San Francisco’s 52nd annual Cherry Blossom Festival crowned its 2019 queen April 13 during the ceremony held at the AMC Kabuki 8 in the city’s Japantown.
The program, emceed by KTVU Fox 2 reporter Jana Katsuyama and Devin Katayama, host of KQED’s “The Bay” podcast, had Nami Katie Saito, Elena Anne Harumi Nielsen, NaOmi Leilani Furukawa, Stephanie Reiko Gee and Yuki Nishimura vying for the title of queen.
At the end of the night Nishimura was crowned 2019 queen, and Furukawa first princess.
For the next year, the five women will travel across the United States representing Northern California’s Japanese American community.
The program presented the 2018 Tomodachi Award to First Princess Maya Jessica Hernandez for best exemplifying friendship and congeniality during the previous court’s reign.
The 26-year-old incoming queen had climbed Mount Fuji twice, but said participating in the queen program was harder. Speaking about her place in the Japanese American community, the Shin-Issei from Palo Alto, Calif. said she wanted to erase her “otherness,” which initially left her uncomfortable outside of select settings, such as her Saturday Japanese school and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. She said she did not recognize the strength and beauty her culture had until she joined the Northern California Naginata Federation after college. Nishimura, who was initially afraid of putting on armor and fighting in naginata (Japanese polearm), said her teacher Martin Nobida convinced her otherwise. Now she loves to fight and even demonstrated her skills during her creative expression segment of the Queen Program.
“I realized, so many of the things I thought I couldn’t do, so many things that I thought, ‘It’s not me,’ you just need someone to believe in you and push you further. I think that’s something I learned about martial arts in general, and I hope that all of you resonate with that. It’s that feeling where you feel like you can’t do something, but somebody tells you, ‘no, you can.’ … And you are astounded by what you can do.”
As queen, Nishimura told the Nichi Bei Weekly she hopes naginata will continue to play a role throughout her term. “I hope that I can bring the sort of power and fierceness, as well as the very subtle elegance of the sport, and I hope that I can get people interested in the sport as well,” she said.
Her father, Toshihiko Nishimura, told the Nichi Bei Weekly he was surprised his daughter won, because she kept telling her family she would not win. “I was surprised that she was selected as queen despite that,” he said in Japanese. “But I was so happy, I had tears in my eyes.
In her capacity as queen, Yuki Nishimura will travel to Japan as a goodwill ambassador. She received this year’s full furisode kimono set donated by the Fujiyasu Kimono Company of Tokyo. She is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.
Furukawa, 24, is a 4.5-generation Japanese American. She said she owes the Nikkei community for her identity as a Japanese American, but also said many of her peers now struggle to connect to the experiences of Issei and Nisei.
“I want to help merge the narratives, the stories and legacies of the Issei and Nisei pioneers and young Japanese Americans trying to find their voices in modern America,” she said. “I know that my participation in community groups was so fundamental to knowing who I am, and I believe that by helping other young individuals to participate in community organizations and community activities, I can help other young people … understand who they are and find their identities.”
Upon winning the title of first princess, Furukawa said Japanese American youth, especially girls, could look to her for inspiration. “I think any Japanese American child … who’ve looked at this program and looked at this stage and said, ‘I can’t do that, that’s not possible for me,’ that was me,” she said. Similar to her fears that she “could not do it,” when she first started odori, Furukawa said she needed to take a step forward to succeed.
The first princess said she has been learning the Onoe Ryu school of dance with her mother since she entered college and danced as her creative expression during the program. “I grew up seeing this beautiful expression of self identity and I fell in love with it, but I never felt like it was something I could achieve personally,” she said. “In university, I had the opportunity to start studying buyo with my mom and it was incredible. So I think my mom’s passion for the artform really spurred and fueled my own.” She is sponsored by Takara Sake, USA Inc.
Saito, an 18-year-old Shin-Nisei high school student from San Francisco, spoke about her connection to her Japanese heritage and her hope that she will pursue clinical psychiatry to help disabled kids in school. She aspires to become a role model for the next generation by embodying a person who is proud of who they are. “When I was younger, I was embarrassed of having a Japanese name, which often got pronounced wrong, and I disliked the fact I had Japanese school every Saturday when my friends are spending time together,” she said in her personal speech. “But as I grew up, I realized the luxury I have been given to be bilingual and to be able to experience both cultures.” She recited a poem, dedicated to her pet, for her creative expression. She is sponsored by Benihana.
Nielsen, a 26-year-old Yonsei, from Clayton, Calif., talked about Nikkei in Japan, an organization she helped organize for Nikkei foreigners and kikoku shijo (Japanese nationals who were raised abroad before returning to Japan). She said she created the group because she felt the sense of community Japanese Americans gave her helped her grow in America. “We connected on issues of mixed identity, and together, we created something new,” she said. “By embracing our international diversity, we can only expand. As a member of this court, I want to help all members of our family feel proud and supported for who they are, because together, there is no limit to how we can grow.” For her creative expression, she sang a soulful rendition of “Hole Hole Bushi,” a traditional song by Nikkei farmworkers in Hawai‘i. She is sponsored by the Nikkei Lions Club of San Francisco.
Gee, a 26-year-old Yonsei from San Francisco, is an 18-year student of the Michiya Hanayagi Dance Group. She said her opportunities to dance throughout the Bay Area helped her connect with the larger Japanese American community. She hopes to inspire more people to learn traditional Japanese cultural arts as well. “Odori has given me a voice that speaks louder than words and a message worth sharing,” she said. “I feel so proud knowing that the movement you see today, are the same movements from the generations that came before us. As part of the Cherry Blossom Festival court, I want to explore the ways to reveal the value of tradition to the Japanese American youth, early in life, and set the example that there is no age limit to practice tradition.” Gee danced a traditional Hanayagi Ryu dance for her creative expression. She is sponsored by the Nihonmachi Street Fair.
With their first of many festivals and events completed, the 2019 cherry blossom queen court embarks upon a busy year of volunteerism and personal growth.