And Miss Congeniality and Recipient of the Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship
While growing up, Jewel Mahoe, the bright, focused daughter of yonsei Jennifer Lam of Kapahulu and sansei Arthur Mahoe of Hawai‘i Kai, was regaled by stories about the Cherry Blossom Festival by her maternal grandmother, a big fan of this celebration of Japanese American womanhood. Anne (Nakai) Lam had long kept track of the prestigious scholarship contest that supported generations of young Nikkei women since the postwar era, sponsored by the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce (hjjcc.com/cherry-blossom-festival).
Lam often shared CBF contestant news with granddaughter Jewel Kahiwalani Miyuki Mahoe, a Kamehameha School-graduate who is also a quarter Japanese through both her maternal and paternal lineages, or a total of 50% Nikkei in addition to her Hawaiian-Chinese heritage. “She [my sansei grandmother] would tell me about how well-known the festival was, and who Violet Niimi [Oishi, the first CBF Queen, crowned in 1953] was,” reflects the latest Festival Queen, winner of not only the top award in the 68th annual contest but also the Violent Niimi Oishi scholarship and the Miss Congeniality title as well.
Thinking of her grandmother’s frequent mentions of the Festival, Mahoe — who had just returned to the islands last year after almost six years on the U.S. continent — finally decided to throw her hat into the ring. Grandmother Lam, whose own grandparents had immigrated to Hawai‘i from Yamaguchi, got her interested in Japanese culture. As a result, Jewel developed an interest in the fine arts including tea ceremony (chadö) and gyötaku (fish-print designs).
“I tried some of these cultural activities with my students,” admits the Ala Wai Elementary School preschool instructor. She notes humorously that all her students had wanted to do was touch the fish during their gyötaku exercises, and that next time she incorporates this cultural art into her teaching, she plans to include more rules on how to do it. “Maybe I had gone over what it was, too fast!” she jokes.
Selection of the highly educated Mahoe — a second-year Ph.D. student in learning design and technology at the University of Hawai‘i-Mänoa College of Education — represents to Honolulu JJCC President Crystine Ito a trend in recent CBF winners of entering the contest at older ages, often with either post-graduate, or multiple baccalaureate, degrees. Alongside Lauren Elizabeth Holt and Hailey Mariko Pedersen, Mahoe is one of three women with master’s degrees out of the total 15 contestants in this year’s contest. Before her current studies as a doctoral candidate, Mahoe earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of North Colorado then her master’s degree in special education from Vanderbilt University.
For most Queens and Court members, the Festival is the first step in a long professional relationship with the Chamber. The CBF’s past winners, such as HJJCC Chairman of the Board (and former Festival Queen) Kristine Wada, go on to become active in the organization founded in 1949 so that Hawai‘i Nisei could have a place in postwar U.S. business society. “Everyone who participates in the Festival takes her own route; some join CBF committees, some become HJJCC members, and some even end up as HJJCC presidents or general chairpersons,” says Ito, herself once a CBF Queen.
This year’s contestants were fortunate, both Ito and Mahoe feel, as most of the community and professional-development events, in which all contestants participated, happened prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Mahoe also feels lucky that her cohort became close early on, while backstage at the Japanese Culture Center of Hawai‘i ‘Ohana Festival in January. They took turns peeking through a screen window to get a look at the audience, a special moment, according to Mahoe: “It [that event] sticks out, because we were all so nervous and excited. It was one of the first opportunities for us to be in front of the public and became a really nice bonding moment for us. ”
She explains of her cohort’s shared traits, “I think we came into this with the goal of getting to know each other. Sometimes women come into it with the goal of personal growth — but we all wanted to get to know the other people, to make new friendships, to be open to growing close.
“…We have been in touch since COVID hit, and had done lots of outings with each other, even before then. We have group Zoom calls, check up on each other,” she explains appreciatively.
The CBF Court, including Mahoe, is performing a lot of community service since the coronavirus, attempting to give aid in chaotic times. Members are assisting schools before they re-open — helping them teach kids important things such as social distancing. Other upcoming service work includes participating in the Mänoa cliff restoration in a few weeks and in the near future, assisting local blood banks by putting out the message for a “blood bank day” then thanking and congratulating people for donating. On Aug. 15, the women will help with the annual food drive of the Food Bank and may participate in senior food distribution.
In her classroom as well, Mahoe’s love for community-engaged education shines through, as she encourages students to perform service activities. Even before being chosen as Queen, she says, “…We bring a lot of community service into the classroom: we have partnered with Blue Zone [nutrition project], Avalon [elderly] Care Center, Meals on Wheels, pick-up trash service. I do this for my classroom and want to continue it in my teaching career.” Her dedication to teaching is clear, admirable; on top of her regular job teaching special-needs kids, she works part-time at Starbucks to afford classroom materials for her students.
Mahoe credits her parents for her success in winning the two CBF titles and Niimi scholarship, and for passing cultural values on to her. Her mother attended all the public appearances and events and helped her with fundraising. “She was my moral support — gave me confidence, helped with time management. She pushed me to be open to the process and get to know others, to live in the moment instead of being so stressed about it,” evaluates the grateful daughter.
When her mother posted news of her daughter’s entry into the contest on Instagram, this encouraged her Kamehameha School classmates to come out and support her, too. Mahoe was initially shy about telling her old childhood friends about the CB Festival: “From the things I had done growing up — soccer, cross country — I thought they might not expect it from me, wearing the gown and heels and so much make-up and getting up on stage! I did not tell them at first, but once they found out [from my mom], they were super supportive. They were helpful with events, posting stuff on social media, and coming to my appearances.”
Her father, whose Japanese-side kin had immigrated from Kumamoto two generations before his birth, passed on to Mahoe his family tradition of New Year’s mochi-pounding. The Shiraishis used family usu (stone bowls) for the mochi, annually making both new mallets and banners that displayed their mon (house crest) of the tomoe (comma- or swirl-shaped) design, to celebrate o-shögatsu.
With such supportive family, it is no doubt why the high-achieving Mahoe fits perfectly the 2020 Festival theme of kaizen, or continuous improvement. Says the lifelong learner, “Some people think that if they get their BA or their [teaching] certification, that’s it. But I am always learning. There is always room for improvement and growth — especially with the times changing.
“For me, I learned more from getting my undergraduate degree. But each time [I received more education], there were more questions. I got my MA but then learned about technology, which made me interested in technology and education, so I went for my Ph.D. Everyone can learn more from these steps.
“But I might stop someday — I am running out of money,” laughs the 68th Queen.