Jodie Chiemi Ching
On March 16, Lauren Akemi Sugai was crowned the 67th Cherry Blossom Festival queen at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, marking the climax of the 2019 festival, sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce. In an interview with The Hawai‘i Herald, Sugai shared her Cherry Blossom Festival experience.
When her name was announced as the new queen, Sugai said she was surprised and excited. Her parents, Stephen and Susan Sugai, “were so happy,” she said. Regardless of how she did in the competition, she knew they would be proud of her.
“Even before the coronation, they told me, ‘Win or lose, I’m proud of you. You already grew into a different person, so no matter what, we’re proud of you.’”
Besides Sugai, the judges selected Kayla Yuri Ueshiro as first princess and Ariel Kwai Ying Kiyomi Lee, Katrina Eiko Shimomura and Taylor Kaleimakanani Keiko Chee as princesses. Ueshiro was also awarded the $5,000 Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship. Additionally, Chee was selected Miss Popularity. Reeann Eiko Kaleilani Minatoya was selected Miss Congeniality by her fellow contestants.
As part of the pageant, the 11 contestants presented a taiko performance. They also prepared a minute-long personal speech on a subject of their own choosing and answered an impromptu question while dressed in a kimono.
Sugai said she kept her application as a queen contestant a secret until after she received the call informing her that she had been accepted. Her parents were thrilled at the news. “I had no idea how much that meant to them,” she said. “That motivated me even more.”
The entire Sugai family was solidly behind Lauren. Her twin sister Lisa and older brother Daniel flew in from Seattle for the festival ball, and their eldest brother, Ryan, called long-distance from his home in Las Vegas to congratulate the new queen.
Sugai said her family — present and past — have always been her strength and inspiration.
Many years ago, her family obtained the records of her great-grandfather and great-grandmother, who arrived in Hawai‘i from Yamaguchi-ken with only $10. She also learned that he was illiterate. Her maternal great-grandparents’ names were Asakichi and Towa Mende. “I did see his occupation was a farmer. Just seeing that it took around two weeks to sail from Yokohama to Hawai‘i is just amazing for me,” said Sugai.
From those humble beginnings, Sugai’s maternal grandparents —Asakichi’s son and daughter-in-law — the late Yoshio and Ethel Mende, built a life for their family. “They worked really hard in the plantations and were able to purchase a house, where I was born and raised,” Sugai said.
“I am very proud to be from Waialua; I think it’s a very unique place,” said Sugai. “Because that location is so remote, I really enjoyed quality time with my family. I golfed at Kahuku Golf Course [and] just talking at the dinner table for hours was such a great time,” she recalled.
The queen’s parents still live in her grandparents’ Waialua home. Stephen Sugai is a financial consultant and Susan is a retired elementary school
Queen Lauren graduated from Pearl City High School in 2008 and earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration, specializing in accounting, from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. She went on to pursue her master’s degree from UH’s Shidler College of Business and then a law degree from the William S. Richardson School of Law. Sugai is currently a workers compensation lawyer with the firm of Chong, Nishimoto, Sia, Nakamura and Goya, LLLP.
For seven months, Sugai juggled her legal work with her Cherry Blossom Festival preparations. All 11 contestants attended cultural and professional development classes, learning Japanese business etiquette, tea ceremony, calligraphy, taiko, aikidö, ikebana, public speaking and more. Her biggest takeaway from the experience was the insight she gained into the values behind the various cultural practices.
“A lot of them, especially for ikebana, they taught us the phrase ‘ichi go ichi e,’ meaning, ‘one time, one meeting.’ That was the first class where I thought, ‘Wow, this is so profound,’” said Sugai. “You can see beauty in imperfections, the small things and what’s around us.”
Sugai’s yearlong journey as queen will include traveling to sister festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles and going on the festival court’s goodwill tour to Japan. They will also volunteer with their favorite nonprofit organizations.
The goodwill tour to Japan will be Sugai’s third trip to the land of her ancestors. In an earlier study abroad trip focusing on international business law, she visited Japan’s Supreme Court and the country’s National Diet. She also got her first look at cherry blossoms in bloom.
But there’s more.
“Being a Cherry Blossom Festival court member offers a unique opportunity to raise awareness and help others, and I am sure they will make the most of it,” wrote Cherry Blossom Festival general chair Gina Maeda in an email.
Sugai is looking forward to connecting with the community. She recently volunteered with Lanakila Meals on Wheels. “Just delivering hot meals to our kupuna and just checking on how they’re doing and talking with them,” Sugai said. “I would love to do that again as queen and helping out our community and also just inspiring the future generations, telling them the story that you become what you think about, you can ‘zenshin’ (progress) through, from whatever place you’re at.”