Queen Stephanie Misa Doi and court embark on year-long JA journey

QUEEN AND COURT ­— Stephanie Misa Doi (center) was crowned Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen April 9. She stands with (left to right) Princesses Katy Akiko Drennan, Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert, First Princess Sydney Matsuko Kasson and Princess Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto.
photo by William Lee

The AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco’s Japantown was packed for the 2022 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program April 9, signaling a return to form for the annual program for young professional Japanese American women.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a major break in tradition as the in-person festival was canceled in 2020. The 2019 court’s reign was extended through 2020 until the 2021 court (originally training to be the 2020 court) took over after a virtual program was held last year.

The 2022 program, however, looked to bring back a semblance of normalcy as Jana Katsuyama and George Kiriyama of KTVU Fox 2 co-emceed the evening.

Candidates Katy Akiko Drennan, Stephanie Misa Doi, Michelle Chieko Catherine Heckert, Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto and Sydney Matsuko Kasson vied for the title of queen in an evening that mixed both the traditional with the modern. The women will represent Northern California’s Japanese American community for the next year as they travel across the United States to visit other courts, including those in Los Angeles and Hawai‘i.

At the end of the night, Doi was crowned 2022 queen, and Kasson, first princess.

The program also presented the 2021 Tomodachi Award to Jennifer Kumura, who had left the program prior to the 2021 program to pursue professional opportunities outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, for best exemplifying friendship and congeniality during the previous court’s reign.

Championing Past, Present and Future
The 27-year-old Yonsei-han (4.5-generation Japanese American) Doi shared with the audience her history with the Japanese American community, and her desire to welcome future generations.

She looked to her past and expressed her thoughts on how she could get younger Japanese Americans to connect with and champion the community as future leaders. She has served San Francisco’s Japantown as a member of Japantown for Justice, and also helped to present online programming at the Stockton Buddhist Temple during the pandemic.

“I know the history of displacement, but also of resilience. Communities are resilient when their people are resilient,” she said in her candidate speech. “Together, I believe we can create an even more inclusive, vibrant, sustainable and resilient community. Together, I believe we can create community that looks like, sounds like, … tastes like and feels like home for all. As a future leader, I will ensure this is our collective future.”

Having been crowned queen, Doi expressed to the Nichi Bei Weekly her excitement to serve the community in her new role.

Doi also honored those that came before her. Kiriyama even noted she used the word “ancestor” five times in her candidate essay and recited two poems dedicated to her grandparents for her creative expression. She said she felt “incredibly honored” to have her maternal grandmother witness her win that evening.

“I could not be more humbled and proud to represent my family tonight and for the rest of this year,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Hiroshi Doi said he was “ecstatic” to see his daughter win. He told the Nichi Bei Weekly he had worked to teach his daughters about their Japanese American heritage and the struggles his parents generation went through.

“To grow into the person that she is today — it’s very rewarding as a parent,” he said.

“We support her involvement across all communities, and I know that’s one of her true passions: inclusivity and support of all communities and coming together,” Lori Ann Doi, her mother, added.

As queen, Stephanie Doi will travel to Japan as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the Northern California Japanese American community. While the Fujiyasu Kimono Company of Tokyo has prepared its annual gift of its full furisode kimono set to the program, the coronavirus pandemic has delayed its delivery and was not presented during the program. Doi is sponsored by Takara Sake, USA Inc.

Museum Ambassador
Kasson, 24, also a Yonsei-han, said she felt excited, humbled and proud while being crowned first princess. “I came out here tonight wanting to make my family proud, wanting to make myself proud. And all the hard work us candidates have put into this, I feel like it’s finally paid off,” she said.

A self-described “cat mom” who presented her mountain biking hobby, Kasson focused on the question of whether she is “Japanese enough” in her candidate speech. Through her time growing up in the San Jose Japantown community and learning about the impact the World War II incarceration had on her family, she has learned to say that she and everyone else in the community is “enough.”

“I never understood how deep history can leave its mark until my grandpa told me about his incarceration experience. When I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum for the first time, experienced its heaviness with everyone there, I saw how history left its mark. I understood that heaviness when I saw how our Japanese American community was treated during the pandemic. Because of this, I want to continue advocating and volunteering for our Japantowns,” she said during her candidate speech.

Kasson, sponsored by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, expressed how the organization affected her personally beyond serving as a candidate sponsor.

“They are the ones who inspired me to get involved in the Japanese American community,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “It was because of one little Instagram marketing post, that I was found for the cherry blossom program. I am so thankful for them. The Museum and my family goes years back and having them here is like having my family here.”

The Court
Drennan, a 26-year-old Yonsei, said she wants to promote her local Japanese American community. “To me being a Japanese American woman is… being able to speak up and face challenges head on, while evolving with our community,” she said.

Wanting to push herself and try new things, Drennan started learning the ‘ukulele to play for her creative expression. She performed “Hallelujah” to a slideshow of photos of her family. The slideshow paid tribute to Kogura Company, which sponsored her participation in the program and was founded by her great grandfather.

Heckert, a 25-year-old Yonsei, sought a deeper understanding of what it means to be a part of the Japanese American community. She said she realized the depths to her multiracial identity after graduating college. “Through internships, volunteer opportunities and other virtual experiences, I developed lasting relationships that catapulted me into fostering inclusive Nikkei spaces. I finally felt that I had been embraced for being mixed race,” she said.

Heckert performed a self-choreographed dance on stage to a pop song about Japantown she composed and recorded. She is sponsored by the Nihonmachi Street Fair.

Takemoto, a 19-year-old Shin-Nisei, spoke about carrying the weight for the larger community, literally by taking part in the cherry blossom festival’s onna mikoshi (women’s portable shrine), but also as a volunteer Japanese-English medical interpreter. “By identifying as Japanese, I learned to understand my roots, and really appreciate our culture. By growing up in America, I learned to listen to my heart and celebrate our unique individuality,” she said. “As a representative of the Japanese American community, I promise to continue to listen and educate myself about our history and heritage.”

Takemoto, a brown-striped-belt in karate, performed the rohai kata (the sign of the heron) for her creative expression. She is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

Under a new normal, the 2022 cherry blossom queen and court embarks on a familiar but forever-changed year-long journey of professional and personal growth rooted in volunteerism for the Japanese American community.

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