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Hawai‘i Ethnic Pageants Are More Than Just Beauty Contests

Ethnic beauty pageants have long been a staple of Hawai‘i’s diverse cultural history. Over the years, though, they’ve had to evolve to fit the changing times.


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Left: In 1953, Violet Tokie Niimi was crowned Honolulu’s first Cherry Blossom Festival Queen. She passed away in 2001. Right: Vail Matsumoto, queen in 2000, was the first queen of less than 100-percent Japanese ethnicity.
Photos: Courtesy of The Cherry Blossom Festival


The Cherry Blossom Festival is a prime example of how the community’s needs intersect.


In 1949, Akira “Sunshine” Fukunaga had returned to Hawai‘i, inspired, after participating in the Nisei Week Japanese Festival in Los Angeles. He wanted to do something similar here, put on a cultural celebration that culminated with a beauty pageant. It was just after World War II, and the Japanese-American community in the Islands wanted to prove its Americanness while at the same time preserving a culture that, with each new generation, was being forgotten.


So Fukunaga, the vice president of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, urged his members to donate $1,000 each for a startup fund. Four years later, the first Cherry Blossom Festival was held and Violet Tokie Niimi was crowned its first queen. A staggering 72 young Japanese-American women competed for the title in front of 5,000 spectators, the event ending with fireworks over the old Honolulu Stadium in Mō‘ili‘ili.


“Oh, it was a huge deal then,” says Christine R. Yano, an anthropology professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and author of the book Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai‘i’s Cherry Blossom Festival (UH Press, 2006). “There were fewer options for entertainment. Hawai‘i was a very different place. I mean, people would watch motorcades.”


Yano remembers the excitement when her older cousin competed in the early ’60s, back in the festival’s heyday. Everyone, it seemed, waited for the festival poster, which featured all 15 contestants, to be displayed at storefronts and in restaurants all over the island. Yano scrutinized the faces on the poster, she writes in her book, silently picking the queen and her runners-up. At the pageant, which was then held at Honolulu’s Civic Auditorium on South King Street, her cousin wasn’t crowned queen but named first runner-up instead.


“It meant something back then,” says Yano, whose own daughter, Marika Emi, ran four years ago. “It was a bigger deal. It’s like everyone wanted to know who was running. You waited for that poster. Everyone did.”


Over the years, though, public interest declined, and much of the original festival—with amateur song contests, kabuki performances and cooking demonstrations—was replaced with different events that drew different crowds. In 1984, a golf tournament was added, in 1995, an essay contest was introduced.


But the most significant—and controversial—change to the festival happened in 1999, when the HJJCC opened the queen contest to multiethnic Japanese-American women, for the first time since its inception 46 years prior.


Keith Kamisugi was running for HJJCC president at the time, pushing two initiatives that fundamentally changed the festival: changing the blood quantum to better reflect the modern, multiethnic Japanese-American community and creating more professional-development programming for the chamber.


“I thought it was just plain archaic and discriminatory to continue to insist on a 100-percent ethnic requirement,” says Kamisugi, who is now director of communications at the Oakland-based Equal Justice Society. “We were the last major ethnic festival in Hawai‘i to allow multiethnic women to participate. I thought making that change was a no-brainer.”
The decision wasn’t approved by everyone in the community, but its impact has been undeniable. Since the blood-quantum change, dozens of multiethnic women have participated in the festival, with four earning the queen title.


One of them was Vail Matsumoto, the first non-full-Japanese queen, who decided to run because she thought it would be an interesting experience. She says she’s grateful to all the people, including Kamisugi, who fought to give women like her a chance to experience the Cherry Blossom Festival.


“My grandmother taught me about all of the local Japanese traditions as I grew up, but I never thought of any of it as culture. It was just the way our family celebrated,” says Matsumoto, 40, an educator. “After the Cherry Blossom Festival, I saw everything with a different lens, a cultural lens. Without a doubt, it made me appreciate all that I learned growing up and the new lessons I gained through (the festival).”


Kamisugi’s push to create more professional-development programming for HJJCC members carried over to the contestants, who now attend classes in public speaking, business etiquette and interview, aimed at preparing them not only for pageant night but for attaining their professional goals.


Even the judging criteria have shifted away from beauty to focus more on attributes that include communication, personality, presence and attitude.


Current reigning Cherry Blossom queen Sarah Kiyomi Kamida in the Japanese garden at the East-West Center.
Photo: Mark Arbeit


“In a pageant, you come away with a crown, sash and title,” Matsumoto says. “I feel that the Cherry Blossom Festival focuses on culture, camaraderie and leadership development.”


One of the reasons Sarah Kiyomi Kamida ran last year was to take advantage of the professional-development opportunities provided by the festival. In particular, she hoped to get over her fear of public speaking.


“In any profession, if you want to become successful, you will need to address large crowds of people confidently and articulately,” says the 26-year-old licensed home care social worker and reigning Cherry Blossom Festival queen. “I thought this opportunity to participate in the festival would force me to learn to become more comfortable and help me in my professional growth.”


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