The International Street Performers Festival was hatched in Papa John. In 1984, Ikuo Mitsuhashi — a mime artist just back in Yokohama from a decade-long French sojourn — dropped by the venerable jazz shot bar and listened to the proprietor describe the Association for Fostering Noge Culture. He was smitten.
Straight off, Mitsuhashi joined and rounded up mimes, circus people and puppeteers for street performances in the 1985 Spring Noge Festival. The busking was a hit. The next year Mitsuhashi put on an independent festival with 26 street performers. The International Street Performers Festival was born — and grew.
In 1997, close to half a million people squeezed into Noge for the 21st festival (biannual until 1996). The festival spilled over to Minato Mirai and Isezakicho in 2000 and 2002, respectively. It continues to grow.
“Thanks to the opening of the Minato Mirai Line,” says Fumika Ohkubo, manager of the Noge Daidogei Office, “We anticipate 40,000 more spectators this year, for a total of 900,000, which makes the festival the largest of its kind in Japan. This year, 119 artists from nine countries will perform.”
Mitsuhashi is one reason for the festival’s success. A graduate of the school founded around 1970 by the French government to rescue the circus arts from stale routine, he breathed a fresh sensibility into the festival. Another reason is the community’s devotion. “The festival is undertaken by more 150 unpaid volunteers,” says Ohkubo.
As 2004 marks the 150th anniversary of Commodore Matthew Perry’s signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, this year’s festival has America as its theme. The U.S. 7th Fleet Band will kick it off by marching from the Yoshida-machi police box to the top of Noge-zaka from 11:30 a.m. A “Black Market Boogie Woogie” variety show will re-create the atmosphere of the postwar years. A big band will play swing, locals will sashay dressed in ’40s fashions, and faux GIs will hand out candy and chocolate.
Otherwise, the festival will round up the usual street performers — comic pantomimes and tightrope walkers, magicians and jugglers, acrobats and unicyclists — and the unusual, including a human jukebox, a belly dancer and a Tsugaru shamisen player.