Kelly Yuka Walton, an eighth-grade math teacher who grew up in San Francisco, was crowned the 2013 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen April 13 during the annual Queen Program, held at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to participate in this program,” Walton, 25, said after her win. “I feel so honored and humbled at the same time because I know there’s so much ahead of me now.”
Jamie Sachiko Martyn was declared First Princess. The Tomodachi Award recipient, granted to the candidate voted by her peers as most congenial, went to Tiffany Sieu Okimura. Michiko Marie Maggi and Kimberly Miya Sasaki complete the court.
Walton was awarded a crimson, butterfly-patterned kimono adorned with Austrian crystals, along with an obi, and all of the accessories, provided by the Fujiyasu Kimono Company, in keeping with a tradition that began in 1973. Walton will also visit Japan as a representative of the Northern California Japanese American community, and she and the court will travel around the country and participate in various local events.
To determine the candidate with the strongest ability to be the ambassador of her community and the festival, the five participants were judged on a backstage interview, essay, Q-and-A format session, creative expression and speeches. This year, the speeches were connected to the theme of “Back to Basics,” with candidates describing the core values that define them as individuals.
In her speech, Walton discussed the values of commitment and resilience that are epitomized, for her, by the experiences of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II and rebuilt communities after the war. She added, however, that these ideals can and should continue to be upheld through volunteer work and active participation in one’s community.
“The time for commitment and resilience is now more than ever,” Walton said in her speech. “We can all do our part.”
In the Q-and-A format session, conducted by hosts Jana Katsuyama of KTVU and George Kiriyama of NBC Bay Area, Walton also discussed the inspiration she finds in the work of Asian American elected officials. “We’re paving paths here,” Walton said. “We’re making it known that Asian Americans have a voice.”
Walton also discussed a club that she organizes at her school for students of different ethnicities to share their cultures. Through these activities, she said, students learn about each others’ backgrounds and start to see similarities, such as between the Japanese Obon festival and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos.
For the creative expression segment of the program, both Walton and Sasaki performed a modern dance, and Okimura a traditional Japanese dance, an art she said she has practiced for the past 17 years. Maggi, who studied film in college, presented a one-and-a-half minute “sneak preview” film of her life story.
Martyn executed a spontaneous one-line drawing, creating a picture in marker on a white board without lifting her pen. Her drawing was based on suggestions solicited from the audience, which resulted in a sketch on a topic she didn’t see coming.
“I really wanted to interact with the audience,” Martyn said after the program. “I was hoping people would stick with a theme of Japantown and cherry blossoms, but ‘monkey on the Golden Gate Bridge’ caught me off guard.”
Alice Kawahatsu, one of the program’s judges, said that Walton “just has such a passion for the future generations and I know she’ll serve well.”
Kawahatsu, a member of the San Francisco Konko Church board of directors, also said she was amazed by the “very active” community participation of the candidates. “It was very enlightening to hear them speak about their passions,” she said. Kawahatsu’s daughter Jeddie was the 2011 queen.
Benh Nakajo, chairperson of the Queen Program, described the court as “unique, dynamic, energetic and committed.”
David Walton and Machiko Nakatani, Kelly’s parents, expressed a similar level of admiration for the court, whom they said they had the chance to learn about at the weekly practices they hosted at their house. “I kind of wanted every one of them to win. They seemed so wonderful,” David Walton said. “I think all the girls are winners.”
He attributed his daughter’s victory to being able to share her natural personality and talents with the audience. “She’s very vibrant and passionate,” he said. “She was able to be herself.”
Walton, who has a master’s degree in education from Stanford University, said her interest in the Japanese American community and social issues stemmed directly from her education at San Francisco public schools.
She attended Clarendon Alternative Elementary’s Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program and Lowell High School, and emphasized the significance of her Japanese American female teachers in particular. Two of her teachers were even in attendance at the Queen Program, she said.
“These Japanese American women invested so much in me,” Walton said, “I owe it to them to continue that legacy and create some positive change in my community.”