I happened to be in the same class in our junior high school. Ms. Yamamura was the president of the PTA, and my parents asked her if she could help out with our business. She’s been a part of our team ever since,” explains Mr. Narumi.

Ms. Yamamura describes the allure of creating Tanabata ornaments, “Cutting and working with paper; in other words, starting from nothing and ending up with the completion of a great ornament.”

Mr. Narumi adds, “If it’s plain printer paper out there, it’s hard to tell whether or not it was made by our company. But the Tanabata ornaments go out into the world in multidimensional shapes, so it brings joy to us along with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that it was made by our company.”

Brian Kito of the Los Angeles Tanabata Festival Committee says, “We are so fortunate to welcome Mr. Narumi and Ms. Yamamura all the way from Sendai, to be able to hold this workshop here.

”If you participate as a member of the Los Angeles Nikkei (Japanese American) community, no matter how small a piece you contribute, it will come together in the end as part of a great ornament. Little things, when combined together, can make big things happen, and that is the heart of what it means to be a community. I hope everyone will take great pride in the completed ornaments.”

Mr. Narumi also emphasizes, “Tanabata ornament making is merely a tool for sparking communication in the community. The main key is cooperation, the act of working together as one.”

After the workshop, the two visitors from Japan will rush through a quick sight-seeing tour before returning to Sendai, but both say they would love to be back in Los Angeles to see the completed ornaments on August 13 at the Nisei Week Festival.

Keiko Fukuda lives in Los Angeles. She is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Discover Nikkei Project. She is the co-author of Nihon ni umarete (Born in Japan) published by Hankyu Communications.

This article first appeared on the website of www.discovernikkei.org. Reprint permission by the Discover Nikkei Project at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.