桜会/SAKURA-KAI: Japanese women community group of Central Florida celebrated 40th anniversary

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Korea House
Reiko Smith (president ), Mr. KIKUCHI (Rangetsu manager ),Tomoko Carson (vice president )
Reiko Smith (president ), Mr. KIKUCHI (Rangetsu manager ),Tomoko Carson (vice president )

On August 11th, Sakura-kai celebrated its 40th anniversary with a special luncheon at Rangetsu Japanese Restaurant of Lake Lily. Sakura means cherry blossom and Kai means a group in Japanese. Sakura-kai is a community group for Japanese women in Central Florida. About 50 members gathered from all over Central Florida to commemorate its long history. Many were long-time members, but some were second or even third generation family members, as well as newbies like me. I have lived in Central Florida for 18 years and heard about this group occasionally, but never had a chance to get to know the members until this year. My friend, Mrs. Rie Campbell, who has been a member of this group, invited me to one of monthly luncheons. What I saw at the luncheon was a graceful group of women who integrated to America, yet preserving 同志 Doushi, Japanese spirit of comrades. Listening to the stories of the members touched me in many ways.

History of Sakura-kai goes back to 1960. Mrs. Tamiko Barts opened a store of imported Asian produces and products in Orlando. More Japanese moved into Central Florida due to increased business opportunities. They got together and formed a Japanese community group called “Nihonjin Kai” or “Nihonjin Club”, meaning a “group of Japanese”. In 1973, her store was introduced in local publications and many Japanese from all over Central Florida and the vicinity came to shop at her store for Japanese grocery and other items. Even now, very few Asian groceries exist in Orlando, but back then, her store was the only one outside of Miami. People gathered at her store not only for grocery, but for cultural nostalgia. Some shared rides all the way from Cocoa Beach, Gainseville or Jacksonville to shop at her store. Majority of her customers were Japanese wives immigrated to America due to interracial marriage with American. They made trips to her store as socializing date with friends rather than just a grocery chore. Some became friends and brought home made lunch box to meet up at her store. I personally recalled how excited my husband and I were to find her store after moving from Los Angeles where an abundance of Asian grocery stores exist. It was around April in 1973, she and her customer friends were chatting about cherry blossom in Japan. How much they all missed cherry blossom viewing! One of them mentioned about cherry blossom in Washington D.C. which symbolizes friendship between Japan and America. “How appropriate it might be!” Tamiko thought and suggested to name and form a community group for Japanese women after cherry blossom, SAKURA. Everyone loved her idea and Sakurakai was founded. She has promoted the group to customer one person at a time since then. Being so far away from home, parents, siblings in Japan, having some people who can chat in Japanese provides such a relief and joy. “We are Doushi who shares life-changing experience to immigrate to America.” in Tamiko’s word. Doushi means comrades in Japanese.

Sakura-kai’s current president is Mrs. Reiko Smith and the vice president is Mrs. Tomoko Carson. After long time president, Mrs. Nobue Barfield retired from the group and moved to Hawaii this summer, they have been carrying on tradition of Sakura-kai. They meet monthly at local restaurants to socialize over luncheons. Their membership is based on personal referrals from current members. Beside monthly luncheons, they have been a regular participant at the annual Orlando Japan Festival. They have been presenting Japanese traditional culture such as Bon dance and Tea ceremony. Unlike other large cities in the U.S., Japanese culture in Central Florida is scarce. Sakura-kai has played a role of a gateway to authentic Japanese culture at local events.

DSC_0107~2There were photo albums filled with pictures of last 40 years displayed at the table. I saw beautiful pictures of members smiling and having fun. Did they all have wonderful life here in America? Not all the time, I believe. I felt that I owe to these ladies for what I can do now in Central Florida where Japanese are respected as good civilized members of the community. Majority of members are over 70 and older, but they look so youthful and alluring.

After two hours of delicious lunch and fun socialization, we said good bye to each other. “Mata Oai shimashou!”; “Let’s meet again, soon!” Just like cherry blossom falling, everyone dissipated. I felt honored to be part of this group. Arigatou gozaimashita: Thank you ladies!

For more information about Sakura-kai, please send email to Izumi Sakurada at jl34747@gmail.com.

Orlando Chinatown

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