Departing Cherry Blossom Queen Lauren Sugai Inspired to “Pay It Forward”
Jodie Chiemi Ching
In two weeks, the 67th Cherry Blossom Queen Lauren Sugai will pass her crown and scepter to one of 15 contestants who have fulfilled various phases of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce 68th Cherry Blossom Festival.
In an “exit interview” with The Hawai‘i Herald, Sugai reflected on her last 12 months as a Cherry Blossom queen. Sugai talked about how wonderful the experience was for her and her family and how she has become inspired to give back through community service and supporting future contestants.
The theme for the HJJCC’s 67th festival was “Zenshin,” or progress. “’Zenshin’ is something I will carry for the rest of my life,” said Sugai who felt connected to the theme from the start of her festival journey. As queen, she said she focused on becoming a better communicator and representative.
Her maternal great grandparents, Asakichi and Towa Mende, immigrated to Hawai‘i from Yamaguchi-ken, Japan, illiterate and with only $10 to their name. Today, yonsei Sugai is a staff attorney at the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, helping to protect the public by working in the complaints office. Their investigations include claims filed against licensed doctors, nurses, therapists and contractors.
Sugai continues the progress started by her issei ancestors through sacrifice and hard work; her nisei grandparents, Yoshio and Ethel Mende who worked on the plantations and bought a home in Waialua, where Sugai was born and raised; and her sansei parents, Stephen and Susan Sugai, a financial consultant and retired elementary school teacher.
In addition to learning and deepening her connection to her Japanese heritage, witnessing the effort of the HJJCC volunteers was an impactful inspiration to Sugai. She said behind the scenes, she saw “people working hard so you can have an amazing experience.” To her, it was a great testament to how “it takes a village to raise a child.”
In Hiroshima, Sugai and the Cherry Blossom court members were impressed by the hospitality extended to the entire traveling group which included family members of the queen and court, making it Sugai’s most memorable part of the festival. Fond memories of their hosts running after their train while waving goodbye, and visiting the land where her ancestors came from fostered stronger feelings of gratitude.
“I met tremendous leaders who give back to the community,” said Sugai. She realized that HJJCC has such an impact on women’s lives that she said, “I want to give back. I want to help enrich [the lives of] more women.” And she also valued fostering international relationships on their goodwill trip to Japan.
Sugai’s advice to the incoming Cherry Blossom queen is: “Practice the values. The ‘grind’ doesn’t stop; it can be stressful. Remind yourself ‘I get to do this.’ Don’t take this opportunity for granted and cherish every moment.”
“Ichigo ichie,” or “one time, one meeting,” reminds Sugai that each moment cannot be duplicated.
Although Sugai’s role as queen will come to an end on the evening of March 21, she walks into the future with values strengthened by the Cherry Blossom Festival experience. She said, “[the experience] helps women realize where they came from and connect them to their heritage.” It’s made her appreciate the time we live in now when the possibilities are endless and she wants to help future generations.
In a world where there are a lot of challenges Sugai said, “People are moving in the right direction, and that gives me hope.”