Okinawan Musical Performer Sweeps Top CB Festival Awards for Historic “Triple Win”
In the early evening of Saturday, Apr. 3, the virtual audience of the 69th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival — ensconced in their comfortable rooms in the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel while watching the live stageshow over a closed-circuit TV — let out a collective gasp.
In the climax to the “awards” part of the ceremony, the unlikely happened — unfolding in the hotel ballroom below, where viewers were barred from going physically, due to the Sheraton’s following of social-distancing, no-large-crowd-gatherings guidelines.
The 2021-’22 Queen of the respected community festival, established after World War II to support young Japanese American women in their college education and professional careers, was Brianne Kehau Yamada, a Japanese-Okinawan engineer. She captured not only the Queen title but also the other top awards of Miss Congeniality (the most liked/admired Queen contestant, as voted upon by her peers in the contest) and Miss Popularity (the Queen contestant evaluated as most helping to support CBF item sales and perpetuating the longtime festival’s legacy). She is the first Queen contestant historically to capture all three major titles in the festival’s almost 70 years, according to Kristin Aln Kamakahi, the current Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce advisor to the CB Queen and court.
About the Miss Congeniality title, often viewed as a peer popularity contest in the best of ways, Yamada said, “I felt there were so many more deserving contestants; we were so close that we felt equal. But I was grateful they had voted for me; we are amazing friends with no-one sticking out in the group. I admitted to them [the CBF contest interviewers] that I like this group of girls; I never had to be anyone but me. I could be grouchy when I needed to; I felt safe to be myself.”
About the Miss Popularity award, Yamane strongly credits not only family and friends, but the broader Hawai‘i Okinawan community that gave her support. “I was taken aback, but [I then realized that] I had taken so much time and effort from such a young age [to contribute to that community]. My grandma did a lot of that, too.”
Yamada is clear, though, that much of her lifetime of effort towards community service came from her personal motivation and choices, not from her parents forcing her to do things. She chose a path of community involvement from childhood, so now as an older twentysomething, she is a seasoned pro at helping others out. “Every time I went to an event, nobody dragged me to it. They [the Okinawan performing arts community] became my family — so when I ran [as a CBF Queen contestant], a huge family supported me.”
An “Obächan-Ko” (Grandma’s Girl) Connected To Culture
Like both her parents half-Japanese and half-Okinawan, Yamada has genealogical roots in diverse urban and rural parts of Japan including Hiroshima, Gushikawa and Naha. But the new queen gets a lot of inspiration from her Kaua‘i grandmother who helped her appreciate Okinawan culture and modeled a disciplined commitment to community work for Yamada during the latter’s childhood.
Her grandmother, Lois Haruku Kobashigawa, is an 85-year-old issei who experienced the Battle of Okinawa as a 10-year-old child; the survivor of such an intense historical event, Kobashigawa has in the past been interviewed for commemorations of “Irei no Hi” (Okinawan memorial day recognizing those who had gone through that bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater during World War II).
Thinking about her path to becoming CBF Queen, Yamada especially acknowledges this grandma whom she credits for her achievement. Having grown up visiting Kobashigawa on Kaua‘i during all of her school breaks, Yamada remembers this family elder pulling her and her brother out of bed to do community service. “She [Kobashigawa] was always active, whether at the community center, giving out vegetables or making breakfast for a group of people. That repetitiveness instilled a good feeling we would get every time. My brother and I said we hated it in morning but were in a good mood by afternoon.” This memory of her grandma’s spirit of dedication had made Yamada always “look for opportunities to get involved.”
Visiting Okinawa as a child also deepened Yamada’s feeling of connection to Kobashigawa. “Anyone who goes to Japan or Okinawa feels excited,” Yamada reflects. “I went to Okinawa for three months one summer, when my grandmother’s sisters all lived there. [Initially] I hated it; I could not speak [the language], and it was so hot. But I remember so many things; it was such a memorable trip.”
When she returned to the islands, because Yamada did not see her grandmother for the rest of the year (since Kobashigawa lived on Kaua‘i), this experience of living in Okinawa was the “only thing that connected us. When I did taiko and it got hard, it was one of the things I remembered,” she admits.
Kobashigawa had signed her granddaughter up for Okinawan taiko (drum performance) when Yamada was just a child. Through her grandmother’s insistence that Yamada learn this cultural practice, Yamada came to realize that “to get good at anything takes time, diligence and hard work. Being in an Okinawan taiko group, I was part of something bigger than myself. It was a humbling experience, reminding me that I had so much to learn, to practice. That carried with me through school and work — knowing I would never settle.”
Her grandmother’s high standards also influenced her. Kobashigawa was “someone who never says ‘good job,’” according to Yamada. But eventually, the combination of Yamada’s upbringing and working hard made this grandmother happy; the future CBF Queen had learned to be persistent. “That is probably why I stuck with it,” says Yamada of her cultural performing work.
The taiko group she joined as a child was Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii (rmdhawaii.org). At first, she was excited about being in the group, having just come back from her visit to Okinawa with excitement about the culture. But she quickly realized that “I was really bad at it. I thought I was one of those cute kids — but everyone got promoted, while I did not. Not until almost 10 years of dancing Okinawan taiko [did I get promoted].”
She learned not to give up, to keep working at it; “I got to the point where I got a scholarship, selected to go to Okinawa and study under one of the top [taiko] sensei. I felt humility and this value of perseverance instilled throughout the process. She [my teacher] finally believed in me; I got to teach students from ages of about five years old to almost 100 years old! I was able to convey my passion for the culture. What brings me the greatest joy is to be able to pass down that excitement to my students, especially those who are not Okinawan or Japanese, so that they can appreciate what we have all worked to preserve,” she now reflects.
Yamada also helped with the Okinawan taiko group Chinagu Eisa Hawaii (facebook.com/chinagu.eisa) for 15 years, doing community service in addition to performing taiko. She is well known in the Hawaii United Okinawa Association for her endless behind-the-scene contributions to helping performing artists practice and exhibit their musical skills.
Today, Yamada also is a “proud member of Afuso Ryü (afusochoichikaiusa.com),”an uta-sanshin school of traditional Okinawan musical performance.
Female Achievers in Traditionally Male White-Collar Professions
One interesting trait of recent CBF Queen and court members is that many of these “royal” title winners have gone into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), banking and other traditionally masculine professions. Yamada was not the only winner of a Cherry Blossom Festival title this year with a STEM college degree and job. Says she of the male-dominated fields that many court members have selected: “We have engineers on the court (Yamada and Princess Motomi Otsubo); we are both in a field that is so male dominated. Also our court members are in banking [First Princess Taylor Kaydi Onaga] and human relations [Princess Shelley Teruko Imamura] and a microbiology professor [Princess Taylor Emi Tashiro]. Because we all naturally have different personalities, we have different interests, but get along really well.”
Advisor Kamakahi admits that over the years, the bar has been raised for festival contestants having solid professional careers that provide them with satisfying job paths. “Part of the festival is cultural experience, but part is professional growth. We talk a lot of presence and poise and communication. The age range is 19-28 – many contestants in that range have graduated [from college or graduate school]. So many of the contestants are either starting their career or in their career already.”
As an engineer employed in the energy industry, Yamada wants to get more involved in her field and start learning about the different aspects of energy. “That catches my interest,” she reveals, “whether renewables, clean energy workshops or seminars, or exploring Hawai‘i’s energy policy relationship with Okinawa.” Yamada attended the 1st virtual meeting on Hawai‘i-Okinawa energy, which had allowed only VIP guests. She is considering getting her MBA with a focus on energy through an online degree program.
She also has served on the alumni board for the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa Engineering Alumni Association as a Director. Already giving back, as usual.
Challenges as a Queen Contestant
When the Herald asked Yamada about challenges she underwent as a Queen contestant, she responded by admitting it took a while to figure out the most difficult class she enrolled in together with her 10 peers. “It had to be kimono, one of the classes that we had to learn virtually. We all were in our living rooms, learning to put yukata (light unlined kimono) on,” she revealed. This was practice for the much-anticipated live furisode-kimono (formal, elaborately dressed, long-sleeved kimono) demonstration and modeling during the Eastern Phase of the Cherry Blossom Festival event, the highlight of the Cherry Blossom Ball.
Yamada continues, “Generally I knew how to do it; but I was trying it on with a [Queen contestant] friend who was doing it for first time. In small groups, we put on the yukata via Zoom, with the instructor in another location; she had to look at us onscreen [and give her critiques/instructions]. It was crazy; folds were all over the place! We had to learn online, [but] had hoped to [be able to] do it in person. The instructors were excellent and we were able to learn a lot online. In every single class, we walked back and forth in our living rooms 50 times, over and over, often without feedback.”
“At one point,” she recalls, “we were practicing every day with each other, but still did not feel we had a grasp. But when it came to the ball, when we put the furisode on, [it showed that] we had worked so hard together, all 11 contestants, trying it over and over! I felt like we did it together. Though we also had dressers, we had already learned how to put the kimono on, because of those rehearsals. We had to change from a dress to a yukata in 3-4 minutes [during the live ball performance]. That was why we learned how to put it on ourselves, practiced with the yukata.”
Another challenge was that of Queen contestants having to address large audiences, something Yamada previously had dreaded. Used to helping out quietly behind the scenes for Okinawan musical performing groups and to simply doing the hard work in her profession, she felt initially intimidated by how “the biggest part of being a Queen contestant was public speaking” because of her lack of confidence.
Yamada admits, “Opportunities like this [Herald/Hochi] interview — I would normally be shaking and sweating, as I had avoided these types of public speaking. But I think back at my contestant experience, where I would have to sit next to a person who would ask, ‘How was your day?’ or ‘How is your grandma?’ And [in the past] I would have cried when thinking of answering these questions in front of people, imagining myself standing on stage. I had a mental block.
“But the [CBF Queen contestant] classes were structured so well that we would succeed,” she reflects gratefully. “The strategies that they taught us, how encouraging they were, really helped us find that inner voice. Because we were encouraged to practice so much that by the end of it, we were all good.”
She further elaborates, “I had to be creative: late at night, practicing on Zoom, doing rehearsals. For me, [learning] the cultural part was an added bonus. To me, it was the speaking and its confidence [that improved me]. By the time the festival ball came around, I was ready to get my questions; I was genuinely excited. My hard work paid off.”
Yamada is very appreciative of the HJJCC and its CBF volunteers. “This year,” she analyzed, “they had to work harder. We weren’t stripped of any opportunities due to COVID-19. They made sure that we could learn as much as we could, whether in small groups or on Zoom.”
Her Reign of “Kibou” through Culture During the Coronavirus Era
Along the theme of “kibou” or hope (this year’s CBF motto), Yamada hopes that society can soon return to normal so that she, her royal court, and the HJJCC representatives can travel to mainland Japan, one of the regular perks for winning Queen contestants which was unfortunately canceled for last year’s court.
Especially since she has never been to Japan proper, this trip would be a dream for Yamada (though she has traveled to Okinawa in the past). “We hope to go to mainland Japan. I hope to ride the bullet train, eat sukiyaki, and the other ‘Japan’ things.” Kamakahi adds, “We will try [to get the Court to travel to Japan]. We hope to see what the possibilities are soon.”
Yamada also wants to stoke the local community’s enthusiasm for Japanese culture, recruit new CBF contestants and pass on the excitement for the festival and the organization (HJJCC) to the next generation. Kamakahi elaborates, “We are always looking for ways to give back to the local community here, to contribute to different organizations.”
Though the specific community groups which this year’s Queen and court will help out have not yet been identified, Kamakahi shares that the HJJCC is open to find some form of community work with youth and the general community as these opportunities arise throughout the year. She wishes to “find ways to give back through [working with] different nonprofits.”
Yamada adds that the HJJCC and festival organizers want to identify “kids busy with sports and other extracurricular activities, and give them a chance to get excited about Japan. I want to be able to expose children of any age to Japanese things; hopefully, they can find what they like about the culture.”