Asaki Osato named 2012 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen

The 2012 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen court (from left to right): Princess Chihiro Hirai, Miss Tomodachi Miki Fukai, Queen Asaki Osato, First Princess Megumi Yoshida and Princess Manami Kidera. photo by Andrew Slusser

Asaki Osato, a college student from San Jose, was crowned 2012 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown on April 14.

Candidates Chihiro Hirai, Manami Kidera, Osato, Miki Fukai and Megumi Yoshida competed for the role of queen in the program, a highlight of the 45th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. They performed traditional Japanese dance, recited speeches, and participated in a talent portion that included singing, dancing, a trumpet performance and a lively spoken word presentation.

Osato and the court will represent the Japanese American community locally, around the country and on a trip to Japan. Osato also received a handmade pink flowered kimono and accompanying accessories, a prize donated yearly by Fujiyasu Co. Ltd.

This year’s candidates were unique in that all come from Japanese-speaking homes and, as Shin-Issei or Shin-Nisei, share a more direct connection to Japan than previous years’ candidates.

“When they are all together, they speak in Japanese, which is wonderful for their role,” said Benh Nakajo, chair of the queen committee. “I’m excited about this group. They have a common bond.”

After the program, which concluded the first day of the Festival, Osato said she was “in a state of shock” about winning. Though she was nervous on stage, she said she was excited about sharing her passions. “I’m happy I was able to enjoy the night and have fun,” she said, “and I guess it paid off.”

In her speech, the 21-year-old UC Davis student discussed her love for teaching art to children, and the connection to her Japanese heritage that she achieves through forms of artistic expression, like origami.

“The most important aspect of art is … the impact it has on people,” Osato said in her speech. “Art has been a way to stay connected with my cultural roots.”

For her talent, Osato performed her own choreography to Adele’s “Rumour Has It.” This was her first time performing a dance solo on stage, she said.

In the next year, Osato said, the court hopes to unite the Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei communities with Japanese Americans of other generations, noting that she sees a gap between the groups. Through this work, she said she hopes the court will be able “to do something no other court has done before.”

Megumi Yoshida, 24, who was selected as the first princess, also expressed her passion for this issue. “We see a big disparity between the way the Japanese community interacts with each other, and we would like to find a way to bridge the gap,” Yoshida said.

During the program, Yoshida spoke about her desire to tell the Japanese American story on stage through a theatrical production, and sang the sultry tune “Amado Mio” by Pink Martini, backed by a bass guitarist.

Miki Fukai, 22, selected by her peers as Miss Tomodachi, the award for the most congenial of the group, said she was happy to receive the honor. “All the girls are wonderful and lovely and I love them,” she said, “so I was really surprised. I’m thankful to them for finding a good part of my personality and I’m glad to be surrounded by wonderful women.”

The program, emceed by ABC 7 transportation reporter Heather Ishimaru, included the presentation of a certificate of commendation from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Nakajo in recognition of his years of dedication to the queen program.

Candidates were judged on their speeches, essays, on- and off-stage interviews and talent performances.

Judge Haruka Roudebush, chair of Nakayoshi Young Professionals, said that he was impressed by all the candidates, but thought that Osato’s poise gave her the edge. “She was very polished in the presentation and the interviews,” Roudebush said. “It also helped that she had some insight into the community, growing up in the Bay Area. She was very smart and capable.”

Yoshi and Hiromi Osato, Asaki’s parents, originally from Tokyo, said they were surprised but happy to see their daughter win, and were glad to see her express her artistic passions through her speech and dance.

“She’s going to have lots of opportunities,” Yoshi Osato said. “She can learn a lot and find her dream or next goal.”

The devastation and hardship associated with last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake was recognized with a moment of silence, as well as in the stage decoration, which featured a thousand pink and purple cranes of various sizes, created in memory of the victims.

Osato said that as queen, she hopes to keep the focus on the ongoing struggles in that area of Japan. “A lot of times when there is a disaster, people remember for one year and forget soon after, so hopefully in my role I can help people not to forget,” Osato said.

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