Gwen Battad Ishikawa

Every year, the Herald interviews the outgoing Cherry Blossom Festival queen as she prepares to pass on her crown to her successor. What are some of the changes that have taken place in her life?

Sarah Kamida’s year as the 62nd Cherry Blossom Festival queen wasn’t much different from the 61 queens she followed.

Yes, she faced challenges in her personal and professional life, and yes, her duties as queen were non-stop. “Someone asked me if I had to do it all over again, would I rather have a different position, and the answer is ‘no.’ This is probably something I was meant to do. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been great.”

Kamida describes her year as queen as “priceless.”

“The people I’ve met, experiences I’ve had, opportunities that came up, made this experience definitely priceless. I’ve met so many people, and really good, good people, and influential people. I can’t pay back the experiences I’ve had or will ever have again, for my family and myself,” she said.

Kamida, now 26, will be closing this “priceless” chapter in her life on March 22, when she passes on the Cherry Blossom Festival queen title, crown and scepter to the new queen.

For the past year, Kamida, along with First Princess and Miss Congeniality Chelsea Okamoto; Princesses Nicole Ansai, Alyssa Fujihara and Cara Tsutsuse; and Miss Popularity Alysha Tanabe, have served as goodwill ambassadors, representing Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community. They have made numerous public appearances, met with corporate sponsors and sister Jaycee organizations in Japan and the U.S. mainland and participated in community service projects.

The court traveled to San Francisco to participate in the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival parade, to Seattle to meet with the 2013 court (since there was no festival this year) and to Los Angeles to participate in the Nisei Week parade and festival activities.

Sarah Kamida with her family, soon after being crowned queen in 2014. (Photos courtesy Sarah Kamida)
Sarah Kamida with her family, soon after being crowned queen in 2014. (Photos courtesy Sarah Kamida)

“It was the first time we got to meet the different courts and that’s when I really realized that it was a sorority of sisterhood beyond Hawai‘i. It was also interesting to see how their festivals work.
“It helped us to see that our Japanese culture goes beyond physical boundaries and how we can help the Japanese community in both their community and ours.”

In October, Kamida took her first trip to Japan to meet with the Cherry Blossom Festival’s Tökyö-based sponsors: Japan Airlines, Japan Travel Bureau and Shiseido. “We went to their corporate offices and were able to meet them face-to-face and to thank them in person,” she said.

Kamida also received a furisode kimono from Fujiyasu Kimono Company, a longtime festival sponsor. She explained that after World War II, Fujiyasu saw how much Japanese Americans from the United States had supported the people of Japan, so they wanted to repay that kindness. Since 1974, Fujiyasu has been donating kimono to the Cherry Blossom Festival queens in Hawai‘i and San Francisco.

Kamida was in tears when she saw the kimono. “They didn’t ask me anything about myself or what my favorite color was, but I broke down when I saw that it was my favorite color,” she said of the powder blue kimono, accented with roses, lilies, peonies, cherry blossoms and peach blossoms.

The Hawai‘i contingent also met with Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Akishino, who is the second son of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

“We were so afraid to mess up in front of her, but she was so down to earth, it makes you want to be a better person in general, because she’s so well poised and very articulate.”

Visits were also paid to sister Jaycee chapters in Köbe, Odawara, Kurashiki, Kojima and Tamashima. In Okayama, the court members did an overnight homestay with local families. “It was a wonderful experience. We were able to hang out and watched ‘Frozen’ in Japanese. It was neat to see what their daily routine is like, to get to know their family and see what their family life is like. We performed hula and I did magic tricks for the kids.”

The Hawai‘i contingent also went to Hiroshima to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and ended the trip in Ösaka.

Kamida said participating in the Cherry Blossom Festival as a contestant and then as queen helped her develop her self-confidence.

“I definitely have been more confident in who I am and definitely with presence and public speaking. The practice we had at public appearances has helped me in talking to people who hold a lot of weight in the community. It’s helped me to be more self-confident in myself, especially when we were in Japan. Japanese is not my first language, and I had to give speeches in Japanese,” she said.

“[The experience] boosted the self-confidence I had in myself,” she continued. “Coming in, I didn’t see myself as being special, I was just like any other girl. Cherry Blossom helped instill these special things that we could define ourselves by. From contestant life, they tried to push for each of us to shine in our own way. Now when I talk to someone, I know exactly who I am,” she said.

Although adopted from Los Angeles’ Nisei Week, Hawai‘i’s Cherry Blossom Festival has changed over its 63 years. After participating in the festivals in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles, I asked Sarah what she would like to see incorporated into Hawai‘i’s festival.

One thing she and the court would like to see revived is a parade, although she noted that Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community is spread out throughout O‘ahu. “L.A., San Fran and Seattle all have Little Tokyo towns where everyone congregates. In Hawai‘i, the community is so spread out, except maybe for Mö‘ili‘ili, where the Japanese Cultural Center is located. It’s different for Narcissus because we have a Chinatown.

“When we were in the [Mainland] parades, we felt a sense of pride in our Japanese heritage. It gave an opportunity for those who didn’t know what it was about to ask. Even if we were to have a parade in Waikïkï, it will open up opportunities to promote the festival.”

On March 23, Kamida’s whirlwind lifestyle will change drastically, and that’s just fine with her.

“I want to take a small break. I want to redefine myself away from Cherry Blossom.”

She has also made changes in her career. She left Arcadia, where she did behavioral managing and is now a home based primary care social worker for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and does case managing for clients from Salt Lake to Hawai‘i Kai and most of Windward O‘ahu, from Waimänalo to Ka‘a‘awa. Her clients are disabled or terminally ill veterans who are unable to go to clinics. Kamida coordinates with doctors and other specialists to bring the services to them.

Although she loves what she does now, she eventually wants to become a licensed clinical social worker to do therapy.

Kamida has yet to take advantage of her cultural scholarship prize, which is donated to each contestant by Lillian Yajima. Kamida plans to take shamisen lessons from the Hanayagi Dancing Academy. She also plans to study taiko with the Taiko Center of the Pacific, led by Kenny and Chizuko Endo. And, she wants to volunteer with the Japanese Women’s Society Foundation, which awarded her a gerontology scholarship. “That is one organization that I hold dear to my heart,” she said.

Thinking more about the earlier question of how she would describe the past year, Kamida said she also chose the 62nd festival’s theme of “Issho Ni,” or “together.”

“We could not have gone through the past year successfully without everyone coming together and working together as a court, as well as with the Jaycees, our sponsors and community support,” she said.

“We are proud to represent the Japanese American community. Just having camaraderie around this choice that we made [to join Cherry Blossom] and passion to perpetuate culture is what kept us together.”


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