2024 Cherry Blossom queen program candidates enter the mix

The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program presented its 2024 queen candidates during its preview press conference March 6 over Zoom. The program, a highlight of the city’s annual cherry blossom festival, will take place April 7 at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason. The candidates are: Julianne Aiko Ho, Aimee Sumire Kanadjian, Kami Chieko Kodama, Claire Anne Inouye and Kelly Midori Toma.

Julianne Aiko Ho
Julianne Aiko Ho, 21, is a Shin-Sansei from San Jose, Calif. She attended the Dominican University of California, receiving a bachelor’s in business administration with a marketing concentration.

She is the membership coordinator at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

Ho said she has played basketball all her life, starting with the Japanese American leagues. She is an assistant coach for Sunnyvale, Calif.’s King’s Academy High School’s girls varsity team, where she enjoys watching young athletes grow during their high school careers. She said she looks forward to dribbling for her creative expression. “So my kids actually put together the routine. They’re very excited for me to do this on stage,” she said.

Hailing from San Jose and working in San Francisco, she hopes to bring more people to the Japantowns to show them both ethnic enclaves are more than just a tourist or commercial corridor. Working for a nonprofit in San Francisco’s Japantown, she’s enjoyed learning the “deep lore” of longtime community members.

Ho is sponsored by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Aimee Sumire Kanadjian
Aimee Sumire Kanadjian, 23, is a Shin-Nisei from San Carlos, Calif. She attended the University of California, Los Angeles, receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

She is a project associate at a nonprofit public health research and consulting organization.

Seeking an activity to do after college, Kanadjian recently started aikido. Although initially intimidated, being the only non-black belt in her class, she said her practices have become the highlight of her week. “I’ve gained philosophies that apply not even just in aikido, but outside … which is to make peace with things and let them go, and to flow with the energy that’s being given to you rather than trying to force anything,” she said.

Kanadjian will demonstrate aikido as her creative expression. Kanadjian said Michiko Kealoha convinced her to participate in the queen program. She met Kealoha while attending Cañada College prior to transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles. Through that connection, she has been able to learn more about herself as a multiracial Nikkei and find community, especially through the Queen Program.

Kanadjian is sponsored by Takara Sake USA Inc.

Kami Chieko Kodama
Kami Chieko Kodama, 24, is a Gosei from Pleasanton, Calif. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, receiving a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science.

She is a behavior interventionist, providing behavioral services for children on the autism spectrum. Kodama, whose father’s side of the family is from Hawai’i, has danced hula since she was three. She will dance “He Hawai‘i Au” for her creative expression, which signifies her journey as a hula dancer.

At the start of the pandemic, Kodama bought a cat she named Hina for companionship, but soon found she was the “emotional support human” for the needy cat. She also recently adopted Umi to keep Hina company. “I really enjoy just spending time at home. I feel like having cats really reminds me to slow down and stay at home sometimes to recharge, and they’re just so adorable and they make me smile and remind me of all the love that there is in the world.”

Aside from hula and Tahitian dance, Kodama volunteers at the Berkeley Food Bank. She started helping other people at a young age through her father, who volunteered to cook at the Open Heart Kitchen in Livermore, Calif.

She is sponsored by Flagstar Bank N.A.

Claire Anne Inouye
Claire Anne Inouye, 23, is a Yonsei from Davis, Calif. She attended the University of California, Davis, receiving a bachelor’s degree in wildlife, fish and conservative biology.

She is a junior specialist at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Inouye said she is seeking ways to reconnect with her Japanese American heritage after her mixed-race parents, both of whom are half-Japanese, became largely disconnected from their ethnic roots while being raised by Nisei who were incarcerated. Inouye said she decided to participate in the queen program to find a new community, especially after being part of the UC Davis marching band.“My social schedule was booked with the band. I would see people like three times a week, maybe four times a week. And after I graduated, I lost that community, but I’ve been so honored and blessed to be able to find a new community,” she said.

She will perform a sousaphone quartet rendition of “(Far Over the) Misty Mountains Cold” from “The Hobbit.” She plans to pre-record the three background tracks separately and play the melody on program night.

She is sponsored by the Japan Center Malls.

Kelly Midori Toma
Kelly Midori Toma, 26, is a Yonsei from San Mateo, Calif. She attended the University of Southern California, receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.

She is currently a technical program manager at Google.

For her creative expression, Toma will paint a portrait of her grandmother who was incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Toma said she has always liked drawing, and typically works in landscapes, but will take this opportunity to talk about her family history through art.

Toma has grown up around the Japanese American community, attending Obon and mochitsuki events with her family, but said she truly started thinking about her identity and family as she was applying for college. “I didn’t think it was like super special until I reflected upon it, actually writing my college essays, and thinking about my identity and how my experiences growing up had shaped me,” she said. In the future, she hopes to work for a startup that aggregates data to help formulate health and fitness plans using artificial intelligence, an expense she became conscious of after college, as she tried to improve her own life.

She is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

Early Program
While the annual queen program typically takes place on the inaugural day of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, this year’s program will take place a week earlier on April 7 at 6 p.m. According to organizers, the schedule change is due to the theater’s availability. The program will resume taking place on the first day of the festival next year. As with last year, the program will take place at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason, located at 2 Marina Blvd. in San Francisco. Doors open at 5 p.m. The program starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40 general admission. For more information, visit http://www.nccbfqueenprogram.org/events.

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