Japanese government honors Benh Nakajo

HONORED BY JAPAN — Benh Nakajo (L), the chair of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program, receives a Foreign Ministry Commendation from Consul General of Japan Hiroshi Inomata at the Queen Program on April 14. photo by Andrew Slusser

The 2012 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program took place on April 14 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown. Along with the crowning of Queen Asaki Osato, the program’s longtime chairman, Benh Koreyoshi Nakajo, was also honored.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan bestowed on Nakajo a commendation for his years of dedication to the program. Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata presented Nakajo with a certificate.

“This year marks the 45th anniversary of Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival (NCCBF) as well as the centennial of Japan’s gift of cherry (blossom) trees to the United States,” Inomata told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a statement.

“We did not want to let this important anniversary pass without recognizing those who have been committed to promoting U.S.-Japan cultural exchange through their involvement with the NCCBF. (Benh) Nakajo is one of the oldest NCCBF committee members and has been the queen program chair for over 20 years. In light of his many years of hard work and dedication to the NCCBF, it is indeed a well-deserved recognition.”

Nakajo said he was touched by the commendation. “(The) commendation has really made me feel very gratified and humble,” he said in an e-mail. “After all, there are many more deserving individuals that the consul office could have submitted that are much more worthy and done much more than me.”

Sarah Fedaie, a 2007 court member and this year’s program director, said the commendation came as a surprise to the organizers.

“We found out about the Foreign Minister’s Commendation just hours before the queen program was to start,” Fedaie said in an e-mail. She said Nakajo’s acceptance of the award reminded her of his strength as a leader, and his years of service. “The way that Mr. Nakajo received his commendation reminded me of a saying: ‘A true leader casts no shadow because he’s always shining a light on others.’ He has a long record of tirelessly giving back to our community and in Japan over the years. We are fortunate to have a person such as Mr. Nakajo who’s there to remind us that the work we have to do is never complete, to strive to do better and always give more.”

Miki Katsuyama Novitski was a court member in 1989. Novitski, being a San Francisco Japantown native, continued her involvement with the program over the years, and is now a court advisor along with Nakajo.

According to Novitski, the court advisor serves as a “house mother” or “big sister” to court members. Since 2007, she and Nakajo have helped to guide the court in their commitment to community service, as well as take care of scheduling and plan court appearances.

She described Nakajo as an individual who is “extremely involved with the Japanese American community.”

Novitski added, “He has been known as … a very proud, prominent and upstanding individual of the community,” said Novitski.

“However, for those closer to him, he is a very humble, humanistic, caring, hard-working and giving mentor.”

Novitski admits that the two don’t always agree. “We argue, fight and are stubborn about our thoughts and vision; we share and compromise, then we are able to create something extra special out of it all — he is part of my extended family.”

Nakajo said he became even more aware and appreciative of his family, friends and local community organizations. “This work, community service, cannot be done alone and I owe it to the community and people surrounding me that helped me to be singled out to be honored,” said Nakajo. “I will accept on behalf of the everyone including myself, and feel its good for the Northern California Community and the Cherry Blossom Festival.”

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