Kristen Nemoto Jay

On Friday, March 31, the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Cherry Blossom Festival crowned the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen and Court at the annual Festival Ball and coronation ceremony at Sheraton Waikiki.

For the 15 Queen Contestants, Festival Ball is the culmination of seven months of cultural and professional development classes that include Japanese business etiquette, tea ceremony, calligraphy, taiko, aikido, kendo, ikebana, public speaking and interview training, and more.

The evening first began with a resounding taiko performance by the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Contestants. The beats of the taiko pulsed through the ballroom, causing an energetic atmosphere, giving more reason for the nearly 1,000 in attendance to whistle and “chee-hoo!” throughout the night. Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble concluded the initial performances of the night and helped start the evening on an exciting high.

Emcees Neil Kuioka and Staci Yoshihara introduced the welcome speeches by Sheri Morishige, the 73rd president of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, and Heather Furutani, the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival General Chair.

The “Western Phase,” which featured each Queen contestant in a plum off-the-shoulder chiffon floor-length gown, allowed them to speak about a certain topic of their choice that they are most passionate about. From helping our disadvantaged küpuna in Hawai‘i to finding one’s passion in coaching pole vaulting or learning to seek help to better take care of their mental health, every Queen contestant had a unique and authentic cause and theme to their platform, which set the tone of competition early on in the event.

Dinner followed the “Western Phase,” with, unless specified otherwise, delectable dishes of beet arugula salad with feta cheese followed with a rare steak with creamy mashed potatoes, leeks and mushrooms. The highlight for many was the green matcha dome-shaped dessert with cream filling, which received a special nod by Yoshihara before she and Kuioka started up the program again. A special shout-out to the wait staff was given by them as well, who, they acknowledged, had to serve 93 tables of 10 people in one hour’s time frame.

The 70th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Shari Michiko Nishijima (left) passes on the Queen scepter to 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Samantha Ke‘olani Marumoto.

After dinner was served, the “Eastern Phase” of the evening continued the event, featuring all of the Queen contestants dressed in furisode kimono flown in from Japan specifically by Gold Sponsor, Watabe Wedding Corporation. After showing their beautiful kimono to the crowd, each contestant was given an impromptu question to answer. Questions such as “Who is the most influential person in the world right now” to “How has tsunagu (connect in a meaningful and purposeful way) played a role during your experience in the Cherry Blossom Festival?” were asked and answered eloquently, giving the judges a hard task to score their favorite answer.

Then as the evening went past the hour it was due to conclude, the judges had finalized their scores and the results were read to the anxious crowd. 

The Queen, First Princess and three Princesses were selected by a panel of esteemed judges for their dedication to perpetuating Japanese culture, commitment to education and passion for community service. A contestant’s total score is based on her performance in the following categories: preliminary activities, judges’ interview and Festival Ball.

Miss Popularity is awarded to the Queen Contestant who has accumulated the most points by raising funds used to support the perpetuation of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Miss Congeniality is awarded to the Queen Contestant who has been selected by her peers as exemplifying the spirit of friendship.

71st Cherry Blossom Festival Court: (from left to right) Princess and Miss Congeniality Jennifer Dee Emi Kumra, Princess and Miss Popularity Emily Mieko Johnson, Queen Samantha Ke’olani Marumoto, First Princess Chirstyn Shihori Okuno, and Princess Amber Masaye Yonamine. (Photos courtesy of the Cherry Blossom Festival official photographers)

Proudly presenting the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen and Court: Samantha Ke‘olani Marumoto was declared the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen.

Marumoto is the daughter of Jay and Amber Marumoto. She graduated from Punahou School and received a bachelor of arts in history from University of California, Los Angeles with a master’s in studies in law with a business law certificate from University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Samantha is currently a realtor. In her free time, she enjoys making photo books and exercising.

71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Samantha Ke‘olani Marumoto.

When asked how she feels about being crowned the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen, Marumoto said, “It feels just amazing! It’s such an honor. I love all of my fellow contestants so much and definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this experience without them. They’ve been an outstanding support system. Just having them beside me has been the best part!”

In the order that they were called, this year’s court included Princess and Miss Congeniality Jennifer Emi Kumura, Princess and Miss Popularity Emily Mieko Johnson, Princess Amber Masaye Yonamine, First Princess Chirstyn Shihori Okuno and Queen Samantha Ke‘olani Marumoto.

This year’s distinguished panel of judges were Beckie Stocchetti, executive director of the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF); Robert Harris, executive director and general counsel for the Hawaii Ethics Commission; Sondra Leiggi Brandon, vice president of Patient Care, Behavioral Health & Pharmacy at Queens Medical Center; Tony Au, senior vice president and director of consumer loan operations, American Savings Bank; Christine Sukada, executive director of Transform Hawaii Government; Justin Samoson, owner of Pacific Paradise Towing Services LLC; and Valerie King, general manager, Sea Life Park.

Princess and Miss Popularity Emily Mieko Johnson was named this year’s Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship recipient.

Princess and Miss Popularity Emily Mieko Johnson was also the recipient of the Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship. Established in 2002 by Dr. Scott Oishi in memory of his mother, the very first Cherry Blossom Festival Queen and a career educator, this $5,000 award is designated for the continued education of one Queen Contestant. The recipient was selected on the basis of her educational excellence, essay submission and community service involvement.

Johnson is the daughter of David and Marlene Johnson. She graduated from Mililani High School and received a bachelor of business administration in finance and international business from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Emily is currently a client director. In her free time, she enjoys gardening and painting.  

The Cherry Blossom Festival holds the honor of being one of the longest, continually running ethnic festivals in the state of Hawai‘i. Originally started in 1953 by the founding fathers of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Cherry Blossom Festival was created to celebrate Japanese culture and to enrich the lives of young Japanese American women. The festival also has an international reach, partnering each year to host five sister chapters from Japan: Kobe, Odawara, Kurashiki, Kojima and Tamashima.


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