Japanese heritage takes center stage at this year’s Strawberry Festival

Vashon's Japanese heritage is being recognized at this weekend's Strawberry Festival, bringing the celebration, which is now in its 107th year, back to its roots as a way to honor the Japanese-Americans and their strawberry farms that flourished on the island before World War II.

Vashon’s Japanese heritage is being recognized at this weekend’s Strawberry Festival, bringing the celebration, which is now in its 107th year, back to its roots as a way to honor the Japanese-Americans and their strawberry farms that flourished on the island before World War II.

Organizers this year said that in addition to the dozens of musical acts, nightly street dances and Grand Parade that have made festival the celebration that it is, this year is “a big deal for honoring the Japanese heritage on the island.” Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, 91, one of the Japanese-Americans who lived on a Vashon strawberry farm before being rounded up in 1942 and taken to an internment camp, has been named the 2016 Strawberry Festival Grand Marshal. Additionally, island groups will be holding several workshops in and around town this week centered on Japanese culture and heritage, and a community Bon Odori dance — a traditional Japanese dance performed in the summer to honor ancestors — will be performed following the parade Saturday afternoon at the intersection of Bank Road and Vashon Highway.

“We think that honoring Mary Matsuda Gruenewald will be the crown jewel on these efforts and be a brave statement by this community,” Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Marsh said.

The increased focus on Japanese heritage comes on the heels of multiple significant developments at historic Japanese properties on Vashon. In April, after four years of legal battles and more than a decade of drama over rightful ownership of the island’s historic Mukai House and garden, the island organization Friends of Mukai gained ownership and has begun restoration and education efforts. The home was built in 1930 by Japanese farmer B.D. Mukai, who ran a prosperous farm and developed a fruit barreling plant that preserved strawberries and allowed them to be shipped far and wide.

Meanwhile, the Vashon Maury Island Land Trust is continuing efforts to restore the Matsuda Farm to its original grandeur and usefulness. The farm is where 17-year-old Gruenewald, her parents and brother cultivated some of the island’s famous strawberries until May 16, 1942 — five months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor — when the family and other Japanese-Americans on Vashon were forced to leave the island and stay at internment camps for the next three years.

“Her family didn’t want to look even faintly sympathetic to Japan. They knew the government would come for them next, so they burned all of their Japanese possessions — family photographs, her father’s music, treasured books, even her dolls,” Marsh quoted from the Vashon History website when he announced Gruenewald as the grand marshal last week.

After internment, she became a Seattle health care professional and wrote a memoir called “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese-American Internment Camps.” Her stories of internment and the broken relationships between Japanese-Americans and the rest of Vashon and America have been told multiple times through many mediums and serves as a warning about how fear and wartime hysteria can lead to large-scale racial discrimination.

Now, the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage association is spearheading an effort to discover and document all of the island’s Japanese-Americans who were interned. The Japanese Presence Project started recently and is aiming to bring the struggles of this population to light. It is for all of these reasons that islander Royce Wall said he nominated Gruenewald to be grand marshal.

“Mary is a prominent person in Vashon’s Japanese history,” he said. “She’s very, very animated, and she tells some incredible stories. With everything going on this year with the Japanese Presence Project and the Mukai House and the Matsuda farm, I just thought that she would be the perfect grand marshal.”

He said that he is happy to see the island’s Japanese heritage coming to the forefront of the festival for the first time in recent memory.

“It wasn’t talked about for a long time, but it’s a wonderful and important part of island culture,” he said.

For Gruenewald, she said that she understands the grand marshal title is an honor, but doesn’t feel she needs all of the attention that will come with it.

“I was surprised (when I found out). I didn’t know quite what to make of it,” she said last week. “I don’t seek this kind of attention. I don’t need it, but I’m considering this an honor.”

She will ride in a classic car at the front of the Grand Parade on Saturday morning before picking her favorite float and participating in the weekend’s festivities.

“It’s perplexing that people would want me to be in a parade, my goodness,” she said.

After Gruenewald’s trip down the highway on Saturday, islanders are invited to participate in a traditional Bon Odori dance. Roughly 20 islanders participated in a workshop Sunday led by Tacoma Kabuki Academy master teacher Mary Ohno, to learn Japan’s most popular folk dance meant to honor ancestors. Ohno said the dance is simple and that she wants everybody to enjoy and participate.

“I really want them to feel they are in Japan,” she said. “I want them to learn about Japanese culture and performing arts. I’m honored, and it’s a very, very great opportunity for us.”

The dance and workshop is possible due to a grant awarded to Vashon’s Lelavision entertainment company from King County’s cultural services agency, 4Culture. Leah Mann, Lelavision co-director, said that the idea for the dance came from a realization that there has not been enough conversation about the struggles of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Mann said she was working on an art outreach project last year to raise awareness about spiking rates of youth HIV and realized artists of color were not included in the touring Art AIDS America exhibition. This got her thinking about the country’s Japanese population during World War II.

“Of the 107 artists in the exhibition there were five people of color represented …. essentially erasing black people from the narrative,” she said. “This made me think about my family and the day I had to run home from school to ask my mom, Toshie Okamoto, about the internments because it was not in my history book about World War II. It seemed like a natural remembrance to coordinate a Bon Odori dance to honor especially the immigrant farmers past and present with this simple folk dance that depicts utilitarian movement of digging and working the earth so that we don’t forget this history and that we don’t repeat our mistakes.”

Mary Ohno will bring her performance troupe and her students to participate in the parade on Saturday and will then lead the community Bon Odori around 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The group will also perform traditional shamisen music accompanied by a dance concert at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust building.