NorCal Cherry Blossom Queen Program introduces 2022 candidates


QUEEN CANDIDATES ­— Clockwise from top left: Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto, Katy Akiko Drennan, Stephanie Misa Doi, Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert and Sydney Matsuko Kasson. courtesy of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program

QUEEN CANDIDATES ­— Clockwise from top left: Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto, Katy Akiko Drennan, Stephanie Misa Doi, Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert and Sydney Matsuko Kasson.
courtesy of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen Program

The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program presented its 2022 queen candidates during its inaugural virtual preview press conference March 9 over Zoom. The program, a highlight of the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, will take place April 9 at the AMC Kabuki 8.

The candidates are: Katy Akiko Drennan, Stephanie Misa Doi, Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert, Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto and Sydney Matsuko Kasson.

Katy Akiko Drennan
Katy Akiko Drennan, 26, is a Yonsei from San Jose. She attended California State University, Chico and majored in recreation, hospitality and parks management. She works as a wedding and event sales manager for Wedgewood Weddings at The Ranch at Silver Creek. Drennan said having a multicultural background helps in planning weddings for a diverse range of clients.

“… We get a lot of Indian weddings, so the format is very different than the traditional American wedding, but the theme is still there: it’s love, it’s family, it’s supporting each other being there,” she said. “So I think with hospitality, and what I specifically do with weddings, I think it does tie back to my culture, because I think it helps to know your culture to respect other cultures and give people what they want and need in hospitality.”

Drennan who is sponsored by the Kogura Company in San Jose, is a descendant of Kohei Kogura, who opened the store in 1928. She said she is named after her grandmother, Aki Kogura. With her family based out of the San Jose area, Drennan said San Jose’s Japantown played a major role growing up. Aside from taking part in the annual Obon, she made friends playing basketball and got her first job in high school working at Minato Japanese Restaurant in the ethnic enclave.

“It’s really just a place that brings me closer to my community, and it’s a really big part of my life,” she said.

As part of her creative expression, Drennan will perform the song “Hallelujah” on the ‘ukulele to a video of family photos, including images of her family’s store.

Stephanie Misa Doi
Stephanie Misa Doi, 27, is a Yonsei-han (4.5-generation Japanese American) from Pleasanton, Calif. Doi’s grandmother on her father’s side was a Kibei Nisei (a Japanese American who was born in the United States but educated in Japan) while her mother’s side had been in the U.S. Doi reflected on her parents’ different backgrounds, and how it impacted her.

“There was a difference in their upbringing and then also the values and traditions that they passed down to me,” she said. “It definitely has been a very different experience even though we’re all Japanese American.”

She will perform two abridged poems she wrote about her grandparents for her creative expression.

Doi attended Claremont McKenna College and has a degree in psychology with a human rights, genocide and Holocaust sequence. She works as a development associate manager at Strategic Energy Innovations, an education and workforce development organization. She said her specialization helped her appreciate and understand today’s political climate and her own role in society, including on the job.

“Marginalized communities and under-resourced communities are the hardest hit for the climate crisis and will continue to be so, even if they don’t contribute or contribute very, very small amounts to that climate crisis. So with that lens, it helps me to make sure that our programming is really equity focused and serving all communities, but especially under-resourced and marginalized communities,” she said.
She is sponsored by Takara Sake USA, Inc.

Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert
Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert, 25, is a Yonsei from Pacifica, Calif. She attended Santa Clara University and holds degrees in psychology and music with a minor in communications. She works as a research operations associate at Flexport. Heckert, who is half Japanese on her mother’s side, said her family has roots in San Francisco’s Japantown. Her great grandfather ran the Mikado Hotel and Restaurant, where the New People Building on Post Street now stands.

Through a series of programs involved with the Japanese American community, starting with the Nikkei Community Internship in San Francisco’s Japantown, Heckert connected with the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages and is currently a co-host to its “Yon-Say Podcast,” for which she composed the music. She will showcase her music, along with original dance choreography during her creative expression.

“I started dance lessons when I was three years old. My older cousins both danced and so I kind of followed in their footsteps. My grandma really wanted us to all be trained in the arts,” she said. “I continued on through high school, through college. Every school that I went to, I got more involved with different styles of dance, including even Bollywood, … but I knew that I wanted to be able to create my own, both for assignments, but both are just my personal passion.”

She is sponsored by Nihonmachi Street Fair.

Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto
Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto, 19, is a Shin-Nisei and Gosei from Pleasanton, Calif. She is majoring in molecular cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She hopes to pursue a career in emergency medicine or infectious diseases. Having a Japanese mother and a Japanese American father,

Takemoto grew up attending the hoshuko (supplementary school for Japanese nationals) in San Jose.

With a father who did not have a strong connection to Japanese and Japanese American culture, as well as a mother from Japan, Takemoto said she grew up to realize she did not have a strong understanding of what it means to be Nikkei.

“I’m really still on this journey to understanding and making realizations, but I think the first step for me is just educating myself and listening to people,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now, right here in this program as well.”

Takemoto hopes to contribute a Shin-Nisei perspective to the program.

“I think one thing that differentiates me is my understanding of Japanese American and Nikkei culture,” she said. “… I’d like to welcome (post-war immigrants from Japan), as well as other people who have struggled with their identity, just to say that Japantown can be their home too.”

For her creative expression, Takemoto will do a karate kata called “Rohai.” She is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

Sydney Matsuko Kasson
Sydney Matsuko Kasson, 24, is a Yonsei-han from Sunnyvale, Calif. She attended California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and majored in graphic communication with a focus on user experience/user interface design.

She works as a visual/user experience designer at Cisco. Aside from her job, she volunteers at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose as part of their marketing team.

“I’m an artist and a designer at heart, and I think something so important about spreading the message about our history and big important things, is through storytelling,” Kasson said. “I really like to do that through digital art.”

Kasson’s connections to the San Jose Japanese American community traces back to her grandmother, who was born at the Kuwabara Hospital, now known as the Issei Memorial Building. She introduced her to many Japanese American traditions, such as making manju and Obon.

“I think my grandma was also the person who introduced me to the museum, … and just seeing her passion for what she did for the museum, as well as my grandfather’s, really inspired me to continue their legacy and be more involved.”

For her creative expression, Kasson will share footage demonstrating her mountain biking hobby. She is sponsored by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

The queen program will be held April 9 at the AMC Kabuki 8 at 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 (online processing fee applies) through April 6, or at the door with cash or check. Checks should be made payable to ‘Sakura Matsuri, Inc.’ and reference “Queen Program Night Tickets.”

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