The five women participating in the 2011 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival (NCCBF) Queen Program greeted media and community members for the first time as Queen candidates in San Francisco’s Japantown on March 12.
Tamiko Escalante, Richelle Chiemi Farley, Jeddie Narumi Kawahatsu, Lauren Sachi Kawawaki and Kaori Saito introduced themselves and revealed what they will perform for the talent program, a popular component of the event that has been reinstated after being cut for the past two years.
Tamiko Escalante, a Yonsei on her mother’s side and Sansei on her father’s side, currently works at an optometrist’s office and plans to go back to school to study optometry, which, she says, can reveal a lot about a person’s overall health.
A black belt in karate, Escalante has been studying the martial art since age 8; she will demonstrate Wado-Kai karate as her talent in the program. A graduate of Boston University, Escalante, 24, moved back to California in late 2009 and now coaches youth basketball through her church, which she plans to continue on top of her work and court duties.
“It’s going to be a busy year. Time management is definitely a priority for me,” Escalante said. “The Queen Program has already been so exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
Richelle Chiemi Farley
The youngest candidate at 19 years old, Richelle Chiemi Farley, a Yonsei, is also newest to the area, having moved to the Bay Area from her native Hawai‘i in 2009 to study interior architecture and design at the Academy of Art University.
“I really like Japanese culture, the open space, and the architecture in Hawai’i, so I’d like to incorporate both of them, as part of who I am, too,” Farley said.
Farley recalls watching her cousin perform in a queen program back in Hawai’i, so she has been interested in participating in this type of event for years and was excited to learn about this opportunity, she said. Farley will perform hula, which she’s danced since age 5.
Lauren Sachi Kawawaki
A student at UC Santa Cruz, Lauren Sachi Kawawaki, 20, majors in environmental studies and economics, and said she hopes to work for an eco-friendly company, ideally in the field of solar energy.
A Gosei, Kawawaki is a youth coordinator at the San Mateo chapter of the Japanese American Citizen’s League and said she’s excited about the opportunity to connect even more with the Japanese American community.
“I think it’s really important to preserve your culture,” Kawawaki said. “I really want to get to know my heritage more, to be actively involved in my community.”
She’s been practicing taekwondo for six years, and she plans demonstrate a form as her talent.
Jeddie Narumi Kawahatsu
Jeddie Narumi Kawahatsu, 21, grew up in San Francisco’s Japantown as the daughter of the Konko Church of San Francisco’s Rev. Masato Kawahatsu. She said she is excited to represent the community that has helped her throughout her life.
“Last year, my hula group was asked to march in the parade. I got kind of teary eyed as I was looking around and saw a lot of people in the community who have supported me as I was growing up,” Kawahatsu said. “I just felt like I really wanted to represent them and be a leader.”
A Yonsei on her mother’s side and Shin-Nisei on her father’s side, Kawahatsu said she’ll graduate from the University of San Francisco this May with a major in English with a double minor in fine arts and Asian American studies. In the program, she’ll perform hula, which she has learned at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.
Originally from Japan, Kaori Saito, 20, first moved to Hawai‘i at age 15, and then, three years ago, came to San Rafael, Calif. to attend the College of Marin.
“When I first moved to Hawai‘i, I didn’t speak the language or know the culture, so I had a difficult time getting used to the new environment,” Saito said. “My high school days were really hard, but all my Japanese American friends were really nice to me and helped me a lot adopting the new culture.”
Saito, who is studying communications in the hopes of becoming a broadcast journalist, will perform an original song for the contest entitled “Love Conquers All,” which, she said is not a typical romantic love song, but about the feeling of love for in general.
Benh Nakajo, chairperson of the Queen Program, said that, though he enjoys the talent section because it reveals the candidates’ individuality, it was cut the past two years because of the difficulty it adds to the production of the event. This year, based on requests from audience members, the segment was reinstated.
Nakajo called the candidates “a wonderful group,” adding that recruitment is always difficult.
“Every year I’m so happy to have them,” Nakajo said. “If we don’t have a minimum of five (candidates), we don’t have a program.”
Arisa Hiroi, the current NCCBF Queen, said that the new group handled the pressure “wonderfully,” despite the nervousness that comes with public speaking. Though she said the current court will “lovingly be called has-beens” when the new court takes over, this is not the end of their participation in the Japanese American community.
“The goal really is to stay involved in whatever ways we can, even after the year is done, to take our experiences and use them for the rest of our lives,” Hiroi said.
The Cherry Blossom Queen — who will spend a year representing her community at various events across the Bay Area, around the country, and even on a visit to Japan — will be crowned at the Queen Program on Saturday, April 9, the first day of the 44th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, at 6 p.m. Doors open at 5 p.m.
For information about purchasing tickets, which cost $25, contact Tosh Mitsuda at (650) 871-9287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomo Hirai contributed to this report.