Candidates for Cherry Blossom Queen Program announced

Candidates of the 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program (L to R): Breana Mayumi Inoshita, Kona Melissa Kawai, Jan Mitsuko Cash, Kyla Kajioka, Samantha Beth Tsukiji, Marisa Mari Sum and Nicole Kiyomi Harada. photo by William Lee

Candidates of the 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program (L to R): Breana Mayumi Inoshita, Kona Melissa Kawai, Jan Mitsuko Cash, Kyla Kajioka, Samantha Beth Tsukiji, Marisa Mari Sum and Nicole Kiyomi Harada. photo by William Lee

Seven young Japanese American women, who will participate in the 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program, were introduced at a press conference March 12 at the Union Bank Community Room in San Francisco’s Japantown. The Queen Program, a highlight of San Francisco’s 49th annual  Cherry Blossom Festival, will be held Saturday, April 9 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

The seven candidates are: Samantha Beth Tsukiji, Jan Mitsuko Cash, Kyla Kajioka, Nicole Kiyomi Harada, Breana Mayumi Inoshita, Marisa Mari Sum and Kona Melissa Kawai.

Samantha Beth Tsukiji
Samantha Beth Tsukiji, 26, of San Jose, Calif., is the daughter of Ben and Sharon Tsukiji. A Gosei, she graduated from Willow Glen High School in San Jose and from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she majored in sociology with a minor in exercise and sports studies with an emphasis on sport management. While the major and minor don’t mix very well, Tsukiji decided to add the minor to her degree in her senior year due to her interest in sports. Tsukiji said she grew up with few other Japanese Americans at school, but her parents enrolled her in the Japanese American basketball leagues when she was 4 years old. She connected with her Japanese cultural roots through the sport. “That’s where I met all the Japanese American girls, not just from my area but other areas. We would go to tournaments and we’d travel. They’d introduce me to Japanese American snacks, like Spam musubi. And today, I coach in the Japanese American leagues,” she said. She hopes to go to graduate school for a master’s degree in sport management, and one day open a basketball program for low-income children. During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be basketball. Tsukiji is sponsored by the Nikkei Lions Club of San Francisco.

Jan Mitsuko Cash
Jan Mitsuko Cash, 24, of Modesto, Calif., is the daughter of Joseph and Yukiko Cash. A Shin-Nisei, she graduated from Fred C. Beyer High School of Modesto and Princeton University, where she majored in ecology and evolutionary biology. Currently, she works as a translation editor in San Francisco. Cash grew up visiting Okinawa, where her mother was born.  She is relatively comfortable in Japanese. Her father is American. “In Okinawa, I just love everything,” she said. “It’s a small enough place where you can get to know a lot of people and you feel a sense of community, but it’s large enough that there is always something happening.” Cash started learning how to play sanshin (Okinawan snake-skinned banjo) through her grandfather, who performed the instrument on his 80th birthday. While he was too old to teach her, she began learning by attending local sanshin circles in Okinawa. Cash also grew up doing origami. She said she can fold a Kawasaki rose from memory and recently folded a Darth Vader. During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be origami. Cash is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

Kyla Kajioka
Kyla Kajioka, 23, of Fremont, Calif., is the daughter of Stanley and Krystal Kajioka. A Yonsei, she graduated from Irvington High School in Fremont and is a recent graduate from San Jose State University, where she majored in kinesiology with emphasis on sport management. She also obtained a business minor. Kajioka said she wants to go into sport management. She has previously held internships with the San Jose Athletics, San Jose Earthquakes and the San Jose SaberCats during their final season. As for her connection to the Japanese American community, she said her family attends the Mountain View Buddhist Temple’s Obon festival each year. “That was my main connection to Japanese culture, along with seeing my grandparents who would teach me how to make sushi and manju for the holidays,” she said. She hopes the Queen Program will help her gain a deeper foothold with other groups and people within the Nikkei community. During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be dance. Kajioka started cheerleading in the seventh grade and said her presentation will emphasize her personal growth and interpersonal connections she developed thorough competitive cheerleading and dance. Kajioka is sponsored by Takara Sake USA INC.

Nicole Kiyomi Harada
Nicole Kiyomi Harada, 23, of San Jose, Calif., is the daughter of Kathy Harada. A Yonsei, she graduated from Prospect High School in Saratoga, Calif. and the University of California at Irvine, where she received a bachelor’s degree in business economics. Harada said she hopes to enter marketing and help Japantown thrive in the future. “I grew up in San Jose with the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, and I did Girl Scouts with them. I also played with the CYS, the Japanese Community Youth Service. I played basketball, I did bowling, I tried golf and tennis. I did all of that with the church. Now, I work in Japantown,” she said. She also grew up practicing taiko, starting at the age 8 as part of San Jose Taiko’s Junior Taiko program. She took a break from playing the Japanese drum to play basketball, but started playing again as a college student. Today, she works part time for Nikkei Traditions of San Jose. During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be taiko. Harada’s sponsor is Nikkei Traditions.

Breana Mayumi Inoshita
Breana Mayumi Inoshita, 20, of Stockton, Calif., is the daughter of Robert and Laura Inoshita. A Yonsei, she is a graduate of the Stockton Collegiate International Secondary School and currently attends the University of California at Davis, where she double majors in Asian American studies and community and regional development. Following college, Inoshita hopes to attend law school. “I took an Asian American studies class because it was the only class that had space available my freshman year … and I ended up really falling in love with it,” she said. “I felt like it was a connection to really learn about myself and my community.” Since then, Inoshita joined the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, first holding a community internship and then was elected onto their board. She also has been a student of Bando-style Japanese traditional dance since she was 4 years old. While her mother initially encouraged her to learn about her Japanese roots, she now takes it upon herself to learn as a college student. During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be odori (Japanese dancing). Inoshita’s sponsor is Benihana.

Marisa Mari Sum
Marisa Mari Sum, 26, of Alameda, Calif., is the daughter of Stephen Vincent Sum Jr. and Kathleen Michiko Sum. She is a Gosei on her mother’s side and a third-generation Chinese American on her father’s side. She graduated from Alameda High School and the University of California at Davis, where she majored in clinical nutrition. She currently attends the Life Chiropractic College West, where she’s pursuing a doctorate of chiropractic. Sum grew up in a health conscious family, and described her mother as a firm believer in natural health and her father is a chiropractor. “Growing up, it just made sense to me to take care of my body and the value of that,” she said. As for her hobbies, she enjoys dancing, running, bicycling and hiking. She said that she enjoys helping other people and wants to do so professionally. She was raised going to the Buena Vista United Methodist Church, where she met her Japanese dance teacher and has previously danced at San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival. During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be odori. Sum’s sponsor is the Friends of the Golden Gate Optimist Club of San Francisco.

Kona Melissa Kawai
Kona Melissa Kawai, 20, is the daughter of Seiji and Fumiko Kawai of Tokyo. While born in Japan to a Japanese mother, Kawai’s father was born in Los Angeles and her grandmother was born in Hawai’i. She currently lives with her uncle Akio Kawai in San Francisco and attends San Francisco State University, where she majors in international business. She came to the United States for high school after her older brother studied in Hawai’i at her grandparents’ home. She initially planned to return to Japan for college after graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, but decided to stay for college. While she may ultimately return to Japan after college, she plans to stay in the United States for now.

“I want to do something that connects Japan and the U.S., serve as a bridge between these two places. But I’m not sure if I want to stay and work from here or go back to Japan and work from there,” she said. Her hobbies include dancing ballet and learning the koto (traditional Japanese stringed instrument). During the Queen Program, her creative expression will be the koto. Kawai’s sponsor is MatsuHide.

The Cherry Blossom Queen Program will be held Saturday, April 9, at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St. (at Fillmore) in San Francisco’s Japantown. Doors open at 5 p.m., with Queen Program at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 general admission, and can be purchased at www.nccbfqueenprogram.org.

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