Cherry Blossom Queen Jewel Mahoe and Her Court Give Back in a Pandemic Year
After an unpredictable year, where many Cherry Blossom Festival conventions had to be rethought due to COVID-19, exiting Queen and Miss Congeniality Jewel Kahiwalani Miyuki Mahoe had wise words for fans of the annual festival that has celebrated Japanese American womanhood since 1953.
“For me, I really liked getting to do more service activities this year,” shares the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa graduate student in education as she philosophically looks back on her reign.
Compared to CBF queens and court members of the past, Mahoe’s 2020-‘21 cohort had to perform far more outreach activities to help various organizations and individuals in the Hawai‘i community, admits CBF Queen and Court Advisor Kim Takata Endo who reigned as Queen in 2015-16. Local people’s need for emotional support and encouragement was far greater from June 2020 through this March (the CBF court’s annual cycle) than that same period in the festival’s past cycles, due to the way the virus has made them feel isolated, uncertain and anxious.
“Almost every weekend, they [the CBF court] had to do one service project either live or virtually, such as making cards for nursing-home residents and dropping them off. Compared to a normal year, when community service is usually around 20-50% of a court member’s experience, this year’s group performed about 90% community service for their activities,” estimates Takata when co-interviewed with Mahoe by the Herald in late February.
In such tough times, both queen and court became symbols of the resilient “gambari” of AJA women, so as to lift community members’ spirit and bring a sheen of cheerful, calm normality back into unsettled lives. Mahoe realizes that “There was definitely more need” for service in her time as queen.
“Initially I was a little disappointed that we could not go to California, the Big Island and Japan — I was looking forward to that and really wanted to travel,” the Ala Wai Elementary School teacher reflects with candor. Instead, according to Endo in the fall 2020 issue of Sakura (the newsletter of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce which sponsors the Festival), “The 68th Cherry Blossom Festival Court has been busy supporting numerous organizations as they find creative ways to continue to … connect with the community.”
Though she and her court were called to aid the public in ways that no other CBF contest winners have been asked to (at least in recent memory), “(I)t is hard to be super disappointed when so much is going on in world, with people losing their jobs and so on. We had to be flexible,” the mature-beyond-her-years Mahoe commented graciously about not being able to enjoy the full range of perks that past CBF queens had been granted.
Mahoe’s sense of community spirit sparked joy when she participated in events such as the socially distanced Trick-or-Treat in October for families desiring some kind of outdoor Halloween activity, cohosted by a regular sponsor of the festival, Rainbow Drive-In.
“Coworkers, students and families could participate, and I even had four to six of my own students come by [to the drive-in] to trick-or-treat. It was really nice, because [due to the government’s restrictions because of the coronravirus] they were not allowed to do a normal Halloween,” she described.
The HJJCC and Rainbow Drive-In had laid out on trays heaps of candies for the taking; kids or their parents could take these treats without interacting closely with the representatives of those organizations.
“They also had a cute wheel; children could spin it, and depending on what the wheel landed on, they could get prizes,” Mahoe recalled. She and her court members had personally selected the contents of those bags for the prizes. Members of the CBF court spun the wheel on behalf of the children as each took her or his turn (for safety reasons), then passed out the appropriate prizes, while socially distant with masks on.
In addition to the trick-or-treat event, the CBF royal court promoted a blood drive at Waikele Center for the Blood Bank of Hawaii; supported a virtual Food Drive fundraiser for the Hawaii Foodbank (for which the court and HJJCC members volunteered to pack boxes of food which the food bank distributed to küpuna); shared with thousands of Hawaii United Okinawa Association members their experiences of taking cultural classes as queen contestants, during the first-ever virtual Okinawan Festival; wrote card messages and created a video for seniors in memory-care facility Hale Kü‘ike; and spoke at a meet-and-greet hosted by the Japanese Women’s Society Foundation.
Mahoe and her court additionally contributed their volunteer efforts to the Honolulu Zoo, the Ehime Maru memorial, the Hawaiian Humane Society, Honouliuli Middle School, Daijingu Temple and Kuakini Home. She looks back at the busy year, viewing their hard work as a modest contribution in supporting local people to survive the COVID-19 era: “Being open-minded about doing this was helpful to me. I realized it was very special, how we could serve local community at this time.”
In the end, the high volume of activities “shaped the relationship between court members; we got closer from those experiences,” Mahoe believes. “Even when we were not together physically, we were talking about them.” During the multiple card-making activities to cheer up elderly residents of care facilities, for instance, Mahoe and her court members would send each other pictures of their card art, even though they could not always arrange meeting logistically. “Our schedules are all very different. We are optometry assistants, teachers, etc., so the times we could meet fluctuated,” she explains.
One of the last projects was to make origami cranes for a display in the Plaza at Waikiki. Princesses Kelsey Toshie Uyeda, Alyssa Mika Nakamoto and Lauren Elizabeth Holt ended up folding all the cranes for the other court members, according to the grateful queen. “We supported each other,” Mahoe sums up proudly.
Queen Jewel Mahoe also shares her awareness of the many hard-working HJJCC volunteers and staff. “I was super impressed and inspired by all the volunteers who put in extra time and effort to make our events successful, especially during COVID-19,” she says.
For example, photographer Brandon Miyagi has shown patience and positivity in capturing the court wearing their kimono at cultural clothiers Watabe and Anne Namba, sometimes having to return to these shooting locations several times; Devynn Kochi, in charge of festival sales, has overseen the many drop-offs and pick-ups for events where she had given CBF court members and contestants fundraising items and often provided cute bags for items, purchased out of her own funds, according to Mahoe.
Eventually, both queen and court at least got to travel to Kauaʻi, thanks to the HJJCC that used its knowledge and connections to set up socially-distanced events there. The royal court members were finally able to take pleasure in fun activities such as horseback riding and shopping to support local small businesses. However, even on their “vacation” trip, they turned up for Kauaʻi community work, volunteering agricultural labor at Nonaka Farms where they “got really dirty” from planting several rows of Japanese cabbage (according to Endo); cleaning up driftwood at a local beach; making cards and posters for Mahelona Medical Center’s nursing home.
The Kaua‘i trip was “extra special,” beams Mahoe of that time away. “Crystine Ito (the 71st HJJCC president) got to go with us, and she is from Kauaʻi. She arranged it so we could partner with her family for the beach clean-up; her sister’s family helped us with the farm project,” the queen explains.
People they met on that neighbor island had been “super nice,” making Mahoe glad that “we got to talk to other people outside of Oʻahu to see how COVID-19 has affected them. It was nice to get away from Honolulu. I was so grateful.”
As a teacher who has taught Japanese culture — for example, by showing children how to make “gyotaku” (fish-print) art in the past — the part-Nikkei, part-Hawaiian queen now feels she would like it if students could share their cultures with their peers. Lessons might include “not just my teaching others ikebana — but having them [students] come in and teach us about their community cultures” as her future classroom pedagogy. As examples of her students’ diversity, she teaches Micronesian, Native Hawaiian, and Asian-immigrant students (such as first-generation learners from China); students whose families are on work visas from Japan; many Vietnamese students and others in her classroom from different cultural backgrounds. In addition to “family-culture” activities where students have to fill-out a silhouette of a body with words, pictures and other items symbolizing their family culture, Mahoe wishes to organize other culture-sharing activities throughout the year.
“We can incorporate more cooking into the classroom; food is a big part of everyone’s culture,” she imagines. “This ties well with our learning activities, since our students grow fruits, vegetables, etc., all year round. I could send them home with these fruits and vegetables to make traditional cultural recipes, then they could bring the dishes to school and share with rest of class.” How exciting and inspiring for her students!
Advice for this year’s CBF queen contestants? “For me, the friendships were the best part,” Mahoe reviews of the whole range of festival experiences. “Even beyond the festival, after it ended, I still have all those wonderful women I can talk to and connect with. [This is the] The longest-lasting result of what I got from the Cherry Blossom Festival.
“This year, I will be a bridesmaid at [former CBF queen contestant] Hailey Pedersen’s wedding! [I have] Close and good friends I am grateful for, so I recommend they keep those relationships which are really special.”