Participants Enjoy a Socially Distanced 69th Cherry Blossom Festival
On Saturday, Apr. 3, the 69th and arguably most unusual iteration of Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce’s Cherry Blossom Festival Ball was held at the Sheraton Waikiki. Excited family, friends and supporters of the CBF simultaneously helped boost the struggling visitor industry and enjoyed taking in the cultural skills, personal charm and intelligent insights of 11 Cherry Blossom Queen Contestants from the comfort of their newly renovated hotel rooms, while the actual event unfolded in Sheraton’s ballroom, floors below.
After a year of tireless, if impassioned, community service to support Hawai‘i families and organizations during the early COVID-19 era, outgoing Cherry Blossom Queen Jewel Kahiwalani Miyuki Mahoe and her court of 68th annual CBF Princesses Kelsey Toshie Uyeda, Lauren Elizabeth Holt and Alyssa Mika Nakamoto surrendered their titles to the next cohort of accomplished, “royal,” Nikkei women who will take over their roles.
For this 2020-’21 cohort, at the close of the ballroom ceremony, newly crowned Queen Brianne Kehau Yamada dominated major award categories, elected also as Miss Congeniality for earning the respect and admiration of her peers “by exemplifying the spirit of friendship.” Additionally, Yamada was chosen as Miss Popularity who “has accumulated the most points by raising funds used to support the perpetuation of the Cherry Blossom Festival” (cbfhawaii.com/news). Yamada is a mechanical engineer who plays Okinawan taiko and loves learning to do sanshin music and performance. In her composed speech, she revealed how her motto is the Uchinäguchi saying “nankuru naisa” which she learned from her grandparents as meaning “it will be all right” (aka “hakuna matata,” she explained with humor).
First Princess title went to Taylor Kaydi Onaga, a bank employee who honestly shared her belief in body positivity in the form of HAES (“health at every size”). The other princesses crowned were Motomi Otsubo (a civil engineer who learned to love her unique Japanese name, “the first gift to me from my parents”), Taylor Emi Tashiro (a STEM researcher who is “living my dream job as college microbiology professor”) and Shelley Teruko Imamura (an HR specialist and former band geek whose experience with CBF activities left her with a desire to learn more karate).
Moreover, Dr. Scott Oishi, son of Violet Niimi Oishi, presented the prestigious scholarship named after his mother to contestant Krista Ann Kam Oi Mayumi Lee, who is pursuing veterinary medicine (this last award is not a court position).
Via closed-circuit TVs in the super-clean Sheraton rooms, audience members viewed the ceremony privately, so as to not cluster in large groups within the ballroom where contestants were performing for the show. Together with staff and volunteers of the hardworking Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, sponsor of the festivities, attendees were treated to emcee Devon Nekoba’s game introductions to each segment of the program.
The ball was split between the “Western Phase” centering around a prepared speech testifying to this year’s theme, which contestants delivered in glittery, dark-grey, evening gowns; and an “Eastern Phase” where they each responded to a different impromptu question while posed in beautiful silk furisode kimono with hairpiece, obi and kimono individually selected to best complement their personal appearance.
During much of the festivities, the Queen Contestants wore black, CBF-branded facemasks, including during their rousing opening taiko number which was followed by another drum and instrumental performance by the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble. The contestants had initially rehearsed their percussive performance via Zoom then practiced together in person (socially distanced from each other), taught by teachers from Kenny Endo’s Taiko Center of the Pacific.
For contestants, the Festival Ball is the culmination of more than half a year of cultural as well as professional-development classes they had to take from August of last year onward, which include Japanese business etiquette, tea ceremony and calligraphy. They also made community appearances, especially now so as to boost the spirit of those undergoing COVID-19-related challenges. Of the 100 possible points to be scored (20 for the preliminary activities, 40 for interviews by seven judges from the community, and 40 for the ball activities), the ball events made up the last, significant, chunk.
Because of the virus, HJJCC organizers had to go above and beyond normal festival logistics, according to chamber President Crystine Ito. “We did a ton of planning. With the continuous, ongoing, and sometimes sudden changes [in the government’s COVID-19 rules], we had to have plan A, B, C, D, etc., for just about everything — from our contestant search process, classes, to events like our golf tournament to contestant reception, and of course, Festival Ball. Every single committee member had to go above and beyond our normal efforts to ensure we could have a festival that provided value to our contestants, court and the community,” she gratefully summarized.
Judges for the ball, selected from about 300 “prominent and reputable members of the community” screened so they are neither connected to contestants nor to the CBF, and also vetted for other possible conflicts of interest, were Darragh O’Carroll, M.D.; Dean T. Nakasone; Jamila Jarmon; Jared Higashi; Kathleen Sullivan Wo; Lauren Day; and Lauren Murayama-Sung, M.D. Judges for the $5,000 Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship, named after the first CBF Queen, were Dr. Helen M. Hasegawa, Ph.D.; Dr. Carrie Sakaino, Ph.D.; and Dana K. N. Sato.
Photos and names of all 11 of the contestants can be found at cbfhawaii.com/69th-cbf-2020-2021. Diamond Sponsors included Japan Airlines, Kyoya Hotels & Resorts, LP, Fujiyasu Kimono Company, Obun Hawaii Inc., KZOO, First Insurance Company of Hawaii and FHC Enterprises Inc.; Gold Sponsors were First Hawaiian Bank, Island Insurance Company and Watabe Wedding; and finally, Design Partners Inc., JTB Hawaii, Inc., Images by Steven, Pamela Futa Campbell, Gyotaku Japanese Restaurant, Gyotaku by Naoki and Rainbow Drive-In made up the Silver Sponsors. For a fun look at the total list of court awards the winners have earned (and the generous donors of those gifts), see cbfhawaii.com/court-semi-finalist-awards.
Ito recognized the sheer volume of work by everyone in HJJCC’s networks in her welcome speech. “The theme for this year’s festival, ‘Kibou’ or Hope, is truly fitting as it continues to provide us with the strength and motivation to persevere through times of adversity,” she explained. “It is hope that continues to inspire creativity and innovation, and has revealed the resilience of not only our Queen Contestants and the HJJCC, but also our supporters of the Cherry Blossom Festival and everyone in our community.”
The 69th CBF General Co-Chairs Lauren Dookchitra and Eryn Muraoka agreed. “As the Cherry Blossom Festival enters its … most unique … year,” they tactfully stated, “we have seen that hope not only inspires change, but affects it as well … We are so excited that the festival is possible this year, and … committed to providing our contestants with a safe and inspiring experience.”
Attendees enjoyed snack and swag bags thoughtfully put together and personally delivered to their hotel rooms by the HJJCC — complete with granola bars, Cheetos and other munchies as well as the stylish black facemasks worn by the Queen candidates themselves in some of the onstage performances. They also were given the chance to pre-order dinners from the hotel’s popular beachfront RumFire restaurant, which they ate as they viewed the entertaining and well-produced broadcast accessible only to those registered for this event staying in the hotel.
“It was … important for us that the Contestants be able to share these moments with their family and friends,” reflected Ito, “and [we] loved the idea that we could broadcast this event to them, in the comfort and safety of their own hotel rooms.”
This set-up additionally allowed for festival organizers to help support the reopening of the Waikïkï economy, as many guests opted to reserve rooms for the entire three-day, Easter weekend, even though the CBF only occurred over four hours (4-8 p.m.) that Saturday evening. Staycationing audience members were encouraged by Sheraton staff to also check out the dining and entertainment opportunities at related Marriott hotels in the urban tourism area, most of which were gearing up to accommodate higher numbers of travelers as the new COVID-19 vaccines provide some immunity to a larger percentage of the local population and as Hawai‘i’s Safe Travels Program continues to draw a stronger flow of outside visitors.
The 2019-‘20 Queen and court made statements about this most challenging year during their reign. Expressing gratitude also towards CBF Advisor Kim Takata Endo, Holt noted that though it was not a typical festival year, she “felt so full.” Uyeda admitted that the pandemic circumstances pushed her in a way she had not thought possible; Nakamoto praised that “(D)during hard times, so many sponsors and volunteers … generously donated their time and resources.”
Even Queen Mahoe admitted, “Two years ago, I didn’t think I could put myself out there, but I am so glad I did …[I] (g)rew into this confidence that I would have never had on my own.”
After revealing the Queen and court members, the program presented a final video surprise. Mr. Mitsunori Nonomura, 63rd president of Kobe’s Junior Chamber International, spoke of JCI Kobe’s long friendship with the HJJCC since 1975; for 40 years, representatives of this organization had visited the islands, while HJJCC leaders have similarly visited the JCI in Kobe. “Even now we continue to interact with each other,” he said, adding that he was “honored to congratulate you on this historic and traditional festival.”
Through Nonomura, JCI Kobe then presented pearl-necklace gifts as proof of its respect and friendship with the HJJCC to the CBF. These necklaces are a “gift to the Queen and court of the Cherry Blossom Festival. As a global port, Kobe has participated in pearl trading for a long time … Pearls are said to have the lively and vibrant energy produced by … shellfish. I am sure they will be items that attract good energy and that further enhance the charm of the Queen and her court,” he said. “We are looking forward to seeing you in the real environment of Kobe [someday],” added Nonomura.
This global greeting perfectly wrapped up a night that featured cheery video congratulations by other Nikkei festival contestants and court members on the U.S. mainland, by representatives of community organizations in Japanese sister cities to Honolulu and by Hawai‘i politicians offering their good wishes to the contestants and the HJJCC.
The Cherry Blossom Festival was founded in 1949 by young Nisei who had in mind the goal of bettering their community and developing leadership skills among a new generation of leaders. As members of the HJJCC, these second-generation Japanese organized the first Cherry Blossom Festival in 1953, which included 72 queen contestants, according to Ito. It currently is the longest-running ethnic festival in Hawai‘i.