Why the Cherry Blossom Festival’s Controversial Ancestry Requirement Change Still Matters 20 Years Later
With the crowning of the 67th festival queen and court on Saturday, March 16, we take a look back at 1999, a pivotal year for the historic event.
Left: Violet Tokie Niimi was crowned Honolulu’s first Cherry Blossom Festival queen in 1953. Right: Vail Matsumoto became the first non-full-Japanese woman to win the title in 2000.
Photos: Courtesy of Cherry Blossom Festival
Keith Kamisugi didn’t expect the change to lower the Cherry Blossom Festival’s blood-quantum requirement to go over well. After all, since the festival began nearly 50 years ago, only contestants who were full Japanese could compete for the coveted queen title. That all changed when Kamisugi, in his 20s at the time, ran for president of the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, the group that organizes the festival. With that bold platform, he won and began his one-year term as president in 1999.
But even he couldn’t predict what the move’s starkest critics would say. Twenty years later, he still recalls clearly the “really racist letters” he received from people who were adamantly against allowing any non-full-Japanese contestants. In a board meeting, someone had asked if contestants could still be required to at least have a Japanese surname. The answer was no.
After months of planning, the board decided to lower the blood-quantum requirement for queen contestants to 50 percent Japanese ancestry. Getting to 50 percent wasn’t science, Kamisugi remembers. But it was a start.
“I don’t think your blood is what makes you a member of the Japanese-American community,” he says. “The bottom line for me was it wasn’t right to limit someone who wanted to be Cherry Blossom queen but could only be 100 percent Japanese. I was going to be president for one year. I felt like I only had one chance to make this change happen.”
Kamisugi, who now lives in California and works for the Equal Justice Society, credits dozens of board members and supporters as instrumental in getting the controversial change implemented. It wasn’t a one-man effort, that’s for sure. And it wasn’t a new conversation—the idea had floated around for at least 10 years prior but was ultimately never acted on.
The change has since opened the door to dozens of multiethnic women over the past 20 years, including several who were crowned queen. Gina Maeda-Caluya, this year’s festival chair, says it also “better reflects the melting pot nature of Hawai‘i.”
“There are stories of all opinions on the decision,” she says. “My favorites are the ones who, when they were young girls, would see the Cherry Blossom Festival poster and wish they could be a part of the festival too, but at the time, could not. But after the change, they are able to participate and appreciate the experience immensely.”
In 2000, Vail Matsumoto became the first multiethnic woman to earn the title (she’s 25 percent Italian). She remembers hearing pushback from parts of the community back then but decided to run because, “why not?” Entering the contest was never a consideration until the change “floated it into that realm.” She says the question of her ethnicity never came up until after her crowning, even though there were other non-full-Japanese contestants (her runner-up was half Korean).
“I just remember feeling very lucky that I was able to participate,” says Matsumoto, now a UH professor. “I hope those who were unsure about the blood-quantum change can feel assured that the festival’s traditions are being shared with even more young women.”
Kamisugi, who hasn’t been involved with the festival for several years, agrees that it’s important to continue including women, like Matsumoto, from all backgrounds. He says he would go a step further now and support lowering the blood-quantum requirement below 50 percent.
“I wasn’t actually concerned about who was going to win,” he says. “The change wasn’t intended to favor the women who were multiethnic. It was intended to open the door.”
The Cherry Blossom Festival Ball kicks off at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 16, and will conclude with the crowning of the 67th queen and court. For more information, visit cbfhawaii.com.