Arisa Hiroi, 19, Crowned Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen

Impressing judges with her poise and intellect despite being the youngest candidate, Arisa Hiroi was chosen as the 2010 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen at age 19, the youngest in many years to take the prize.

The San Francisco native was crowned at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on April 10, after a program of speeches and interviews during which candidates often focused on the challenges facing Japantown and issues of engaging young Japanese Americans in their heritage and community.

FAMILY SUPPORT — Newly-crowned Cherry Blossom Queen Arisa Hiroi with her parents, Kunihiko and Mari Hiroi. photos by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

Like other candidates, Hiroi noted potential threats to San Francisco’s Japanese American community, like the closure of Japanese American newspapers and worries about Japantown development, in her speech. “Even with such changes, it’s important that Japanese Americans not lose their own culture,” Hiroi said.

Ashley Nakatani, who described her passion for engaging young people in the community, was crowned First Princess, and chocolate maker Corey Fujioka was voted “Miss Tomodachi” by her peers for being the most congenial of the court. Ayae Yamamoto and Kiyomi Tanaka also participated in the program.

A UC Davis student majoring in Japanese and sociology, Hiroi expressed pride in her combined Japanese and American heritage in her speech. Describing her name, Arisa, which is native to both cultures, as the “first multicultural gift bestowed upon me,” Hiroi, who intends to become a teacher of the Japanese language, said, “I consciously desire to carry on Japanese, American and Japanese American culture.”

After her win, Hiroi said she was excited about her new responsibility to reach out to the Japanese American community in all of Northern California, not just San Francisco, adding that she and the other princesses are uniquely able to reach youth, being young themselves.

She said that she initially thought that her age might be a drawback. “All the other girls are done with their degrees, but I felt very comfortable,” Hiroi said. “I don’t feel they treated me any lesser because I was younger.  We’re going to have a lot of fun.”

Presented with a furisode kimono, Hiroi also received a round-trip plane ticket to Japan and award money. She and the princesses will spend the year representing the Northern California Japanese American community, traveling across the country to interact with their counterparts in other cities, and attending local events, encouraging youth engagement.

She was presented her crown by outgoing Queen Eri Tagaya, who gave an emotional speech about her experiences over the last year, at times choking up when she described the close bond that had developed among the court.

“I could not have dreamed of a more diverse, deeply beautiful and uniquely talented group of women with whom to live this adventure,” Tagaya said.

Friends and family describe Hiroi as independent and focused. She didn’t tell her parents about her decision to participate in the contest until after entering, said her father, Kunihiko, but th      at didn’t surprise him. “She does everything by herself,” he said. “I respect that.”

Her great aunt, Frances Escobar, 89, who also taught Hiroi piano for years, described her as “shikkari shiteru,” or “focused,” noting that she was always able to concentrate the moment she sat in front of the piano.

“Arisa has a profound multicultural awareness that arises from her hyphenated culture,” Justin Howard, a friend of Hiroi’s, said. “She really embodies that.”

Judges considered the candidates’ three-minute speeches and an on-stage interview, as well as an essay and preliminary interview, evaluating them on qualities such as poise, intelligence, grace under pressure and ability to articulate their ideas.

Judge Dana Lewis, president of the Japan Society of Northern California, said that though the decision was difficult because all candidates were extremely qualified, she was especially impressed by Hiroi’s “beautiful, well-crafted” essay.

“She had a strong sense of self and we all really liked that,” Lewis said.

Allen Okamoto, co-chair of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, was surprised with the judges’ selection, “only because Arisa was the youngest” candidate.

Okamoto praised Hiroi’s responses during the question and answer period, and said that she “gave the best responses.”

Like other judges, Amy Sujishi, president of the Japanese Community Youth Council and 1999 First Princess, called Hiroi “very mature for her age.”

Sujishi praised all candidates for being “passionate about the community,” adding, “That’s what we need right now.”

Other judges were Lynn Shibata Nakaso, founder of Skin Solutions; Don Inaba, vice president of Hayashida Architects; Cynthia Miyashita, founder of Sozo Studio Modern Kitchen Architecture; Lisa Wong Macabasco, Hyphen magazine managing editor; and Stuart Hing, a judge of the Alameda County Superior Court.

Queen Program Advisor Benh Nakajo, who has been involved in planning the program for decades, offered an impassioned thanks to sponsors during the event and said that this year had been a particularly tough one for the program. The working committee, Nakajo said, has been dwindling for years, and difficult economic times also pose a threat.

“If we can’t have the festival and this kind of program that continue Japanese American traditions, they will disappear,” Nakajo said. “We can’t do it ourselves; we need the support of our sponsors.”

Originally from Japan, Hiroi’s father, who has lived in San Francisco for nearly 40 years, said he’s also aware of the threats facing the community. “The properties [of Japantown] used to be owned by Japanese, but now many are owned by non-Japanese,” he said. “Their fate is not in their hands; they aren’t able to make their own decisions.”

But he is optimistic about his daughter’s potential to make a difference in their community.  “She’s always done everything we hoped, so I’m sure she’ll do a good job,” he said.

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