After an evening of speeches, dancing and music — striking a balance between joyous celebration and somber reflection on the devastation in Northeastern Japan — San Francisco native Jeddie Narumi Kawahatsu, 21, was crowned 2011 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival queen.
At Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown on April 9, candidates Kaori Saito, Tamiko Escalante, Richelle Chiemi Farley, Lauren Sachi Kawawaki and Jeddie Narumi Kawahatsu competed to determine who would represent the Northern California Japanese American community as its queen — locally, around the country, and on a trip to Japan.
The five candidates were evaluated based on speech and question-and-answer segments, in addition to an essay submission and private interview with judges — and the popular talent program, reinstated this year after a two-year absence.
Throughout the program, Kawahatsu expressed her dedication to the Japantown community, where she has grown up as the daughter of a reverend of the local Konko Church, attending Nihonmachi Little Friends, and taking various classes at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC). She dedicated her talent performance, a hula dance, to her teachers and “hula sisters” at the JCCCNC.
“I am a part of Japantown, and Japantown is a huge part of who I have become,” Kawahatsu said in her speech. “As this community has inspired me, I hope that I can inspire future generations to understand this connection, and uphold the legacy of this supportive, passionate community.”
Tamiko Escalante, 23, was selected as First Princess, after impressing the audience with a dramatic talent performance of Wado-kai karate, which she said she has practiced since age 8. Transforming completely from her poised, smiling demeanor, Escalante’s face tightened with intensity as she barked “kiai” and punched and kicked with audible force.
“Note to self,” co-emcee George Kiriyama remarked as Escalante left the stage, “Do not mess with her.”
“People don’t expect that of me,” Escalante said after the event, beaming in an evening gown and tiara. “It was the last event and I was so excited to end it with a bang.”
Lauren Sachi Kawawaki, 20, was awarded the title of Miss Tomodachi, a congeniality prize based on votes by her peers. The audience got a taste of Kawawaki’s humor during the question-and-answer segment, when co-emcee Jana Katsuyama quizzed the petite Kawawaki on her choice of instrument — the tuba.
“I literally took on something bigger than myself,” Kawawaki said, drawing laughter from the crowd. She added that, since people have to help carry the instrument, “If you like being pampered, you should play the tuba.”
Judge Hiroshi Shimizu, president of the Tule Lake Committee and the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said that all the contestants were “very good” and it was a close competition, adding that Kawahatsu showed excellent poise and self-confidence.
“I thought Jeddie impressed everyone with her current and past commitment to the community and her desire to serve the community,” said judge Sarah Sasaki, 2005 queen.
Though the overall atmosphere was festive, throughout the event, speakers reflected on the devastation in Japan. Emcees Katsuyama and Kiriyama, both television reporters, had recently returned from covering the catastrophe and described the difficulties they had seen. Program chair Benh Nakajo called for a moment of silence. He led 2010 Miss Tomodachi Corey Fujioka’s presentation of a bouquet of white roses with condolences for victims of the disaster, also acknowledging the generous donation of the kimono from the Tokyo-based Fujiyasu Co. Ltd.
After the earthquake and tsunami, Nakajo said, there was debate about whether the Program should go on as planned. “In our culture, if something bad has happened, you stay quiet and subdued,” Nakajo said. Choosing to move forward, the event organizers wanted to have a joyous event for the sake of the new court, Nakajo said, but they also decided to sell teal ribbons to raise funds for disaster relief.
After the winner was announced, Kawahatsu’s friends and family expressed joy and pride. “I’m so happy she’ll be able to represent her community,” said Alice Kawahatsu, Jeddie’s mother. “She’s just beautiful; she has a special quality.”
Masato Kawahatsu also said that he is excited about his daughter’s new role, adding that members of his congregation had suggested he pray for her success. “I can’t pray only for my daughter,” he said, laughing. “I have to pray for all of them!”
Jane Hara Wong, Kawahatsu’s grandmother, said that years ago, while watching the parade together, Jeddie looked up at the queen float and told her, “I want to be on that float.”
“Dreams come true,” Wong said. “I’m shocked!”
While Kawahatsu didn’t recall having made that remark to her grandmother, she said that watching the parade with her family was a yearly tradition. “We would sit on the same block, on the same part of the sidewalk, eat lunch, and watch the parade together,” Kawahatsu said.
After decades of commitment to Japantown, this year, with Jeddie as queen, the Kawahatsu family will have an all-new parade experience — but one, Kawahatsu is eager to clarify, that has been made possible only through that involvement. “I feel that all the lessons that people in the community have taught me have allowed me to be here,” Kawahatsu said. “I wouldn’t be here without them. I really owe it to them.”
Correction: Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the April 14-20, 2011 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “Jeddie Kawahatsu crowned Northern CA Cherry Blossom Festival queen” erroneously indicated that the 2011 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program was held at the Hotel Kabuki. It was held at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.