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NEWS | Jan. 16, 2024

Camp Zama strengthens ties with neighboring city by joining Japanese New Year’s ceremony

By Dustin Perry, U.S. Army Garrison - Japan

A traditional New Year’s event held here Sunday brought volunteers and attendees from nearby Camp Zama for the chance to share in and learn more about the Japanese observance.

A large fire was built in Kanigasawa Park as the centerpiece of the “Dondo Yaki” ceremony, in which people bring the previous year’s decorations, good luck amulets and other items to respectfully dispose of them in the flames.

Dondo Yaki is meant to encourage people to leave the past behind and start fresh in the New Year, said Kazuhiro Yuasa, a chairperson with the Zama City Neighborhood Association and lead organizer of the event. The ZCNA invited Camp Zama community members to volunteer for, and take part in, the ceremony to help strengthen the relationship between the two neighbors, he said.

“While it is impossible for neighbors to share all of the same values, I believe there is unquestionably a benefit to getting to know, understand and respect each other’s cultures,” Yuasa said. “I believe the only way for two neighbors to coexist is to get to know more about each other and learn about each other’s positive aspects.”

Volunteers like Maj. Jason Brown, assigned to the 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, his wife, Kiana, and their 12-year-old son, Gabe, arrived at the park early before the ceremony to help put up the barrier around the fire and add kindling to keep the controlled blaze going as visitors began to arrive.

The family will depart Japan this summer and said it was important to them while they were here to be an active part of the community outside Camp Zama and embrace the country’s unique culture.

“For us personally, it’s very fulfilling to travel and learn about different cultures,” Jason said. “We just want to be good representatives and be good visitors of our host nation. [It was great] just seeing the community come out and support this event.”

At around 9 a.m., visitors began arriving at the park with the items they brought to be burned. These included “kadomatsu,” or pine tree stalks displayed at the entrance of one’s home; woven straw decorations known as “shimekazari”; and “kakizome,” the first calligraphy written at the start of the year.

During Dondo Yaki, visitors also eat “dango,” small dumplings made of sticky rice, which is meant to bring good health. The volunteers handed out long bamboo poles with three wire prongs at the end to place the dango and roast them over the fire. This tradition, along with the preparation of “amazake,” a sweet, nonalcoholic rice drink, are two touchstones of the modern Dondo Yaki ceremony, which has evolved from its religious-based origins, Yuasa said.

“Much of Japanese culture that has been passed down since ancient times has changed throughout the years, which is why it is important to keep the spirit of observances like this in the hearts of Japanese people and pass them on to future generations,” he said. “I think that having ceremonies like this will deepen their attachment to the community, and they will in turn continue to pass it down.”

Helping with the ceremony and seeing visitors from Camp Zama there reinforced the importance of overseas U.S. military community members taking time to get out and explore their host country, Jason said.

“[Japan is] beautiful; it’s got so many options and so many things you can see and do,” he said. “Our time here is getting short, but I’m glad that we’ve been able to do [all the things] we’ve done.”

Yuasa encouraged the Camp Zama community to also attend a cherry blossom festival held in the Kanigasawa area in the spring, and a traditional “Bon” dance in the summer.

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