S.F.’s Cherry Blossom Queen Program candidates address JA identity

The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program presented its 2019 queen candidates during its annual preview March 10 at the Union Bank Community Room in San Francisco’s Japantown. The program, a highlight of the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, will take place April 13 at the AMC Kabuki 8. The candidates are: Nami Katie Saito, Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, NaOmi Leilani Furukawa, Stephanie Reiko Gee and Yuki Nishimura.

2019 S.F. Cherry Blossom Queen candidates (L to R): Yuki Nishimura, Nami Katie Saito, Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, NaOmi Leilani Furukawa and Stephanie Reiko Gee. photo by William Lee

Nami Katie Saito
Nami Katie Saito, 18, is a Shin-Nisei from San Francisco. She is a high school student at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory and plans to go into pediatric psychiatry, specializing in children with disabilities. She is a brand ambassador and sales associate for American Eagle Outfitters in San Francisco. She applied to the program because she had more free time after finishing her 11th year attending hoshuko, Japanese language school for children of Japanese nationals, last year.

“I think hoshuko, growing up, was first very enjoyable, because I got to embrace my Japanese culture and speak the Japanese language there. As I got to middle school, it was very hard for me to go and the Japanese got even more intense and I really didn’t like it,” she said. “But going into high school, I realized the sense of community that I had built with my peers there and my teachers. And I started looking more towards my future of having the ability to speak Japanese and having an ability to experience the culture from America.”

Saito, who visits her grandparents in Fukuoka, Japan every year, said Japan has more issues with diversity than in America.

“In the future, especially with the queen program, we have this connection to Japan, and we can build a bridge and bring all of America’s diversity and acceptance to Japan.

Saito will perform spoken word for her creative expression.

She is sponsored by Benihana.

Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen
Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, 26, is a Yonsei from Clayton, Calif. of Japanese and Swedish descent. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. After working as an licensed English teacher, she has returned to the Bay Area to pursue a career in law and nonprofit work.

After interning at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown through the Nikkei Community Internship program, she taught English in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. In Japan, she contemplated her place in Japan as a Japanese American and co-founded the Japanese Americans in Japan organization.

“I think for me, my way of trying to represent Japanese Americans abroad is … bringing in that community aspect. I feel that is what really makes us Japanese American. We care about our community and we see each other as kind of like an extended family. So that’s how I try to represent, I try to give people a home in Tokyo,” she said. Today, Nielsen said she feels Tokyo is as much her home as America is.

Nielsen, who shares a birthday with fellow candidate Nishimura, will turn 27 on April 3

For her creative expression, Nielsen will sing “Hole Hole Bushi.” She is sponsored by the Nikkei Lions Club of San Francisco.

Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, 26, is a Yonsei from Clayton, Calif. of Japanese and Swedish descent. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. After working as an licensed English teacher, she has returned to the Bay Area to pursue a career in law and nonprofit work.

After interning at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown through the Nikkei Community Internship program, she taught English in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. In Japan, she contemplated her place in Japan as a Japanese American and co-founded the Japanese Americans in Japan organization.

“I think for me, my way of trying to represent Japanese Americans abroad is … bringing in that community aspect. I feel that is what really makes us Japanese American. We care about our community and we see each other as kind of like an extended family. So that’s how I try to represent, I try to give people a home in Tokyo,” she said. Today, Nielsen said she feels Tokyo is as much her home as America is

Nielsen, who shares a birthday with fellow candidate Nishimura, will turn 27 on April 3.

For her creative expression, Nielsen will sing “Hole Hole Bushi.” She is sponsored by the Nikkei Lions Club of San Francisco.

NaOmi Leilani Furukawa
NaOmi Leilani Furukawa, 24, is a 4.5-generation Japanese American who is three quarters Japanese. Originally from Davis, Calif., she now lives in the East Bay. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from San Francisco State University and works in business development for Handshake, an online job search platform for recent college graduates. She works weekends at Takara Sake, USA Inc. as a tasting room associate. Furukawa will perform traditional Japanese dance for her creative expression. She is a student of the Onoe Ryu school of dance.

“My mom started dancing under the Fujima Ryu when she was 8 years old, and has continued to dance in different ryus since then. She is now a natori in Onoe Ryu,” she said.

“Dance in different forms have shaped my life since I was young,” she said.

“I think dance has given me the confidence to express who I am and … I’m more able to step outside of my shell and express myself.”
Furukawa is sponsored by the Takara Sake, USA Inc.

Stephanie Reiko Gee
Stephanie Reiko Gee, 26, a Yonsei of mixed Japanese and Chinese descent from San Francisco, has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from San Francisco State University. She is a clinical laboratory scientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

She praised the role her older brother has played in her life. “Growing up, he has been such an influential part in who I am today because he is so confident and I try to be half the person he is,” she said.

Gee said she wished to apply to the program to find her place in the community.

“I grew up in San Francisco, and Japantown has been almost like a second home to me,” she said. “In fact, I probably spent more time here than I actually did at home. Now that I’m older, I would like to find new opportunities to give back to the community that has given me so much.”

Gee will perform classical Japanese dance for her creative expression. She has been a student of the Hanayagi Ryu school of dance for 18 years

She is sponsored by Nihonmachi Street Fair.

Yuki Nishimura
Yuki Nishimura, 25, is a Shin-Issei born in Japan who moved to Palo Alto, Calif. when she was 5 years old. She received her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Toronto, along with a minor in English literature and bioethics. She works part-time in a lab at Stanford University. Though born in Japan, Nishimura said she now identifies more closely as an American.

“In the beginning, I always thought, ‘no, I’m just Japanese,’” the former hoshuko student said. “The transition really happened with naginata.” Nishimura said learning the Japanese martial art as a college student in Vancouver helped her appreciate nuanced differences that made even Japanese martial arts uniquely American.

“I am proud … to be a part of

Yuki Nishimura, 25, is a Shin-Issei born in Japan who moved to Palo Alto, Calif. when she was 5 years old. She received her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Toronto, along with a minor in English literature and bioethics. She works part-time in a lab at Stanford University. Though born in Japan, Nishimura said she now identifies more closely as an American.

“In the beginning, I always thought, ‘no, I’m just Japanese,’” the former hoshuko student said. “The transition really happened with naginata.” Nishimura said learning the Japanese martial art as a college student in Vancouver helped her appreciate nuanced differences that made even Japanese martial arts uniquely American.

“I am proud … to be a part of this American culture and being part of this community. This has shaped my entire life,” she said.

Nishimura will perform naginata for her creative expression, a martial art she started by accident. “I was looking for the kendo club, and I happened upon naginata which was a much longer weapon,” she said. A naginata is around 6.5 feet long, Nishimura said. The martial art, however, taught her to become a stronger person both physically and mentally.

“It has really allowed me to realize that whatever limit I had for myself, you can always surpass it,” she said. “Actually, this queen program has also taught me the same thing.”

Nishimura is sponsored by Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

New Leadership
The program also announced Benh Nakajo, who has chaired the program for the past three decades, has stepped down to an advisory role while Kelly Yuka Walton and Asaki Alicia Osato, former queens from 2013 and 2012 respectively, have taken over as co-chairs. Longtime program director and former 1989 princess, Miki Katsuyama Novitski, announced that she will pass the reigns to Jacquelyn Kimiko Chew, the 2017 queen, after this year.

Hilary Kiyomi Ego, 2017 first princess, also heads the program’s public relations.

“The queen program mentored us as we were beginning to build our community leadership skills and so we feel incredibly humbled and honored to be selected as the new leadership of this committee,” Walton said.

“I have always felt that this program should be run by very strong women,” Nakajo said. “Finally, we are able to do this with our wonderful co-chairs, … our new program director, and our entire committee who are made up of 99 percent women, who have also been involved in the program.”

The queen program will be held April 13 at the AMC Kabuki 8, 1881 Post St. (at Fillmore) in San Francisco’s Japantown. Doors open at 5 p.m. The program starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 general admission in advance, $40 at the door, and can be purchased online at www.nccbfqueenprogram.org (online processing fee applies), or at the door with cash or check.

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