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a group of men playing drums on a stage.
Taiko drumming is a crowd favorite at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. This year there will be at least three separate performances across the weekend. (Photo provided by Stacey Shigaya)

Stacey Shigaya’s parents gave her an Anglo first name on purpose. “They wanted me to know that I’m an American, that’s who I am,” she said. Her mother and father were also American, born in California and Washington state respectively, but their Japanese descent meant they lost that privilege when they were relocated to internment camps during World War II. Her mother was placed at Tule Lake and Topaz, her father at Heart Mountain.  

Shigaya tries to talk about their migration to Colorado, where she was born and raised, but stumbles across holes in the story. “The reason why I don’t know a lot about it is because they didn’t want to talk about their past, it was too painful,” she says, “which I get. But it left us with these huge gaps.”

Shigaya’s desire for knowledge and education about the Japanese American experience eventually overtook her parents’ secrecy. Today, Shigaya is the executive director of the Sakura Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose marquee Cherry Blossom Festival is happening this upcoming weekend. The festival is in its 49th edition, and marks the 50th anniversary of Sakura Square, an important cultural hub where both the festival and the foundation are located. 

Settling on Sakura

Resettlement after internment was confusing and traumatic. Stripped of their homes, goods and businesses in the years prior, many Japanese and Japanese Americans turned to churches and hostels throughout the interior states, but still faced anti-Japanese sentiment. 

Colorado’s then-governor, Ralph L. Carr, was opposed to the blanket internment of Japanese Americans during the war, an unpopular opinion which many believe cost him his political career. Despite his opposition, Amache Internment Camp (also known as Granada Relocation Center) was set up in southeastern Colorado. In March 2022, Amache was designated as a National Historic Site managed by the National Park System, initiating a two-year long process to acquire land and create educational infrastructure around the site and the nearby town of Granada.

Though Carr was no longer governor when the Japanese were released from the camps, he publicly welcomed them to the Denver area. Over the next two decades, a nine-square-block hub of Japanese and Asian American culture bloomed around Denver’s Tri-State Buddhist Temple, a modest brown block on the corner of Lawrence and 20th streets that anchors present-day Sakura Square. 

In the 1970s, amid a rush of urban renewal, businesses surrounding the temple were given a choice: relocate or consolidate. A few businesses moved into the remaining block around the Temple and Sakura Square emerged. The original square held two restaurants, two markets, a gift shop, an exhibition area, and the temple. Tamai Tower, a neighboring apartment complex, was also funded during that time through a Housing and Urban Development loan, in order to house aging Issei (first-generation) residents, many of whom knew little or no English.

A week-long celebration was held in May 1973 to honor the new developments. They called it the Cherry Blossom Festival, since Sakura is a word for cherry blossom in Japanese. 

In 2014, the HUD loan was paid off, and the apartment building became a market-rate building in the burgeoning Lower Downtown neighborhood. “This wasn’t always the nicest part of town,” Shigaya said. “But now this is an in-demand piece of land.” 

The Sakura Foundation owns Sakura LLC, which in turn owns Sakura Square and Tamai Tower. The loan repayment coincided with discussions about what to do with the aging buildings, and a redevelopment plan was established. COVID hit before they could break ground, which Shigaya views as a lucky break. The groups are still planning to redevelop the buildings, but downtown Denver looks different than it did when they the plans were first drafted. Most notably, there are fewer people around. 

The vacancy rate for office space in downtown Denver is hovering around 21%, according to a 2022 report by the Downtown Denver Partnership. In a separate survey, DDP found that three out of four major downtown employers offer hybrid work options. “We’re rethinking things. We’re trying to take into account our community needs, and also the shape of downtown Denver. We want to make something that’s not just for the next fifty years, but for the next hundred years,” Shigaya said.

Before the site gets redeveloped, the buildings will all be scanned, logged and photographed as part of the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey. The archival documents are used to create a “historic context narrative” about a site, Justin Henderson a park service program manager explained. The narrative will be housed in the Library of Congress. The park service is setting up a booth at the Cherry Blossom Festival with more information about the project, as well as about the Amache National Historic Site

Temple food and Taiko

The 49th annual Cherry Blossom Festival runs 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 to 4 p.m. Sunday. This year seven new vendors have been added to the roster of 48. The vendors represent a variety of Japanese and Asian cultural organizations, as well as plenty of snacks, treats and trinkets.

Until 2016, the festival was run entirely by volunteers from the temple. After so many years leading the charge, they started casting around for new organizers. The Sakura Foundation was a natural fit for the festival and was asked to join them. The two entities now co-host the festival, which the foundation receives the majority of its revenue from. The foundation’s mandate when they joined was to “grow” the festival.

“That can mean grow the number of attendees, or the number of offerings,” Shigaya said. “So we want to do both.” Each year the foundation is hoping to bring in a new variety of vendors, while maintaining some of the festival’s staples, like the temple food and Taiko drumming. 

The strangeness of sushi

According to Japan’s National Tourism Organization, the number of visitors from the United States to Japan has tripled since the 1990s. Trips related to business have remained steady throughout the past few decades (hovering at about 250,000 per year), while trips classified as tourism have rocketed. 

“Japanese culture has gotten bigger in Colorado, because the offerings have gotten bigger. Sushi used to be considered weird because it had raw fish, but now you can buy it at King Sooper’s,” Shigaya said. She also thinks that streaming services like Netflix have created platforms for more Americans to be exposed to Japanese film and TV — especially anime — and the recent push for Asian representation in Hollywood has furthered that exposure. 

New interest in the culture is a boon for the Sakura Foundation, but ultimately they are focused on the community that already exists here in Colorado. 

“We want to make sure that the hub of the Japanese American community remains here in perpetuity,” Shigaya said. Even once they break ground on the re-imagined Sakura Square, she says they still plan to hold the festival. “It might be somewhere else, it might be smaller, it might be bigger, we don’t know. But we do want to maintain a festival every year.”

CORRECTION: This file was updated at 10 a.m. June 16, 2023 to clarify that the Sakura Foundation joined the Tri-State Temple in 2016 to ensure the continuation of the festival.

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...