KEEPING HISTORY: Samantha Beth Tsukiji crowned 2016 queen

THE MORE THE MERRIER ­— (L to R) Kona Melissa Kawai, Jan Mitsuko Cash, Kyla Kajioka, Queen Samantha Beth Tsukiji, First Princess Marisa Mari Sum, Breana Mayumi Inoshita and Nicole Kyomi Harada will represent the Northern California’s Nikkei community as the Cherry Blossom Queen Court. photo by William Lee

The 49th annual Cherry Blossom Festival crowned its 2016 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen in an April 9 ceremony at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco’s Japantown.

The program, emceed by KTVU reporter Jana Katsuyama and KGO reporter David Louie, had Kona Melissa Kawai, Nicole Kiyomi Harada, Marisa Mari Sum, Samantha Beth Tsukiji, Kyla Kajioka, Jan Mitsuko Cash and Breana Mayumi Inoshita vying for the title of queen. The judges elected Tsukiji of San Jose as the 2016 queen and Sum of Alameda, Calif. as first princess.

The court, for the next year, will represent Northern California’s Japanese American community, and learn about and help various Nikkei organizations in the region.

The program also awarded Taylor Keiko-Lehua Davis the 2015 Miss Tomodachi Award for the 2015 court. Following a year of service, Davis was considered among her peers as the best court member to exemplify friendship and congeniality throughout the previous court’s tenure. Davis said she was humbled and that “every other member of the court could easily have been Miss Tomodachi.”

Queen of the Court
Tsukiji, a Gosei, tied her passion for basketball to her Japanese American heritage. “I have been involved with the Japanese American basketball leagues for the past 17 years, as a player and now as a coach,” she said in her introductory speech. “The leagues originated in Japanese American internment camps and are a reminder of the trials and tribulations my family, along with 120,000 other internees, endured. One of my players recently told me she did not know where her grandfather was interned. It was in that moment that I realized it is up to our generation to keep the legacy of those who came before us alive. They did not overcome such adversity to be forgotten.”

She also said that the sports leagues helped provide a sense of camaraderie among the incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II and that her own grandmother had played basketball while she was incarcerated in a concentration camp. Tsukiji said she wants to pass on the fellowship sports provided her, and said she wants to open a free basketball program for underprivileged children. Tsukiji dribbled basketballs for her creative expression.

Tsukiji said winning was “totally unexpected.” She said she looks  forward to getting involved with the Japanese American community. “I’m just really grateful to be a part of this court,” she said.

Tsukiji’s mother, Sharon Hagiya Tsukiji, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that her daughter is a second-generation queen. Hagiya Tsukiji was the program’s fifth queen in 1972. Hagiya Tsukiji said her daughter was advised to mention the familial connection, but Tsukiji never once mentioned it.

Hagiya Tsukiji said that the program has grown tremendously and that it will be one of her daughter’s “best experiences of her life.”

Tsukiji, in her capacity as queen, will travel to Japan as a goodwill ambassador and receive a full furisode kimono set from the Fujiyasu Kimono Company of Tokyo. Seishichi Ato, the late president of Fujiyasu, had received relief goods sent by Japanese Americans after the war and in a show of gratitude, he started sending kimono to various queen courts each year beginning in 1972. He continued this tradition until his death in 2015. The company maintains the tradition under its current president, Kazunari Mochizuki.

First Princess Sum
Sum said she felt “exhilarated” to be crowned first princess.

“I grew up going to the parade,” she said. “I said ‘I could never do that, they’re so beautiful up there,’ and now I’m here! It feels like everything has come full circle. It’s really quite beautiful. I’m so excited to be a part of it.” She added that she was proud of her fellow court members.

Sum is studying to get a doctorate of chiropractic to become a chiropractor, and has volunteered locally and abroad to provide medical services to those in need. As a court member, she said she wanted to focus on health and wellness within the Nikkei community. “I’m passionate about this because I see a link between health and happiness,” she said. “I feel like our community can resonate with this because many of us … innately and culturally understand the connection between health and happiness.”

The Court
Kawai, who is from Tokyo but currently lives in San Francisco, said she wants to share her knowledge and love of Japanese culture. She said she would like to share that knowledge through the koto (Japanese harp). During the program’s on-stage interview, Kawai said she enjoys playing koto because it taught her more about her own cultural heritage. “I know it’s a little weird because I was born in Japan and grew up in Japan, however, koto told me a lot of things that I didn’t know about Japanese culture. Through koto, I got to wear kimono for the first time,” she said. “I’m so happy that a lot of people, even from different cultures, are curious and they want to know more about it.”

Harada, who is from San Jose and currently works at Nikkei Traditions, spoke about promoting San Jose’s Japantown. “Growing up in San Jose, I spent a lot of time in San Jose’s Japantown and it’s where I currently work,” she said. “I am inspired by all the different people that I get to see there and I want to share with everyone all the great aspects of growing up in the Japanese American community.”

When asked how to bring Japanese Americans back to the remaining Japantowns, Harada said some things cannot be substituted.

“There’s nothing like fresh tofu from the tofu shop in San Jose. No matter where you go, it’s never going to be as good,” she said.

Kajioka, who is from Fremont, Calif., said she had little connection to the Japanese American community outside of attending the Mountain View Buddhist Temple’s annual Obon festival, and hopes to expand her knowledge of her heritage through the queen program. “I feel like I have finally found the missing piece of my Japanese American identity,” she said. “As a part of this court, my goal is to dedicate my time and efforts to a variety of events benefitting the Japanese American community as a way for me to give back to those who have helped preserving our culture.”

Cash, who is from Modesto, Calif., and a current resident of San Francisco, spoke about how she grew up with only her mother to tie her to her Japanese heritage.

“I sometimes took it for granted. I didn’t learn my kanji. I only learned the Japanese history I was taught in school,” she said. It was at college where she grew to appreciate her Nikkei side as she found the Nikkei community at Princeton University and found her “home away from home.” She said she hopes to impart that sense of home and community through her work on the court.

Cash also said she had grown up speaking Japanese in the home during her interview. She said that aspect was particularly important in communicating with her extended family in Okinawa. “But there’s several people who have trouble talking with their grandparents,” she said. “I think learning a language and being a part of that language community, as well as that cultural community, is very important.”

Inoshita, who is from Stockton, Calif., said she wants to go beyond volunteerism and delve into issues the Japanese American community faces today.

She acknowledged the dwindling number of firsthand witnesses to the wartime incarceration, and expressed interest in hearing and sharing these stories. She said she would use her platform as a member of the court to listen to Nikkei elders and share their stories. “I am passionate about ensuring that my generation, and the generations to follow, know the experiences of those in the incarceration camps, as well as of the brave young soldiers who served our country, like my grandfather who served in the 442nd,” she said.

During the interview, Katsuyama asked how the Japantowns in the San Francisco Bay Area could build connections to Japanese American communities further inland. Inoshita replied that one way would be for the Bay Area communities to reach out to those communities. “It’s really about extending and recognizing that Stockton is really not that far,” she said.

The septet of women will not only go forth to represent the Northern Californian Japanese American community, they will gain valuable lessons on their history and heritage in a busy year to come.

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