In 1910, the U.S. Census reported that 20 of our young city’s 79,000 residents were Japanese, two-thirds of our entire Asian population at the time. The other 10 were Chinese, a number that grew rapidly until, by the 2010 Census, the Chinese population outnumbered the Japanese in Houston by a ratio of 25 to 1: Nearly 75,000 Chinese called our city home, along with 32,000 Vietnamese, 22,000 Filipino, 11,000 Koreans … and only a little over 3,000 Japanese.
Yet this relatively small community has continued to have a large impact upon Houston. Our affinity for Japanese culture is apparent in our robata restaurants and karaoke joints, our cosplay expos and martial arts dojos, our Japanese retail (including the much-anticipated Marukai Market, set to open soon in the Energy Corridor) and our passionate Sushi Club of Houston (the largest organization of its kind in the U.S., with over 15,000 members).
But that affinity is most evident, perhaps, at our giant annual Japan Fest, taking place this month at Hermann Park and now in its 23rd year. Started as a way to increase awareness of the city’s Japanese community, and, later, the park’s newly unveiled Japanese Gardens, the festival has become a juggernaut: This year, it’s expected to draw over 30,000 attendees, which, if you’re counting, is 10 times the size of our actual Japanese population.
So whither the outsized popularity of Japan Fest? And Japanese culture as a whole in Houston? “I think there’s something very appealing about the quest for perfection in the Japanese culture,” says Justin Cooper, the festival’s president, who spent six years in Japan serving in the U.S. military. “That constant drive for improvement easily aligns with the American philosophy of hard work and innovation.”
Emily Gurvis, cultural affairs specialist at the Consulate-General of Japan downtown, points to the historic connection between the country and this part of the world. It was, after all, the Japanese who brought the rice industry to South Texas more than a century ago. “I think that Japan has a much longer history in the United States, and in Texas, than many people realize,” she says. “The fusion of forward thinking and tradition that is unique to Japan is also particular to Houston.”
Of course, it’s not only Houston, but American pop culture as a whole, that Japanese culture has influenced. “We eat sushi, study karate, watch Pokémon, keep our minds sharp with Sudoku, sing our hearts out at karaoke, communicate through emoji and adore Hello Kitty,” laughs Patsy Yoon Brown, a Korean-American with Japanese roots, who spent 10 years living in Japan and is now the executive director of the Japanese-American Society Houston.
The festival celebrates all these things, along with another Japanese tradition: cosplay. Houston teens and adults alike will attend the event dressed as their favorite cartoon and fantasy characters, then compete to win a round-trip ticket to Tokyo. “Hundreds of guests showcase their unique creations on the main stage,” says Cooper, adding that most spend months on the intricate design, sewing and construction of their costumes—something that, in itself, is very Japanese.
“We here in America could all learn a thing or two from Japanese precision and mastery,” says Yoon Brown, “and I encourage more people to jump on the Japan bandwagon.”
Japan Fest, April 16 & 17. Free. Hermann Park, 6100 Hermann Park Dr. 713-963-0121