Why I Ran in the 49th Cherry Blossom Festival

Catherine E. Toth is far from a conventional beauty-queen contestant. So how’d she find herself on stage with a tiara on her head?


The author after being crowned Cherry Blossom queen in 2001. Photo: Courtesy of Catherine E. Toth



About a dozen women, all in their 20s, sat in a semi-circle in November in a classroom at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, with half-full Starbucks cups and Hydroflasks nearby. They were getting instruction on how to answer questions memorably and to share a little bit about themselves in the process.


“You need to think about what impression you hope to leave,” said the instructor. “Do you want them to think you’re generous, compassionate, kind? Everything matters. The content of your answer, your delivery, your volume.”


All of this came flooding back—even the sweating plastic cups of iced coffee.


It had been 14 years since I was sitting in a similar circle. Different classroom, different instructor, but the same advice.


Be the best version of yourself. And, yes, everything matters.


I ran in the 49th Cherry Blossom Festival three years after the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event, changed the blood-quantum requirement for contestants. It started to allow multiethnic women like me to participate in a festival that would help us connect with our Japanese heritage.


But that’s not why I ran.


I never grew up wanting to be a Cherry Blossom contestant. I never had ambitions to wear a crown and sash or see my face displayed on a poster at W&M Bar-B-Q Burger in Kaimukī. And no one who knows me would peg me for a pageant girl. I can barely walk in heels.


But there I was, pivoting on stage in uncomfortable pumps and answering questions like, “If you had a million dollars, what would you spend it on?” in front of crowds at shopping malls. And in pantyhose!


I signed up for one reason: Because I could.


The Japanese-American community in Hawai‘i had evolved, and the festival was just catching up. It had finally allowed women who weren’t 100-percent Japanese to participate, it had shifted its focus from a beauty pageant to a festival that perpetuated the Japanese culture, and it was demanding from its contestants a higher standard of professionalism and integrity.


That sounded like my kind of festival.


I wouldn’t say I immediately fit in. My wild hair—so unruly that it’s nearly impossible to straighten, even with a flat iron—and tendency to be blunt weren’t typical of a Japanese woman.
Then again, what was typical anymore?


The community had become increasingly multiethnic. Most of my generation—fourth, or yonsei, on my Japanese side—can’t speak the language much more than to order food at a Japanese restaurant. We are so much more removed from our culture than our grandparents, even parents, were. Sure, we might eat ozoni and display kadomatsu in our homes on New Year’s, but we probably couldn’t tell you why.


By that definition, then, I wasn’t any different from most of the other contestants who have participated in the festival. Most of us had never struck a taiko drum or donned a furisode kimono before. We’ve never sipped matcha green tea on tatami mats or learned to appreciate the quiet art of ikebana.


But there was one thing we all had in common: We were interested.


Interested in learning about our Japanese heritage. Interested in challenging ourselves. Interested in finding out who we were and what we stood for.


I was probably the most surprised when the emcees at Festival Ball said my name—my very un-Japanese name—in the same sentence as the word, “queen.” It didn’t seem possible. I was only half-Japanese. I didn’t even have a Japanese name, middle or other. How could I represent the Japanese-American community?


I thought again about why I ran.


Because I could.


And I realized something.


Even though, growing up here, I felt suspended between cultures, I was still part of the ethnic communities of my parents. I’m Portuguese, Hungarian, Dutch and German—but I’m every bit Japanese, too.


I thought about that while watching this year’s contestants practice answering impromptu questions in pencil skirts and uncomfortable heels. What was the impression you want to leave?


What was mine? I thought.


It was pretty simple: to be the best version of myself, wild hair and all.


Writer Catherine E. Toth is a longtime volunteer for the Cherry Blossom Festival, a former co-general chairperson, and currently serves as a festival adviser. She is the current editor of our sister publication, Hawai‘i Magazine.


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