CONNECTING TO HERITAGE: Kelli Asako Sum crowned 2015 queen


Kelli Asako Sum (second from left) is named the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen as (left to right) Taylor Keiko-Lehua Davis, Karine Brenda Worley and First Princess Nina Marie Meyers look on. photo by William Lee

Kelli Asako Sum (second from left) is named the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen as (left to right) Taylor Keiko-Lehua Davis, Karine Brenda Worley and First Princess Nina Marie Meyers look on. photo by William Lee
Kelli Asako Sum (second from left) is named the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen as (left to right) Taylor Keiko-Lehua Davis, Karine Brenda Worley and First Princess Nina Marie Meyers look on. photo by William Lee

With the start of the 48th annual Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco, the 2015 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program chose its new queen and court April 11 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown.

The program, emceed by KTVU Fox2 reporter Jana Katsuyama and ABC7 KGO reporter David Louie, featured Taylor Keiko-Lehua Davis, Nina Marie Myers, Kelli Asako Sum and Karine Brenda Worley — vying for the title of queen. Sum of San Jose was elected the 2015 queen and Myers of Stanford, Calif., the first princess. The court, of multiracial and multiethnic Japanese American college students, will represent Northern California’s Japanese American community.

The program faced a number of changes this year. According to Benh Nakajo, chair of the program, the Golden Gate Optimist Club of San Francisco, a longtime sponsor of queen candidates, dissolved last year. Furthermore, Seishichi Ato, the president of the Fujiyasu Company in Tokyo, passed away last February; Ato began the tradition of donating a full furisode kimono ensemble to each queen in 1972.

The evening program also changed its format this year, electing to not have a scored creative expression segment, and to award the Miss Tomodachi (congeniality) award at the end of the court’s reign rather than at the start. Candidates were scored based on a written essay, an interview with the judges backstage,  a speech at the program and an interview on-stage with Katsuyama and Louie.

The creative expression segment was changed into a creative expression spotlight video featuring the candidates. Davis presented on softball, Myers presented on dragonboat racing, Sum presented on koto (stringed instrument) and Worley shared her interest in cooking.

Claiming the Throne

Sum’s late mother, Linda Tatsuyo Uno-Sum, was a queen court member in 1983 — making this the second year in a row where a queen is a second generation court member; outgoing Queen Kyle Tana’s mother was queen in 1974. While Sum lost her mother to cancer at the age of 14, she continues to look to her as her connection to her Japanese heritage.

Sum spoke about her mother and the source of cultural connections she offered her until her passing. Her mother maintained their Japanese heritage and culture through food and visits to extended family in Japan.

“I felt disoriented about who I was and how to regain stability as a majority of these cultural influences gradually came to an end,” Sum said of her mother’s passing. During her second year in college, she decided to reconnect with her heritage. She took up the koto, an instrument her mother practiced as a means of both reconnecting with her Japanese heritage and her mother.

“I truly believe that our culture has the potential to give us guidance, regardless of the circumstances our life bestows,” she said.

During her interview, Sum said family was her priority. “I think family life and family members are the foundation of who you are and your supporters in your life in how you pursue your career and how you get involved with the community.”

In the end, the 22-year-old San Jose State University industrial engineering major won over the judges and was crowned queen.

“At first, I thought they called a different name,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly, reflecting upon her coronation after the program. Sum pledged to do more outreach for Nikkei events such as the Cherry Blossom Festival, professing this was her first time attending the event in San Francisco.

Steven Sum, the queen’s father, was elated by the news. “This is the very example of what someone can do if they set goals to achieve them,” he said. He said she entered the competition while working a part-time job and attending school to pursue an engineering degree. “This is a testament to her tenacity and hard work.”

The First Princess

Myers said it was “a bit of a surprise,” but was really happy nonetheless.

The 22-year old Stanford University biology major, who was born in Lima, Ohio and grew up in Denver, Colo., began connecting with her Japanese heritage in college. Myers  said during her on-stage interview that her mixed heritage helped her identify the influences each side of her heritage had on her. “It’s really made me think about how important it is to be open-minded,” she said. Myers came to the San Francisco Bay Area because of its diversity. While she felt a connection to her Japanese side through her mother and sister in Colorado, she did not feel as connected to the broader community there.

During her speech, she spoke about her struggle with identity growing up in a mixed heritage household. “Over the years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the concept of identity, and the fact that I am a hafu,” she said. Myers said her Japanese heritage was a “defining feature” of her life and was discouraged when others dismissed her heritage based on appearance.

“One of my greatest fears has always been letting down my parents by failing to uphold my heritage. As a result, I struggle to find an appropriate balance between my Japanese half and my American half,” she said. While she could not answer what it exactly means to be Asian, Asian American or American, she said she knew the people and culture around her was what mattered most.

While her parents were unable to make it, Myers said her sister had come to watch the program and friends from Stanford Japanese Association and Stanford Dragonboat also came to cheer her on.

The Princesses

Davis, a 24-year-old Sacramento State University student from Stockton, Calif. studying to become a dietician, talked about the strength she found in embracing herself. She said she was bullied for her size in elementary school, but gained confidence in herself through her athleticism. While she had tried to follow the crowd at first, she has since become comfortable doing things her own way.

“When I was younger, it felt difficult being different, but today, I embrace differences,” she said. As a member of the court she hoped that she can help others embrace their own differences as well. “Being perfect is overrated, so never apologize for being imperfect.”

Worley, a 19-year-old San Jose State University student studying computer engineering born in Iwate prefecture, was raised in a single-mother household in Santa Clara, Calif. Her mother, a native of Japan, nurtured a close relationship with Japanese culture throughout Worley’s life. During her speech, Worley spoke about what it means to recognize her culture.

“To me, being Japanese American means recognizing culture and cultural differences,” she said in her speech. She spoke about the fear of eating natto bento in front of her friends at school, but after a curious friend tried it and liked it she realized differences should be celebrated. “This experience taught me to celebrate my culture rather instead of hiding it and also opened a door to a world of Japanese culture to my friends just by the simple act of sharing.”

As the new court received their sashes and tiaras, another year begins for the queen program. The 2015 court will spend the next year traveling around Northern California, with Sum conducting a visit to Japan. The court will visit about 50 different events over the next year.


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