Hannah KC Mukai crowned 2023 Cherry Blossom queen

The 2023 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Court (L to R) Samantha Michiko Teshima, Maya Isaka and Emily “Emi” Wagner look to Queen Hannah KC Mukai with First Princess Kylie Katsuko Tamura. photo by William Lee

Though the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival moved its Queen Program out of Japantown to the Cowell Theater at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture April 8, the event maintained its focus on crowning the next queen and court who will represent Northern California’s Japanese American community for the next year.

The venue, located further away from the festival, did not seem to deter supporters of the annual program, as the theater was packed with attendees. Jana Katsuyama, KTVU Fox 2 evening news reporter, returned to emcee the evening, this year joined by Andrea Nakano, anchor and reporter at KPIX 5. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic, though largely seen as over by most Americans, including its leaders, made its presence felt, infecting most of the outgoing 2022 court members, including its queen and first princess, leaving Princess Ashleigh Suzu Takemoto as the sole representative of the outgoing court during the evening. While she was unable to attend, the program awarded the 2022 Tomodachi Award to Queen Stephanie Misa Doi.

Candidates Samantha Michiko Teshima, Maya Isaka, Emily “Emi” Wagner, Kylie Katsuko Tamura and Hannah KC Mukai vied for the title of queen. Following an evening of speeches, creative expressions and interviews, the panel of judges crowned Mukai as 2023 queen and Tamura as first princess. All five women will spend the next year representing the Northern Californian Japanese American community as goodwill ambassadors to other Nikkei communities across the country, including those in Los Angeles and Hawai‘i, and participate in local events as volunteers for Japanese American organizations.

Rooted in Community
Mukai, a 23-year-old Yonsei on her father’s side (and second-generation Chinese American on her mother’s), called for the Japanese American community to speak out against the indefinite detention of migrants today. During her candidate speech, she noted how her great grandparents and grandparents were incarcerated during World War II, and denounced the U.S. policy detaining more than 25,000 individuals in immigration detention.

“The facade of national safety is being used to justify the targeting and round-up of whole groups of people … I cannot be silent and watch as the violence that left scars on our families and communities harms another,” she said. “Family and children detention is a gross infringement of human and civil rights, and it’s an insult to all those who pleaded for our history not to be repeated.”

Later on in the program, Mukai played the cello for her creative expression and revealed that she played an upright vacuum cleaner in a vacuum cleaner quartet while in college. She hopes to visit Hiroshima, where her great-grandparents originally immigrated from.

As queen, she will have that opportunity as she flies to Japan as a goodwill ambassador. Mukai also received a furisode kimono with a full set of matching obi, sandals and bag donated by the Fujiyasu Kimono Company in Japan.

After being crowned queen, Mukai told the Nichi Bei News that her win was not for herself, but for all her fellow candidates and her ancestors, as well as the organizations she participates in.

Aside from her involvement with the Japanese American Citizens League and Tsuru for Solidarity, Mukai said her background as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist grounds her life. Growing up attending the Fowler Buddhist Church, she is now a member of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple and a member of the Young Buddhist Editorial.

“I really want to make sure that I also bridge the communities of my Buddhist identity with my Japanese American identity, because it’s so intertwined,” she said.

Parents Lily Mukai and Stanlee Mukai said they were proud of their daughter.

“We know that she’s actually pretty busy, even before getting involved with this program,” Lily Mukai told the Nichi Bei News. “She’s very involved with the community already. But I know that she’s gonna manage her time well and keep going, and I’m gonna just be there, whatever she needs. She’ll handle it. She knows she will. She can handle this.”

Mukai is sponsored by Takara Sake USA Inc.

East Bay Hopeful
Tamura, a 25-year-old Gosei from Concord, Calif. highlighted her background with the Concord Buddhist Sunday School, which she attended, and is her sponsor for the program. She said she grew up volunteering at the events held at the Diablo JA Hall in Concord, which taught her cultural values and traditions.

“As a future representative of this community, I will always push for the why, because when we teach the why, we not only pass on traditions, but values and cultural importance as well,” she said in her speech.

Tamura also learned the value of nonverbal communication through masking during the pandemic. She began learning American Sign Language during the pandemic and used it to sing BTS’ “Permission to Dance” for her creative expression.

“I talk a lot with my hands in general, so it kind of became second nature. I just had to remember to do certain things with them instead of flail them around,” she said during the on-stage interview.

While based out of the Concord Japanese American community, Tamura said she joined the court because she wished to reach out to broader locales.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do the Cherry Blossom Program,” she told the Nichi Bei News. “To kind of get out into the other Japanese American communities rather than just at Concord. I definitely want to keep my roots strong there and I want to still go to all the big events and help out wherever I can, but I do want to stretch out and meet the other communities as well and get to know people there.”

The Court
Teshima, a 26-year-old Gosei, spoke about the importance of mentors as a post-grad resident pharmacist at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. “School is tough, let alone 20-plus years of school with no breaks. For every moment that I said, ‘I can’t,’ there’s been at least one female mentor telling me you can and you will,” she said. She gave a nod to the various women in her life, both mentors and mentees, who taught her the importance of such supportive relationships.

For her creative expression, Teshima played Claude Debussy’s “First Arabesque.” She is sponsored by Flagstar Bank, N.A.

Isaka, a 23-year-old Shin-Nisei, spoke about her multicultural, multiracial upbringing, which reflects a new face of Japanese American society. She talked about her work with Nikkei Resisters in San Jose, which applies its roots in Japanese American redress activism to collaborate with other communities inside and out of San Jose’s Japantown. “There are many other communities that we can uplift and, so learning from their successes and learning from our struggles is a key element to our diversity success,” she said.

Isaka played a Jake Shimabukuro arrangement of “In My Life” by the Beatles for her creative expression. She said she has looked up to the Nikkei musician since her family saw him perform in 2012. Isaka is sponsored by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Wagner, a 19-year-old Shin-Nisei, spoke about the difficulty of fitting in and being her authentic self as a Shin-Nisei. Growing up, she knew more about anime than “Sponge Bob” and found refuge at her Japanese language school. “Being part of this Japanese language and culture-focused community and sharing precious experiences was a treasure to me. The closeness of this community made me feel like Japan wasn’t so far,” she said.

Wagner presented a collection of film and digital photographs she has taken for her creative expression. She noted she likes the “dreamy nostalgic” quality of film photographs. She is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

THE 2023 COURT­— (L to R): Maya Isaka, Hannah KC Mukai, Samantha Michiko Teshima, Emily “Emi” Wagner and Kylie Katsuko Tamura vied for the title of queen. photo by William Lee

Benh Nakajo, chairperson emeritus of the program, thanked its longtime sponsors, and also acknowledged the accomplishments of the women who have gone through the program over the years. Program co-chair J. Maya Hernandez, 2018 first princess, received her Ph.D. in social ecology from the University of California, Irvine in March and 2002 Queen Stephanie Kiyomi Sato was appointed as a judge to the Superior Court of Alameda County. Discussing the accomplishments of the past court members, Nakajo also conferred the Klara Ma Women’s Leadership Award to Nina Myers, 2015 first princess and current Queen Program committee member.

“I realized tonight is my 40th year with the Queen Program. In 1983, I came to this program assigned by then-the general chairperson. It was a very different program at that time. I had no idea how to run, continue, what direction to go, but the years passed, times change, attitudes evolved. This committee continued forward,” Nakajo said. Nakajo joined the committee while it was still a pageant, but it rebranded into the “program” in 1994.

“This program evolved to what it is today, but it is by no means finished, and a new generation of women now lead the way to tomorrow.”

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