Mar 14

Return on JET-vestment: Fukushima JET alums help bring Fukushima youth taiko group to DC for Cherry Blossom Festival

The Fukushima Taiko Drummers meet U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John V. Roos, before they head to D.C. in April.


JETAA DC members Michelle Spezzacatena (Fukushima-ken, Kawamata-cho, 2002-05) and Darryl Wharton-Rigby (Fukushima-ken, Kawamata-cho, 2005-07) were both teachers in the town of Kawamata in Fukushima Prefecture. Michelle was there from 2002-2005 and overlapped one week with Darryl, who was there from 2005-2007. Thanks to the magic of Facebook they were able to keep in contact throughout the years. After the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster, Darryl and Michelle were talking about how they could help their Japanese hometown. The idea of bringing the taiko group to DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival was born out of those discussions. (Editor’s note:  In addition to Michelle’s work on this project, she also serves on the JETAA USA Fund Committee and previously served as JETAA DC President.)

In Michelle’s words:  “We brought the idea to the Japan America Society in DC who immediately fell in love with it too. Thanks to the generous financial support of the US Japan council, the project was fully funded. We have been working with Anna Cable (USJC), Ambassador Malott (JASW), JET alum Marc Hitzig (JASW), Shigeko Bork (former Kawamata resident now living in DC) and Masako Mori (Diet member from Fukushima) on the project. Darryl and I are the co-coordinators and have been doing most of the heavy lifting. We are also officially part of the TOMODACHI Initiative.”

Fukushima JET alums Michelle Spezzacatena (2002-05) and Darryl Wharton-Rigby (2005-07)

“The students will be here from April 7-17 and they have a jam packed schedule. We will be doing a homestay program, they will be performing at numerous locations including the National Cherry Blossom Parade/Sakura Matsuri/Kennedy Center, we will be sightseeing and hopefully we’ll be doing a meet and greet with the new Orioles player, Wada-san and a Orioles/Yankees game day performance at Orioles Park. Darryl and I are excited to be with them the entire time they’ll be in the US.”

Michelle notes that CNNGo just published the first major article about the trip. A very exciting start!

CNNGo:  “Fukushima Taiko drummers Japan’s newest stateside export:  Evacuee youth group gets its show on the road for April D.C. cherry blossom festival”

Michelle adds:  “NHK Japan is also working on a piece on Darryl and I in the context of what JETs are doing to help Japan after the earthquake. They have been following us around to different events and will be for another two weeks. The piece will run on NHK Japan’s News9 broadcase during the first week of April when the anchor is doing the show live from DC. They will also try to do an English version to show on NHK World.”


Below is a press release about the taiko group’s upcoming performance at the National Cherry Blossom Festival.


CONTACT: Michelle Spezzacatena-


Washington, DC [March 1, 2012] — The National Cherry Blossom Festival and the Japan-America Society of Washington DC have invited 13 student members of the Yamakiya Taiko Club from Fukushima, Japan to join the centennial celebration of Japan’s gift of the cherry blossom trees to the United States.

The students, ages 12-20, are from the Yamakiya District of Kawamata Town in Fukushima Prefecture. In May 2011 they had to leave their homes in Yamakiya because of the high levels of radiation emanating from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. It is unclear when they will be able to return home.

Despite these circumstances, the Yamakiya Taiko Club, which has won first prize in a number of national competitions, has stayed together. The students continue to practice taiko drumming at a school in Kawamata Town.

The students’ visit, which will take place April 7-17, is supported by the U.S.-Japan Council and the American Embassy in Tokyo under the TOMODACHI Initiative. The initiative invests in the next generation of Japanese and Americans by creating opportunities for cross-cultural exchange, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Arrangements for the visit are being spearheaded by Michelle Spezzacatena and Darryl Wharton-Rigby, alumni of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) who taught in Fukushima. The effort also has involved a number of Fukushima natives, led by Shigeko Bork of Washington DC and The Honorable Masako Mori, a former DC resident and now a member of Japan’s Diet.

While in the U.S., the students will perform at The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington, DC on April 16. They will appear in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade® and at the Sakura Matsuri – Japanese Street Festival on April 14.

During their 10-day visit, the students will join the National Japan Bowl, an academic competition for American high school students who are studying Japanese. They will also visit high schools in Virginia and Maryland and meet students from Morgan State University (Maryland).  There will be sightseeing opportunities in Baltimore and Washington, DC.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is the nation’s greatest springtime celebration.  The 2012 Festival, March 20-April 27, includes five spectacular weeks of events featuring diverse and creative programming promoting traditional and contemporary arts and culture, natural beauty, and community spirit.  The 2012 Festival commemorates the 100th anniversary of the gift of the cherry blossom trees and the enduring friendship between the United States and Japan.


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