While the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the event last year, San Francisco’s 54th annual Cherry Blossom Festival held an online program and crowned its 2021 queen April 10.
Akiko Jacqueline Bates, Ashlyn Sumiko Hom and Kelly Noelani Eshima competed in this year’s program emceed by Jana Katsuyama, KTVU Fox 2 reporter. The three women, along with Jennifer Kumura and Michelle Lee, were originally meant to serve on the 2020 court.
Eshima, a San Francisco native, was crowned queen and Bates, who is originally from Hawai‘i, first princess. The court will represent the Northern California Japanese American community.
The program also presented the 2021 Tomodachi Award to Princess Nami Katie Saito for best exemplifying friendship and congeniality during the previous court’s reign. The 2019 court, which extended its term through 2020 also presented two Klara Ma Leadership & Service Awards to Princess Elena Harumi Nielson and Queen Yuki Nishimura.
Eshima, 24, is the second queen in a row to have climbed Mount Fuji. She majored in biology during her undergraduate years, and currently attends the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Eshima, whose father works for Nihonmachi Little Friends as a chef, said she grew up in the community, learning dance at the Michiya Hanayagi Dance Studio. She performed nihon buyo for her creative expression. She hopes to inspire others to preserve the ethnic enclave by advocating for and participating in community events.
While court members usually begin training in January for that year’s program, Eshima and her cohorts continued with the program through 2020, in anticipation of the 2021 program night.
“I’m really excited for everything that’s to come this year,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly via Zoom call. “I know that it’ll be very different than maybe years past, but I’m super excited for anything and everything that comes this year.”
Eshima’s parents, Shellin Young and Todd Eshima, said they are proud of all three court members for sticking with the program despite its cancellation last year.
“I’m happy for her because it is yet another form of encouragement that she should be participating and giving back in the community,” Young, Eshima’s mother, said.
“We’ve put a lot of effort in all our kids to be in the community,” the elder Eshima said of his daughter. “If we can get the kids to now step up as we did, as parents, then when their kids come, it’s going to be full circle.”
Japan Airlines has donated a round-trip ticket to Japan for the queen, to enable her to serve as a goodwill ambassador, but Yuka Walton, one of the tri-chairs of this year’s program, said the trip will be postponed until it is safe to travel, perhaps even after the Queen’s reign has concluded, if need be. Eshima also 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.
A Second Home
Bates, 24, moved to San Francisco in 2015 for college and fell in love with the city’s cooler climate. As a college freshman, she found comfort from homesickness by visiting Japantown. She added that the ethnic enclave taught her the importance of cultural preservation.
“Growing up in Hawai‘i, there’s tons of Japanese heritage but there was no concrete place really to celebrate that heritage,” Bates said during her Q-and-A with Katsuyama. “There are records and archives that are housed in Japantown near and dear to my heart and what endears me to the place is, it’s a celebration of culture and history that not only Japanese Americans can appreciate, but people can come and learn about the Japanese American experience.”
Bates said she is indebted to the Japantown community and she hopes her service on the court will allow her to help pay back what she has received since moving here. As the community reopens after the pandemic, and faces the rising tide of anti-Asian hate, Bates said it is more important than ever to build community.
“I think what our court is really united on is, we are very focused on supporting Japantown small businesses as reopening begins,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Bates said she hopes to support those businesses through events, such as the Hanami at the Plaza, which they participated in the day after the queen program in Japantown’s Peace Plaza. She also said she hopes to use her professional skills she’s cultivated working at a branding company.
Bates presented a video of herself drawing a picture of the late activist Yuri Kochiyama for her creative expression. She is sponsored by Takara Sake, USA Inc.
Focusing on Diversity
Hom, 26, is from San Rafael, Calif. and plans to pursue a career in Web development. Hom focused on diversity and inclusion during the program. She said events such as San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival were crucial in making her feel connected to her
Asian American background, having grown up in Marin County, which has a smaller Asian American community. As part of the court, she hopes to connect with Nikkei who have similarly felt lost or alone.
“I want to help them feel included and remind them that if they live in smaller populations or are LGBTQ+, mixed race, or have disabilities. They matter,” she said in her speech.
Combining her Chinese and Japanese heritage, Hom studied calligraphy under the Rev. Masato Kawahatsu and at San Francisco City College. For her creative expression, she painted the phrase “sakura matsuri” (cherry blossom festival) in kanji. She is sponsored by Benihana.
Walton said both the previous court and new court collaborated on how to structure the program during the pandemic, which shut down most events starting last spring. Each year, the court volunteers at several community events. The 2019 court unanimously agreed to serve an extra year through the pandemic, while all five incoming court members initially agreed to stay on for the 2021 program year, Walton said. Lee and Kumura, however, were offered career opportunities and had to drop out.
“As a young women’s leadership program, we of course wanted to support them in their leadership and career journeys, and so we definitely encourage them to take those opportunities. They felt very remissed (sic) that they would not be able to continue on as a full court, but their group is really tight,” Walton said.
Throughout 2020, the 2021 cohort continued to meet and learn about the Japanese American community to prepare for this year’s program, according to Walton.
“We always see a tremendous amount of growth, but this year I think I felt like we saw an exponential growth,” Walton said. “These leaders are even more prepared in terms of their public speaking, in terms of their knowledge of our community, about the history of our community, the current context and the difficulties our community is facing. And out of any group we’ve seen recently like these, these three are very committed to this community and supporting this community through such a difficult time.”