Honolulu Cherry Blossom Festival Turns 50

It’s “Cherry Blossom” season in Honolulu. And we no stay talking about trees.

The Hawai’i Cherry Blossom Festival, organized by the Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce (HJJCC), celebrates its 50th incarnation this year – a half-century of celebrating the Japanese American culture and community in Hawai’i.

Surprisingly this will be only the fourth year that women of multi-ethnic ancestry can participate in Hawai’i’s Cherry Blossom Queen contest, which prior to 1998 was open only to women of 100 percent Japanese heritage. This, from Hawai’i, the very symbol of multiculturalism that, in fact, gave us the word, “hapa.”

Having hapa contestants in the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and the Los Angeles Nisei Week Festival is old news. Those events, long ago, opened these mainstays of Nikkei tradition to multi-ethnic contestants because it apparently was more and more difficult to recruit applicant of full Japanese ancestry.

In 1998, when the Nikkei community in Honolulu learned of the ethnicity change, some assumed that a shrinking contestant pool was also the case. But that was not the case, as there was no shortage of applicants, even under the more restrictive entry requirement, for the 15 contestant slots.

The ethnicity change was not about contestant recruitment. It was about reflecting the true nature of our Nikkei community, which is by no means limited to those of 100 percent Japanese ancestry.

Ironically, being hapa has long been a source of great pride in Hawai’i.

Small kid time, I often wished for a more interesting family tree. “Eh, you know wot, brah?” a friend would boast, “I stay part German, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Irish and Russian.” He would then ask, after smiling proudly that he remembered his entire ethnic makeup, “Wot you stay?” Dejectedly, I could only reply, “Japanee.”

“Das all?” the other kid would say. “Ho, boring, eh?” At which I quickly responded, “But you know what, my cousin stay part Samoan.” “And so it went, even as we got older. A comment sure to be overheard at multi-ethnic weddings: “ho, da kids goin’ be cute, yeah?”

So, it seemed odd that the Cherry Blossom Festival – one of the Nikkei community’s most visible events – would be so reluctant to open its contestant pool to hapas. It boiled down to the fear of change, but more sadly, an undercurrent of prejudice in the Japanese American community.

Traditionalists associated with the festival actually raised objections to the ethnic requirement change by citing the reactions of the Imperial Household and the Junior Chamber sister chapters in Japan. The queen and her family visit Japan with the rest of the court and are privileged to meet with a member of the Imperial family, most recently, Princess Norinomiya.

There were questions like: “What would the Princess think about a queen whose last name is Smith?” These kinds of questions at best display a misperception that being “Japanese” means looking Japanese and having a Japanese surname. Certainly not the case.

The change attracted mainstream community interest in the Cherry Blossom Festival unseen in many years. The festival, in its first few decades, was revered in the Nikkei community, with parades and television appearances by the queen and court and contests involving the Nikkei merchants and corporations. This was fueled, in part, because the festival started even before Japanese Americans rose to political and corporate power in Hawai’i, taking over the Democratic Party in the mid-1950s. In the 1990s, the festival lost its mainstream luster for a complex combination of reasons… until 1998.

At the conclusion of the festival in March 1999, the judges selected Lori Murayama of as its queen. Three of the 15 contestants that year were hapa, but only one was hapa-haole with a haole surname. The other two were part Chinese with Japanese surnames, in effect creating a contestant pool of only one apparent hapa.

Charges then floated that the ethnic changes were shibai, and that the festival never intended to select a hapa queen – which was flatly wrong and based on faulty logic. To open the contest to hapa women does not then give special consideration to any of the contestants because of their ethnicity. It would have been a symbolic triumph to select a hapa queen the very first year that the rules changed, but it would have been wrong to select that person on race alone.

The 50th Cherry Blossom Festival opens up this year with the beginning of the end of the term for the 49th queen, Catherine Toth, who was the first hapa with a haole last name. By the way, the 48th queen also was hapa, but her surname was Japanese.

Because of its geographic isolation, Hawai’i, in many respects, exists in a time warp, steadfastly holding on to traditions that have long disappeared elsewhere. It’s really one of the charms of the Islands, but as the Cherry Blossom debate proved, it can be a double-edged sword.

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