Annual cherry blossom queen program lauds women leading in the community

The 2024 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival queen court (From L to R): First Princess Kelly Midori Toma; Princesses Julianne Aiko Ho, Aimee Sumire Kanadjian and Kami Chieko Kodama; and Queen Claire Anne Inouye. photo by William Lee

While the annual cherry blossom festival is slated to start this Saturday, April 13, the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Program held its program night a week early at the Cowell Theater at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco April 7 to celebrate the new court’s inauguration as representatives of Northern California’s Japanese American community. The evening crowned Claire Anne Inouye as 2024 Queen.

Jana Katsuyama, KTVU Fox 2 evening news reporter, returned to emcee the evening with Andrea Nakano, anchor and reporter at KPIX 5.

Candidates Julianne Aiko Ho, Aimee Sumire Kanadjian, Kami Chieko Kodama, Claire Anne Inouye and Kelly Midori Toma vied for the title of queen. Following an evening of speeches, creative expressions and interviews, the panel of judges crowned Inouye as 2024 queen and Toma 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 volunteer at local events for Japanese American organizations.

As the new court was installed, last year’s court helmed by Queen KC Mukai gave their farewell, awarding Kylie Katsuko Tamura as this year’s Miss Tomodachi award recipient.

Along with recognizing last year’s court’s accomplishments, the evening also recognized Kelli Asako Sum, 2015 queen and current queen committee volunteer, with the Klara Ma Women’s Leadership & Service Award. Benh Nakajo, chairperson emeritus of the program, presented the award named after the first woman to serve as general chairperson of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

“I think it’s a culmination of just the reason why I volunteer every year, and I think my mom is my fuel to do this work and to keep this program going for generations,” Sum told the Nichi Bei News.
Sum’s late mother, Linda Tatsuyo Uno-Sum, served on the 1983 court and the 2015 queen said she felt a connection to her mother as she participated in the same program, especially as she wore the same Fujiyasu kimono her mother wore decades ago.

The Fujiyasu Kimono Company has donated a full furisode kimono set with matching accessories to each queen since 1972 as an expression of gratitude from Seishichi Ato, the company’s late owner. Ato benefitted from care packages Japanese Americans sent to war-torn Japan after the war, even as Japanese Americans faced their own hardships returning from the wartime incarceration.

The Queen Program presented this year’s kimono, sporting a kyo yuzen-dyed design of peonies on dark purple, to Inouye at the end of the night.

Reconnecting to Heritage
Inouye, a 23-year-old Yonsei from Davis, Calif., works at the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis and spoke on the importance of acknowledging and working with nature within the Japanese American community.

“Nature isn’t confined to conservationists. It’s in our gardens, it’s in our parks, it’s even in our roadside grasses. It’s in the upcoming renovations of the Peace Plaza, where more nature is being granted into our community,” Inouye said in her speech. “As we move forward, let’s actively enrich our community with nature. Whether it’s nurturing green spaces, or contributing to ongoing projects, let’s embrace the copious benefits nature has to offer us all.”

She told the Nichi Bei News that any community member can interact with nature by participating in community clean-ups.

“Especially in urban areas, it’s hard to landscape a beautiful garden, but we could clean up the streets or clean up the parks that we live in, and that would be extremely helpful and something very feasible for us to do in the community,” she said.

Inouye played a sousaphone quartet version of Howard Shore’s “Misty Mountains” from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” recording three of the tracks at home and playing the fourth track live on stage for her creative expression.

As queen, Inouye will fly to Japan as a goodwill ambassador, and spend the next year traveling around the United States to represent Northern California’s Japanese American community.

“I look forward to traveling with my court a lot. We have a lot of amazing scheduled events coming up soon and I’m excited to be able to serve the community and do that with my friends and my sisters,” she told the Nichi Bei News.

For Inouye, the opportunity to participate in the program is an opportunity to connect with her Japanese heritage, a facet she said was missing being raised by two mixed-race Americanized parents.

“Both my husband and I are both half-Japanese, so we were raised as American because of the assimilation of American culture after the war,” Kris Inouye, Inouye’s mother, said. “And so it’s really nice for her to embrace our Japanese culture. It’s really nice, because we didn’t have a lot of that growing up, either of us.”

Inouye is sponsored by Japan Center Malls.

Calling for More Women in STEM

EMERGING LEADERSHIP — Clockwise, from top left: Princesses Aimee Sumire Kanadjian and Julianne Aiko Ho, First Princess Kelly Midori Toma, Princess Kami Chieko Kodama, and Queen Claire Anne Inouye. photo by William Lee

Toma, a 26-year-old Yonsei from San Mateo, Calif. spoke about the need to encourage more women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. As a graduate from the University of Southern California with a degree in electrical engineering, she recalled her first day in school.

“Walking into my first electrical engineering class, I was intimidated by the majority of men. While I expected these ratios I didn’t expect how it made me feel: excluded, out of place and not smart enough,” she said. “Luckily, I found and got involved with the Society of Women Engineers, a community of female engineering students who reassured me I belonged. I know firsthand how important same gendered support systems are. But in 2023 women made up only 14% of the engineering workforce. This lack of female representation is discouraging for girls and perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes.”

As first princess, she looks forward to a year bonding further with her fellow court members. She also said her duties may present her with opportunities to promote social issues, including women in STEM.

“I feel like there are a lot of events that I could host or help host on the weekends that are just part of some of the cultural events throughout the year where I can either just talk to children about STEM or we can have an organized planned event to get girls and boys into STEM fields,” she said.

While she promoted the sciences in her platform, Toma also showcased her appreciation and skill for art for her creative expression, painting a portrait of her grandmother at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming. Presenting the painting, she said she learned art was more than just “paint on a canvas, but … a medium for storytelling and resilience.”

Toma, as first princess, will fill in for Inouye in case she is unable to perform her duties as queen. She is sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California.

The Court
Ho, a 21-year-old Shin-Sansei, reflected on her upbringing in San Jose’s Japantown and within the Nikkei community. She said there is an unspoken nuance that exists within the community borne out of the collective need to defend its land, people and culture.

“Sometimes, though, we get so defensive that we accidentally alienate other Japanese Americans who are just looking for homes just like us,” she said in her candidacy speech. “If we pick and choose who gets to thrive in our community, we stand the risk to lose the spirit of Nihonmachi altogether.”

Ho performed a dribbling routine choreographed by the students she coaches for her creative expression. She is sponsored by the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Kanadjian, a 23-year-old Shin-Nisei, spoke about the sense of perseverance her family instilled in her as she grew up and how she plans to employ it in her upcoming year serving on the court.

“I know now that never giving up means always having the courage to try again tomorrow. It means getting creative and finding a different way … It means putting yourself out there and finding a community of strong women to walk alongside,” she said. “It means you’ll stumble and fall, and you’ll get up stronger.”

Kanadjian performed an aikido demonstration with her sensei on stage with a jo staff. She is sponsored by Takara Sake USA, Inc.

Kodama, a 24-year-old Shin-Nisei, spoke on the stigma she felt due to her mental health struggles and neurodiversity. She said finding the courage to open up about it led her to realize many people around her shared similar struggles.

“Struggling with mental health is like putting on a tough face after being injured. You don’t want to seem weak, but the pain is persistent,” Kodama said. “It was a breath of fresh air to release the tension inside me. Being able to support one another allowed us to begin healing and find peace within ourselves.”

Kodama performed a hula entitled “He Hawai‘i Au” for her creative expression. She is sponsored by Flagstar Bank, N.A.

While the program took place a week ahead of the actual festival, the 2024 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Court embarks on a year-long journey full of hope both of their own and bestowed upon by the larger community. Yuki Nishimura, co-chair of the festival and 2019 queen, looked to the 2023 and 2024 courts as the next generation of Japantown community leaders capable of making change in her message during the evening.

“I truly believe they are the ones that will make that really courageous decision to make something different. You are the ones that will make that difference,” she said.

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