Reflections from this past year's three festival queens in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu!

As the flowering blooms of spring pass and we enter the sunny warmth of summer, festival season is well underway. Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco where I got to enjoy the vibrant hustle and bustle of a flourishing Japantown community. Attending this year’s parade was especially meaningful for me, as I got to cheer on my very close friends in the parade – Nisei Week Queen Kaitlyn Chu and Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Queen KC Mukai, as well as a new friend, Hawaii Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Sammy Marumoto. In honor of this season’s Japantown issue, I am honored to be able to highlight the experiences and inspiring stories from three paragons of female empowerment, leadership, and community service.

To begin, I’d like to first introduce our three queens:

KC: KC is a Yonsei and a second-generation Chinese American from Fresno, CA, currently residing in the Bay Area on unceded Ohlone land. Last year, she represented her Japanese American community as the Queen of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival on the 56th Festival Court. Apart from her court duties, KC serves as the Fundraising Chair for Tsuru for Solidarity and organizes with The Young Buddhist Editorial and the Japanese American Youth Alliance. Professionally, she works as the Assistant Director of Parent and Family Philanthropy at UC Berkeley.

Kaitlyn: Kaitlyn is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American and fourth-generation Chinese American creative storyteller from Irvine, CA. As the 2023 Nisei Week Queen, she is dedicated to celebrating and preserving the culture, art and stories of our community. She is also currently a Go For Broke National Education Center Torchbearer and a LA Next Generation Japanese American Leader through the Consulate-General of Japan in Los Angeles. She is a Product & Interaction Designer at Apple and enjoys co-teaching workshops on how to make kokedama (the Japanese art of moss-ball bonsai plants) (read more here!). 

Sammy: Sammy was raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i, earned her bachelor’s degree from UCLA and master’s degree from USC Gould School of Law. She was the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen, and is currently a part-time realtor and paralegal student. 

Justin: Can you introduce yourself? (name, background, current role, how you got involved, etc.)

Kaitlyn: Hello — my name is Kaitlyn Emiko Chu and I am honored to be the 2023 Nisei Week Queen at the 81st Nisei Week in the historic Little Tokyo community in Los Angeles!

Growing up in Orange County, California and making frequent trips to Little Tokyo, I am thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to get involved and strengthen my ties in the JA community. I am active in the Japanese American community through organizations including OCO/SEYO Basketball, Orange Coast Optimist Club, the Walk the Farm Fundraiser, Kizuna, Nikkei Federation Rising Stars Youth Leadership Program, Go For Broke National Education Center, Yonsei Basketball Association, JACL Kakehashi Project, Nisei Week, the LA Next Generation Japanese American Leaders Initiative and more.

As for how I got involved with Nisei Week: fun fact, I actually participated in the Nisei Week Baby Show 20 years ago — so this totally feels like a full-circle moment for me! After I graduated from USC, Glenn Tanaka from Tanaka Farms, one of my community role models, encouraged me to represent the Orange County Nikkei Coordinating Council. I’ve looked up to many of the women who were on prior Nisei Week Courts and was definitely inspired to do the program after seeing how involved they were during and after the Nisei Week experience.

KC: Hi there! I'm KC Mukai, and I had the honor of being the 2023 Queen of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival (56th). Growing up in the Buddhist temples where I grounded my Japanese American identity, I witnessed the care and cultivation of our community as elders selflessly gave their time, knowledge, and energy. Whether it was cooking food at Dharma services, setting up for obon, or taking leadership positions on the temple board, these acts embodied the essence of selfless giving and community for me and inspired me to seek out involvement and leadership roles within the nikkei community. I first learned about the Queen Program after participating in the Nikkei Community Internship and being placed at the JCCCNC in San Francisco Japantown. I decided to participate in the Queen program to gain more connections in SF Japantown and a better understanding of how to push my community forward. I am currently active in Tsuru for Solidarity, Japanese American Youth Alliance, and The Young Buddhist Editorial. In the past, I have been involved with JACL and UC Berkeley Nikkei Student Union. 

Sammy: Aloha! My name is Sammy Marumoto, I was last year’s Cherry Blossom Festival Hawaii Queen (71st festival). 

Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Court (Photo Credit: Ryan Teshima)

Justin: In your eyes, what does your program represent?

KC: The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival spans two weekends of celebration in San Francisco's Japantown and has been running since 1968. To me, the Queen Program of the festival represents cultural perseverance, and it has taught me many things, one of which is how this community's foundation rests upon the tireless labor, resilience, and sacrifices of women. In a society built upon patriarchy and white supremacy, our existence as Japanese American women challenges the norms and systems of oppression that seek to silence and marginalize us. By proudly embracing our identities, advocating for our rights, and uplifting each other, we defy the constraints imposed upon us and assert our right to be seen, heard, and valued. Thank you to the Queen program for helping us recognize that history and for building the women in the community who make this impact.

Kaitlyn: The Nisei Week Festival itself represents nine-days of festivities celebrating Japanese + Japanese American culture and the diversity of Los Angeles. It’s an incredibly special tradition as it is one of the nation’s longest running ethnic festivals, founded in 1934. Now in its 81st year, the Nisei Week Queen and Court Program continues to honor the legacy and history while also striving to evolve in today’s society. 

To me, participating in the program represents an unique opportunity for JA women in their twenties to embark on a journey together to develop into stronger leaders, to create community connections, and to be culturally enriched. I’ve made friends for life in this program — thank you Sara, Nancy, Kama, Aiko, Kaili and Isa for being the best court sisters someone could ever ask for! Personally, Nisei Week also strengthens my relationships with amazing leaders in the community who inspire me as an active young Japanese American. Through this program, we immerse ourselves in engaging workshops from professionals in ikebana, tea ceremony, karate, calligraphy, traditional Japanese dance, modern dance, public speaking, stage presence and more. We represent the Japanese American community in Southern California and serve as cultural ambassadors by traveling to Nagoya, Japan, Honolulu Hawai’i’ and San Francisco, California. 

Throughout the year we are proud to volunteer at over 150+ community events, while helping organizations fundraise or assisting in cultural activities. It’s so exciting to me to be open to whatever these events may bring — such as pounding mochi to celebrate the New Year, showing our enthusiasm at the LA Clippers Japanese Heritage Night basketball game, decorating paper crowns with the younger generation for Girls’ Day, meeting Olympic Ice Skaters Maia and Alex Shibutani, picking fresh strawberries at Walk the Farm at Tanaka Farms and more. 

Sammy: Our program is a wonderful representation of the Hawai’i-Japanese-American community, and how we can come together to support one another to foster the future female leaders of tomorrow. Growing up in Hawai’i, many of our customs, food, and traditions, are blended with and rooted in Japanese culture. Over time, we have made them our own. I love how this festival provides us with the opportunity to dive into our Japanese heritage, share our unique Hawai’i-Japanese-American experience with our sister festivals, and make life long friends both at home and in California.

Hawaii Cherry Blossom Festival Court

Justin: What do you hope people will think of when they hear about your program?

Kaitlyn: When people think of our program, I hope they think about a team of leaders who continue to enrich the Southern California Japanese American community with heart, dedication and new perspectives in order to create meaningful, lasting impact.  

Sammy: I hope they think of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young women to connect with their Japanese heritage, and through that immersion, grow both personally and professionally. 

KC: When people hear about our program, I hope they recognize its significance in uplifting women and their contributions to the Bay Area Japanese American community. History often discounts these contributions, but our program aims to highlight and support them in a way that the wider Japanese American community sometimes overlooks. I hope they think of the Queen program as an “entry point” or “stepping stone” for leaders! 

Nisei Week Court

Justin: What does female empowerment mean to you and how does your program reflect this?

KC: When I think of strong women, I honor the Issei women who, in the face of discriminatory laws and exclusion, served as pillars of support for their families and communities in the agricultural fields. I honor the women who endured the trauma of forced incarceration during WWII to organize schools, healthcare facilities, and cultural activities within the camps. Additionally, I think of the strong female leaders in Japantown and the Japanese American community today, who have played integral roles in the labor movement, education, healthcare, and cultural preservation. Throughout history, Japanese American women have been foundational to the development of our community and the economic, social, and cultural fabric of our society. Today, the legacy of JA women continues to shape the identity and strength of our community and serves as a foundation for its resilience and vibrancy. Queen programs and respective programs like it reflect this strong line of resilience. 

Kaitlyn: Especially as a multicultural Japanese American woman, I have sometimes found it difficult to find balance between not making waves while also being outspoken in the spaces I’m in. I believe women empowerment is about taking up space, learning from others constantly, mentoring the next generation, and finding what makes you feel limitless.    

Someone I’m honored to know through this program, Tamlyn Tomita, is an aspirational leader who is a major advocate of the JA community. A former Nisei Week Queen herself, she continues to uplift artists and actors like herself. To me she epitomizes women empowerment in the way that she effortlessly weaves her identity, career and community work together in a way that inspires future leaders like myself. 

Throughout this program, I have seen us all become more confident and resilient women as a court. From cheering each other on at our different organization’s events, to communicating with community leaders and government officials, to sharing our voices on stages — we support and show up for one another 1000%. I hope we can all continue to celebrate our individuality while also still being a tight-knit team of caring and bright leaders.  

Sammy: To me, female empowerment means having a fire within you that’s fueled by the love and support of those around you. It means that your sisters will stand by you to ensure your flame is never extinguished, and that you do the exact same for your sisters no matter what. Our program has more contestants than there are court positions available. During my year, the 71st festival, we had 15 contestants and only 5-7 court spots. From the get go, we were focused on the experience and the strength of our relationships with each other. We knew for a fact that the court could be any one of us because every single person deserved to be on it. At the end of our Festival Ball, when we were holding hands in our friendship circle before they announced the court, we didn’t know what would happen but we were overcome with gratitude and appreciation for the journey, the lifelong friendships, and the growth that we could not have experienced anywhere else. 

Justin: How have you been able to connect with peers from across the different Japantowns' respective programs?

Sammy: Part of our festival involves hosting in each city. Last year my court and I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco and Los Angeles to experience the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and Nisei Week Festival. During these trips we took part in female leadership workshops that gave us a safe space to discuss our Japanese-American experiences and what it means to be a modern Japanese American woman. In March ‘24, both the NCCBF and Nisei Week courts traveled to Hawai’i to experience the 72nd Cherry Blossom Festival Ball, and meet the newly crowned 72nd Cherry Blossom Festival Court. We held another workshop and discussed how we can continue to support one another and be impactful members of our communities. Of course, we also stay in touch via social media!

Kaitlyn: One of the magical parts of this program is the friendships that are formed with our Sister Festival Courts! Nisei Week has decades-long established ties with its Sister Festivals — the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and the Cherry Blossom Festival in the State of Hawai’i. I cannot even describe how meaningful it is to connect with other incredible women in a similar stage of life and learn how they are navigating being leaders in their own communities. We all share a Japanese heritage and it’s important to hear about the similarities and differences we have with our various upbringings near or far from Japantowns, family traditions and community organizations. I love that these conversations happen both organically as we’re casually hanging out and also in deeper discussions during our Leadership Teach-Ins hosted by each court. Our 2023 Nisei Week Court is so excited to continue building upon this shared sisterhood that transcends cities!

Justin: In what ways does your program connect to and uplift your local Japantown's legacy? 

Kaitlyn: I learned that California used to consist of over 40+ Japantown communities. Now, Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo is one of only 3 official Japantowns in the United States. How can we continue to uplift the legacy of Little Tokyo? By educating ourselves first about our collective history. As cultural ambassadors of Southern California’s Japanese American community, we spent our first week as a court visiting our cherished legacy businesses and cultural institutions around Little Tokyo. We learned that Nisei Week began after the Great Depression to bring people back into the Little Tokyo community. We learned about Japanese American history at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and took an interactive Little Tokyo walking tour with the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS). We stamped the Ireichō at JANM to honor those who were incarcerated during World War II. 

Legacy businesses are at the heart of Little Tokyo, and it’s devastating to see them being pushed out due to the negative effects of gentrification, increased rent prices and more. We’re living through one of Little Tokyo’s evolutions and witnessing it firsthand. As a Nisei Week court, we will continue to utilize our voices, our connections to the community and our initiative to prioritize the future of Little Tokyo’s legacy. Just as the Little Tokyo Service Center and CRFT by Maki partnered with the Toyo Miyatake Studio to celebrate their 100th-year anniversary by creating a gallery exhibition, I am determined to organize collaborations and initiatives within our community to preserve and cultivate our historic Little Tokyo through a creative artistic lens. 

Sammy: Hawai’i does not have a Japantown. However, Japanese culture is everywhere in our daily life whether or not we are aware of it. I believe our program does a great job at celebrating the cultural traditions we grow up knowing and loving, and bringing the community closer together in that regard. Especially for people like me who did not grow up with a strong connection to their Japanese heritage. Participating in this program showed me where a lot of our customs came from and now I have a deeper appreciation for and understanding of my Japanese heritage. 

KC: The Queen program has produced some amazing leaders in today’s San Francisco Japantown community. Many of the individuals who participate in the program become more deeply involved in the Japanese American community, and that begins with the connections and knowledge they build during the year. Change can sometimes be slow and incremental, but the ability of this program to cultivate strong, opinionated female leaders who effect change in various spaces is truly inspiring.

San Francisco Japantown has faced challenges such as incarceration, redevelopment, and the loss of family businesses, but throughout it all, it has been supported by strong organizations and community leaders. Through the Queen Program, we have had the opportunity to connect with such organizations as JCCCNC, JCYC, San Francisco Japantown Foundation, and more, all of which have played critical roles in supporting and preserving the legacy of San Francisco Japantown. Meeting these individuals inspires us to consider how we want to contribute in the future.

Justin: What does being a queen (literally and figuratively) mean to you?

Sammy: Being a queen means leading with an open mind, always lending a listening ear, and having the best support system you could possibly imagine. My year as the 71st Cherry Blossom Festival Queen would not have been possible without my phenomenal court members. I am so proud to call them my best friends and the last year would have been impossible without their unwavering support, stellar advice, and loving guidance. To me, being queen meant doing my best to represent my court and the Hawai’i-Japanese-American community in the best way I could. 

KC:  "Know history, know self. No history, no self." - Jose Rizal. To me, embodying the role of a queen and a cultural ambassador means understanding our history and recognizing when our culture is something to celebrate but also when it is a space of contention. While our identities are deeply rooted in our respective Japantowns and ethnic enclaves, as Nikkei women, we also are part of the complex global landscape. In a time when awareness of these complexities is crucial, we bear the responsibility of understanding how and why our existence as nikkei women, with ties to the ancestral homeland of Japan, has varied historical roots in history. I take pride in being nikkei, but this pride also fuels my strong desire to enact change in my community, particularly in advocating for justice and speaking up against injustices.

Kaitlyn: Growing up, I loved watching and singing along to Disney movies with my little sister, but I never pictured myself as a princess let alone a queen someday. When I became Nisei Week Queen, I was so deeply honored to represent the Japanese American community in this decades-long tradition. As Nisei Week Queen, I want to honor all the dedicated women and community leaders who have paved the way and made countless sacrifices so that future generations can now proudly, and loudly, celebrate our heritage. 

I get emotional seeing historic black and white photographs of Nisei Week Courts and the Grand Parade around Little Tokyo, photographed by Toyo Miyatake. Flash-forward to today, Toyo’s grandson Alan Miyatake was the one to photograph my Nisei Week Baby Show pictures, as well as my Nisei Week Queen photos. I am so appreciative of these multigenerational connections, and I am so grateful for the incredible people who stay connected to our festival. 

I’m also so grateful to be surrounded by queens on a daily basis — including all my court sisters, my family, my friends, my coworkers, my peers — I look up to all of them as powerful women in their own right. Being a queen to me means someone who supports her causes with a passion, who uses her position for good, and who is a role model and mentor for those around her. Especially when our court interacts with younger generations at events and on parade floats, I’d love for them to see themselves in us and pursue their own goals and dreams wholeheartedly. ✨

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