Editor’s note (and an excerpt from The Hawai‘i Herald’s May 6, 2022, issue, written by former editor Jodie Chiemi Ching):
“… I embrace chöwa by focusing on the anchors that ground me. That is fostering meaningful connections, advocating for positive change and learning new perspectives. These anchors guide me and bring purpose and balance to my life,” wrote California-born Gosei Shari Michiko Nishijima in her contestant profile before she was crowned the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce’s 70th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen on Saturday, March 19, 2022, at the Sheraton Waikiki.
Perhaps her sense of community is what motivated her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in political science and communications from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Before Nishijima worked as a program manager at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, she worked as a legislative office manager at the State Capitol.
Nishijima was raised by her Japanese father, Rick, and Filipino mother, Cindy, in the Bay Area of California with her two older sisters Michelle and Rachel. Her ancestral prefecture is Kumamoto, Japan. The whole family flew into Honolulu to witness Nishijima’s coronation and, according to her, were the smallest and loudest group at the CBF ball.
When asked about the festival experience, Nishijima said that she cherished making new friends and bonding with the other contestants. She also experienced growth of character through public speaking and nurturing her confidence.
“Being a young manager has been challenging,” said Nishijima about her experience working as a legislative manager at the State Capitol. She felt the Cherry Blossom experience was an opportunity to grow her leadership skills. Integrating her legislative experience with new found skills aligned with her purpose of “fostering meaningful connections and advocating for positive change,” perfect for the new ambassador of Japanese culture who will now represent Hawai‘i.
Nishijima also spoke about her appreciation for how celebrated culture is in Hawai‘i. The contestants bonded through many Japanese culture activities including taiko with Kenny Endo’s Taiko Center of the Pacific and hanafuda taught by the Hanafuda Hawaii Style club, which were Nishijima’s favorites. Through taiko, she learned how to connect with others through music and hanafuda was a great way to engage multiple generations. For the first time in two years, the CBF court was able to travel to San Francisco to attend the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival. They enjoyed bonding with sister-courts from the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and Nisei Week while visiting the Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.
On the evening of the festival ball, moments before the 70th Cherry Blossom Festival court was announced, the contestants got into the traditional “Friendship Circle” backstage. Emcee for the night, Justin Cruz, reported the happy tears and how the girls were in a tight circle locking their kimono-clad arms together with one another. Some had their eyes closed, others had huge smiles while they reminded themselves to just breathe.
One-by-one, as the names of the court were announced, girls would leave to take their place on stage. The final result: The final result: Queen Shari Michiko Nishijima; First Princess Maile Makamae Kawasaki; Princess Jordyn Yukino Valdez; Princess Taeler Kealohilani Akana; Princess and Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship awardee Tamlyn Mika Sasaki; Miss Congeniality Danielle Emi Au; and Miss Popularity Tari-Lynn Yasuko Manin.”
Queen Nishijima’s vision for a harmonious community makes her an ideal representative for Japanese in Hawai‘i. In her contestant profile she wrote, “As a community, it’s important to focus on the common goals that unite us. Building a network of people with different perspectives, talents and experiences while strengthening our bonds with each other is paramount to achieving collective harmony.”
At the end of this month, the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce’s 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Ball will be held at the Sheraton Waikiki. A new Queen will be crowned with a new court to reign in 2023-2024. The Hawai‘i Herald caught up with the outgoing 70th CBF Queen, Shari Michiko Nishijima, to learn more about what this past year has been like for her, how she hopes to continue exploring her Japanese and Okinawan roots and what advice she has to give to the next CBF Queen and court.
What was your most memorable experience during your reigning year?
It’s hard to choose just one memorable experience but the opportunity to travel to Japan representing our Hawai‘i Japanese American community was incredibly special. The Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce (HJJCC) Goodwill Tour took us to Tökyö, Kyoto and Hiroshima to express our gratitude for our sponsors and supporters, while fostering our Japan-Hawai‘i relationship.
One of my favorite memories from the trip was during our visit with the governor of Kyoto, Mr. Nishiwaki. After presenting the orei (thank you gift), I showed him how to shaka while posing for a photo. He was a bit confused at first but our court told him it was a way of saying “aloha,” at which point he smiled and we held up our shakas together. It felt like a full circle moment bringing a little bit of the aloha spirit to Japan.
What were the most fun moments of your 2022-2023 reign?
When I was asked to emcee the Okinawan Festival, admittedly, I was pretty nervous. The event draws a huge crowd, and I didn’t want to let the audience down. Luckily I was paired with the best co-emcee, Dazzman Toguchi. His love for the community is evident — and the audience loved his charm and energy. I had an absolute blast on stage with him.
Prior to the Okinawan Festival, I had recently discovered from a DNA test that I was part Uchinanchu. This made being a part of the Festival even more special. At the end of the program, Dazz called the volunteers and performers to dance on stage with us as the Bon dance began. Seeing everyone dancing and smiling was one of my favorite memories from my court year.
Some other fun moments were emceeing a makizushi workshop hosted by the Consulate-General of Japan, volunteering at bon dances throughout the summer, and of course, meeting our sister festivals from California.
What was the biggest take away from this experience?
Throughout my Cherry Blossom Festival experience, I often thought of the kachikan values that the Issei brought with them from Japan. One of my favorites is sekinin, or responsibility. To me, this means taking care of others, fulfilling obligations, and building a resilient community. This aligns closely to the Hawaiian value kuleana.
The Japanese community is just one thread of the fabric that makes up Hawai‘i’s unique local community. We have a responsibility to preserve our Japanese culture and history — but more importantly, we should think deeply about how our Japanese community is positioned to help all of Hawai‘i thrive.
How has this experience changed you?
A huge part of how I connect to my Japanese heritage is influenced by my identity as a Gosei (fifth generation) granddaughter to Japanese American internees. My grandparents struggled to find balance between sustaining their Japanese culture and embracing being American in post-World War II Northern California.
Moving to O‘ahu for college I felt like a bit of an imposter — half Japanese, but didn’t know much at all about Japanese culture. I wished I grew up going to Bon dances, making mochi for New Year’s and experiencing all of the Japanese culture embedded in a local upbringing that my peers had.
So, I joined the Cherry Blossom Festival yearning to connect with my Japanese heritage. While the series of culture classes helped me learn about Japanese culture, what this experience really offered me was the opportunity to reflect on my place in Hawai‘i’s Japanese American community. I found that I can still be my grandparent’s granddaughter from the continent while embracing the values, history and traditions of Hawai‘i’s Japanese American experience.
How did this experience affect your relationships?
The Cherry Blossom Festival is truly invaluable when it comes to networking and forming meaningful relationships. I’ve been able to meet inspiring sensei and leaders in the community who’ve imparted their knowledge and lessons on me. I’m also grateful for the bonds forged with the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and Nisei Week courts. It’s so special to be a part of a network of accomplished, down-to-earth Japanese American women.
Most notably, the support I received from my loved ones has been so heartwarming. This experience helped teach me the importance of expressing gratitude in my relationships.
How does this experience affect your career?
Participating in the Cherry Blossom Festival and being a court member has significantly helped my confidence in public speaking. Halfway through the court year, I was offered a position to return to state politics doing communications and community work. I find myself drawing on skills I learned from my Cherry Blossom Festival experience to help me in my current position, like the importance of building rapport and showing gratitude in relationships, understanding group dynamics and carrying oneself with poise and humility.
Tell me about the community work you and your court did?
Each court member had the opportunity to lead a service project that they’re passionate about while embracing our collective responsibility to serve the larger Hawai‘i community.
I organized a volunteer day with the YWCA Dress for Success Center to support their mission of empowering women to achieve economic independence. We also joined a service day with Hui o Ko‘olaupoko to clear invasive plants at the Kawainui Marsh to restore, preserve, and mälama the ‘äina.
As a court we taught origami to küpuna, raised over 4,000 menstrual products to help end period poverty, brought awareness to Hawai‘i’s blood shortage, cleaned and beautified the Ho‘okele Elementary School campus, assembled lanterns for the Haleiwa lantern floating ceremony, and participated in a keiki story time read aloud to promote youth reading and education.
What are you looking forward to doing after you pass your crown and scepter to the new 71st CBF Queen?
The wonderful and awe-inspiring late Mrs. Lillian Yajima generously donated a culture award to encourage the Cherry Blossom Festival participants to continue learning a cultural practice. It was an honor to be gifted kendo classes by Mrs. Yajima and I’m excited to soon start classes with Kenshikan Kendo Club.
I’m also looking forward to continuing my family’s genealogy research and acquiring our koseki tohon, or official Japanese family registry, learning to cook, and of course, spending quality time with loved ones doing karaoke, going on foodie adventures, and enjoying wine Wednesdays.
What advice do you have for the next reigning queen and court?
To the next queen and court, let me be the first to tell you – you deserve this! You have a huge opportunity before you to not only grow as an individual but to be a representative for our community and contribute to Hawai‘i’s unique local culture.
Make this year yours. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Always show gratitude. Know that sometimes things won’t go as planned. Remember, ichi-go ichi-e, “one time, one meeting.” Treasure every interaction, enjoy your time together, and most importantly — have fun!
Any last words?
On behalf of the 70th Cherry Blossom Festival court, thank you to everyone who made this experience possible. From the sponsors, donors, volunteers, instructors, loved ones and community members who supported us, mahalo for being a part of our journey.