Photo of the 65th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Heather Omori.
65th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Heather Omori.

Gwen Battad Ishikawa

Kansha (gratitude) and Kokoro (heart) were the themes, respectively, of the 64th and 65th Cherry Blossom festivals, sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Heather Kiyomi Omori, who was chosen queen of the 65th Cherry Blossom Festival on March 18 at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, explained how she embraces both Japanese values during a recent interview at the Hawaii Hochi offices.

“It’s more just expressing kokoro now with others and kansha, especially, showing my gratitude. I’m grateful for everything that has happened and all the people that I’ve met that help us to perpetuate the Japanese culture. For me, though, kokoro is the balance of my heart, mind and spirit. Because I took aikido since I was 9 years old, I learned to be mindful of things I say and actions that I do, and as a teacher, I model this to my students, as well.

Fifteen contestants competed in this year’s festival. Joining Omori on the court are First Princess and Miss Popularity Kirstie Hiroi Maeshiro-Takiguchi; Princesses Jennifer Keiko Ezaki, Ruth Mariko Taketa and Kelly Ann Keiko Takiguchi and Miss Congeniality Roxanne Napualani Takaesu.

Omori, a 26-year-old gosei, is a graduate of Mililani High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2011 and a master’s degree in elementary education in 2013, both from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.

She is a third grade teacher at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School on Schofield Barracks and a behavioral interventionist who works with autistic children.

Heather is the daughter of Terence and Bridget Omori. Terence works in maintenance and is a ki aikido instructor who works with veterans and with patients at Kahi Mohala. Bridget works at Title Guaranty. Her brother Tyler, 22, is currently in an air traffic control program in Seattle.

Omori was also the recipient of the Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship. Violet Niimi was the first Cherry Blossom Festival queen in 1953. In 2002, her son, Dr. Scott Oishi, established the academic scholarship in his mother’s memory.

Omori plans to use the scholarship to continue teaching her students about community service. As a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an international honor society for women educators, Omori wants to travel to Kochi, Japan, to learn about the Japanese value of education and how it differs from the American value of education, and incorporate what she learns into her classroom.

Part of Omori’s curriculum is to introduce her students to Japanese culture. “My students did origami without realizing it was origami. They just borrowed a book from the library,” she said. She showed them the gyotaku (fish imprinting) shirt she made as a contestant and they celebrated Girls’ Day. She plans to teach them ikebana and bon dance and celebrate Children’s Day next month.

“A lot of my students are military and their parents told me that if I didn’t teach them about the Japanese culture, they wouldn’t even know about it. And some of them were born in Japan because of the military,” she said.

Omori has been to Japan twice. She’s visited Kyöto, Ösaka, Hiroshima, Hakone, Tökyö and Yokohama. She wants to go to Hokkaido next.

Those plans will probably have to be put on hold, as the remainder of the year will surely be busy. Aside from local appearances, Omori and the court will travel to Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco to meet their Mainland Cherry Blossom Festival “sisters” and participate in their respective festivals. They will also travel to Japan to meet with sponsors and sister chapters of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Omori’s maternal grandmother, Madge Hamada, is the person who first introduced her to the Cherry Blossom Festival when Omori was in high school. Omori’s aunt, Shaun Nakata Hamada, was the first princess of the 34th Cherry Blossom Festival.

“My grandma knew I loved doing community service and thought it would help broaden that aspect of my life.”

Although exposed to the festival since high school, Omori wasn’t sure she wanted to participate. But as she neared the festival’s age limit of 28, she realized time was running out. “This would be my last year to do it, and if I didn’t, I would regret it for the rest of my life,” she said.

Participating in the festival also gave her the opportunity to take cultural classes.

“My grandma loved doing ikebana, but I didn’t learn about it from her. She was active in doing ikebana for her church, Toho No Hikari.

“She passed away two years ago and through learning about ikebana during the festival, I was able to get closure and it brought me closer to what she was interested in.”

Aside from ikebana, the contestants took cultural classes in aikido, bon odori, calligraphy, gyotaku, kimono, manju making, origami, taiko and tea ceremony. They learned about the Hawai‘i Japanese American identity, and were instructed in areas of communication, speech, interview, makeup and Japanese business etiquette.

The classes that she was impressed with were tea ceremony and taiko.

“I did tea ceremony in Japan, but doing it in Hawai‘i was a little more different. In Japan, they didn’t explain the ceremony or different aspects of it, but the class went into more detail.

“Tea ceremony is amazing because it brings in all aspects of Japanese culture, like calligraphy. Everything you do in a tea ceremony is done for a purpose.”

Taiko lessons were held every Monday to prepare the contestants for their taiko opening number performed at the Festival Ball.

“It was one of the best experiences. Meeting Kenny Endo . . . you grow up knowing his name and seeing him perform, but actually practicing and learning from him was an amazing experience,” she said.

Asked how she would define herself as being Japanese, she quickly answered, “The values. Definitely the values that I’ve grown up with.”

One of those values is shikata ga nai.

“It’s a value that has been passed down from generation to generation in my family. It means, ‘It cannot be helped; we don’t always have control over the things that happen in our lives.’

“I use it a lot in school, because sometimes we have those kids who are very challenging, but there’s nothing we can do about it. But instead, we better ourselves as educators. Kids won’t change for you so you have to be flexible and change your teaching and classroom routines for them,” she said.


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